Translation commentary on Numbers 22:32 - 22:33

And the angel of the LORD said to him: The generic verb said may be rendered “demanded” (Good News Translation, New Living Translation), since the angel rebukes Balaam with the rhetorical question that follows this quote frame In other languages the rhetorical question itself can be marked, for example, through some special particle to indicate its particular reproving force.

Why have you struck your ass these three times?: This question does not expect an answer or an explanation from Balaam; rather, it admonishes him. It may be rendered as a strong statement by saying “You should not have beaten your donkey three times!”

Behold, I have come forth to withstand you: Revised Standard Version follows the Septuagint and the Vulgate here (so also King James Version). The Hebrew reads “Behold, I, I have come out as an adversary” (compare verse 22). New Revised Standard Version follows the Hebrew by saying “I have come out as an adversary.” However, New Jewish Publication Society’s Tanakh renders the Hebrew more accurately by saying “It is I who came out as an adversary.” The Hebrew word hinneh rendered Behold and an independent Hebrew pronoun for I highlight the angel as an adversary. Translators may follow the Septuagint reading here since the reference to Balaam is implied in the Hebrew text. Models that follow the Septuagint and keep the focus on the angel here are “You see, it is I who have come to bar your way” (Traduction œcuménique de la Bible), “I myself have opposed you” (Die Bibel im heutigen Deutsch), and “I was the one who blocked your way” (Contemporary English Version).

Because your way is perverse before me: The word perverse seems to have come straight from the Vulgate (perversa in Latin). The Hebrew verb here (yarat) means “is steep/precipitous” (Die Bibel: Einheitsübersetzung der Heiligen Schrift), which has a figurative sense in this context. Models that express the sense of this imagery are “because with Me this way leads to ruin” (Bijbel: Vertaling in opdracht van het Nederlandsch Bijbelgenootschap), “because your path is a reckless one before me” (New International Version), and “because in my eyes this journey is ill-considered” (La Nouvelle Bible Segond). The alternative reading has the Hebrew verb yeraʿ, meaning “is wrong/evil” (so Septuagint, Vulgate, Samaritan Pentateuch). Revised Standard Version follows this reading, and so does Luther with “because your way is wrong in my eyes,” and Chewa with “because this here journey of yours upsets me.” Good News Translation says “because you should not be making this journey.” Good News Translation does not make a choice between the two alternatives, in spite of its footnote. It seems best to follow the reading with yarat (“is steep/precipitous”), which is the more difficult and hence preferable form here (so also Hebrew Old Testament Text).

And the ass saw me, and turned aside before me these three times: See verse 23. Translators should have a separate sentence here, as in Good News Translation, which says “But your donkey saw me and turned aside three times.”

If she had not turned aside from me: Good News Translation says simply “If it hadn’t,” which removes some of the drama and forcefulness of the angel’s words at this point. Languages that use repetition like Hebrew to express emphasis should retain it here, as in Revised Standard Version.

Surely just now I would have slain you and let her live: Good News Translation misses the emphasis of the Hebrew here by omitting surely just now, which renders the Hebrew particle ki (“indeed”) and the adverb ʿattah (“now”). Models that keep this emphasis render the first clause here as “I would have certainly killed you by now” (New Living Translation), and “Surely, I would have killed you on the spot” (Chewa). The Hebrew construction of these two clauses marks a strong contrast between you (Balaam) and her (the donkey). Alter’s translation highlights this contrast as follows: “by now it is you I would have killed, while her I would have let live.” Not only did the donkey reveal the truth to Balaam, but it also saved his life.

Quoted with permission from de Regt, Lénart J. and Wendland, Ernst R. A Handbook on Numbers. (UBS Helps for Translators). Miami: UBS, 2016. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .

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