This verse is very interesting, as most Christians would view it as a prophecy of Jesus. However, in the Hebrew source, this verse reads quite differently and doesn’t sound like a prophecy about Jesus at all. So what’s going on?
The Hebrew source reads (from the NIV):
Water will flow from their buckets;
Their seed will have abundant water.
“Their king will be greater than Agag;
Their kingdom will be exalted.”
In contrast, our Greek Septuagint source reads:
For a man will come from your offspring
Who’ll rule many nations.
His kingdom will be raised
And he will grow mighty
Why the difference? Well, it’s probably because the Hebrew is using an expression that’s unfamiliar to us. One reference work explains it this way:
“Water from the bucket” seems to have signified the same as our low proverb “a chip from the block,” hence = a Son from the Father.
In other words, the Greek Septuagint translator translated this verse from Hebrew by explaining what the Hebrew idiom literally means. Yes, he was trying to help out his Greek-speaking audience.
So, apparently, water from a bucket means a man will have a son born, much like our modern phrase ‘a chip off the old block.’ Also, he will have abundant ‘water,’ which seems to suggest ‘people’ to rule over.
The king being ‘greater than Agag’ is shown to just mean that he will be very powerful. The translator perhaps translated it this way to help out readers who have no idea what ‘Agag’ means. An Agag is actually the title for a king of Amelek – a bit like the title Pharaoh for a king of Egypt. But the title Agag is also a pun, since it sounds like the word for ‘high.’ So Baalam is inspired to say that this future king will be higher than King High himself!
So while the Greek and Hebrew look very different, the meaning appears to be identical. This shows how important it is to understand when ancient writers are using idioms. If you don’t understand what’s really being said, a verse in the Greek Septuagint may be misunderstood as a ‘mistranslation’ or a deliberate change – when in actual fact, the meaning is identical.
So, ‘watch your step,’ or you may get ‘the wrong end of the stick!’
Modern Bible commentaries struggle to explain what the Hebrew version of this text means. They propose all kinds of explanations. However, if we’re going to trust any commentator at all, perhaps we should trust the ancient Jew who translated Numbers into Greek over two millennia ago... not forgetting all those who proofread the text, approved of it, and used it. The translator and his colleagues likely had a much better idea than any of us do today.
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