A dispute about a hilltop between the King James Bible and some rabbis

Wednesday, 6 July, 2011 - 7:48 pm

A dispute about a hilltop between the King James Bible and some rabbis

By Rabbi Eli Brackman 

An interesting study in the King James Bible is to compare a translation in 1611 in the King James Bible with a classic translation of the Torah by the rabbis centuries earlier.


This analysis will give insight into where the King James Bible possibly derived its sources from or at least what they are similar to. As the King James Bible is eighty percent William Tyndale’s translation, it will also give insight as to whose Hebrew commentary Tyndale benefited from, directly or indirectly, when translating the Hebrew Bible in the beginning of the 16th century before he was burned due to blasphemy in 1513.


For this purpose we will take a look at a few words that are strikingly different in their translation from one commentary to another and try to decipher the possible similar sources to the King James Version.


In the Book of Numbers chapter 23 in the portion of Balak, it writes regarding the pursuit of Balak to have the non-Jewish prophet Balaam curse the Israelites, because they had become numerous.


Three translations for one word Shefi


In verse 1-3 it writes, Balaam said to Balak, Build me seven altars here, and prepare for me seven bulls and seven rams. Balak did as Balaam had requested, and Balak and Balaam offered up a bull and a ram on [each] altar.


Then, in verse 3 it writes, Balaam said to Balak, Stand beside your burnt offering, and I will go. Perhaps the Lord will happen to appear to me, and He will show me something that I can tell you, and he went alone.


The Hebrew for the final word alone is Shefi. The meaning of the word Shefi however is unclear in the Biblical Hebrew and is subject to debate.



The Aramaic translation of 2nd century Unklus is as above, alone. This translation is also adapted by the great commentator of the Torah, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040 - 1105). Indeed, all the classic Jewish translations of the Torah in English use this translation as the standard meaning of the verse, And Bilaam went alone.


The Jerusalemite Aramaic translation of Rabbi Yonatan ben Uziel, known as Targum Yonatan, explains that the word Shefi means broken hearted and adds in his translation the Hebrew word for heart lev before the word Shefi. This is also quoted by the Biblical commentator Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089 - 1164).


The King James translation, hilltop


The translation in the King James Bible for this word Shefi however is different than the above. It writes as follows, And Balaam said unto Balak, Stand by thy burnt offering, and I will go: peradventure the LORD will come to meet me: and whatsoever he sheweth me I will tell thee. And he went to an high place.


Thus, the King James Version translates the Hebrew word Shefi not alone or broken hearted but a high place. What is the source for this translation?


The fact that Balaam was standing on a high place is indeed understood from the context, as it sates in the end of the previous chapter verse 41, And it came to pass on the morrow, that Balak took Balaam, and brought him up into the high places of Baal, that thence he might see the utmost [part] of the people.


This is the same according to all translations that Bamot Ba’al means the heights of Ba’al - a high place.


However, this only compounds the question. Why would the verse repeat itself and state again that Balaam went up to a high place, when this has already been stated previously.


King James follows Ibn Ezra


It appears, however, that the King James Bible has followed a third translation preferred by Ibn Ezra.


Ibn Ezra writes that in his opinion the correct translation of the Hebrew word Shefi is a high place.


Proof from Jeremiah


Ibn Ezra brings a proof for this translation from Jeremiah (3:21), where it says, A voice is heard on the hilltops, the crying of the children of Israel’s supplications for they have corrupted their ways, they have forgotten their G-d.


The Hebrew word for hilltops is Sh’foyim similar to the word ‘Shefi’. Thus, Ibn Ezra translates the word Shefi in Numbers that Balaam went to the hilltop. In other words he went to the highest elevation, the hilltop, above the heights of Ba’al where they were already standing.


Indeed, this translation - hilltop - also may indicate that he went their alone, but conversely, the translation – alone - does not imply he was necessarily standing on a hilltop when he proceeded to bless the Israelites.


It is therefore interesting that the King James Bible diverges from the classic rabbinic translations and instead of choosing the translation of Shefi, alone, like Rashi and the Unklos it goes with the Ibn Ezra’s translation, hilltop.


It seems, nonetheless, that the King James Bible is on solid foundation with its translation.


Furthermore, one might say, the King James Version is even more accurate, as its roots are found in a similar word used in Jeremiah. The translation of the word Sh’fayim in Jeremiah as hilltop seems to be the most cited translation, as for example the great grammarian and scholar Rabbi David Kimchi (1160-1235) and others.


Proof from Isaiah


Another source for the King James translation of Shefi, as hilltop, seems to be, though surprisingly not quoted by Ibn Ezra, from Isaiah (13:2), Upon a high Mountain hoist a banner. The Hebrew word for high is Nishpeh, which is linguistically similar to the word Shefi.


Regarding the Jeremiah source, it is interesting that another translation of the word Sh’fayim is the complete opposite, A voice on the rivulets is heard, the weeping of the supplications of the children of Israel, for they perverted their way, they forgot the Lord their God. Instead of the word hilltop, it writes rivulets, which is a low place or a small brook.


The source for this translation seems to be of Rabbi Meir Leibush Weiser (1809-1879), known as the Malbim. However, one can say that in essence he does not disagree with the translation of Sh’fayim, meaning high. He seems to be only saying that the voice calling out to Israel who has perverted their way is heard through the rivulets where the penitent Israel is situated, reflecting their low state. It does not dispute the literal meaning of the word Sh’fayim as meaning hilltop, from where the voice originates.


Why do rabbis not follow hilltop meaning?


The above poses the obvious question. If the overwhelming amount of sources point to the translation of the word Shfayim as meaning hilltop, thereby serving as the source of the King James Bible for the word Shefi in the Book of Numbers, why do the classical rabbinical commentaries choose the translation of Shefi as alone and not the more obvious translation of hilltop?


Another dispute in translation - From the heights I see it


The answer might lie in another dispute between the King James Bible and the classic rabbinic commentaries in the same chapter in the Book of Numbers (23:9) – regarding the first blessing that Balaam expressed about the Israelites.


The classic translation found in many translations of the Torah states, For from their beginning, I see them as mountain peaks, and I behold them as hills; it is a nation that will dwell alone, and will not be reckoned among the nations.


Another wording of the same translation is, For from its origins, I see it rocklike, and from hills do I see it. Behold it is a nation that will dwell in solitude and not be reckoned among the nations.


Both these translations have a common denominator in that they are translating the Hebrew in a non-literal manner, as a parable. Literally, the Hebrew says, from the head of rocks do I see it and from heights do I see it.


The classic rabbinic commentator who uses the non literal translation is Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki. He in turn is quoting from an earlier work the Midrash Tanchuma (c. 370 CE). It states that the Israelites are well founded and powerful, like these mountains and hills, because of their Patriarchs and Matriarchs.


Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, known by his acronym Ramban (1194 - 1270), however, argues with Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki and offers the literal translation. He explains that since it states that they were standing on the heights of Ba’al, Balaam therefore says, From the heights I see it. Nachmanides indeed follows Ibn Ezra that Shefi means an actual hilltop, where Balaam was standing when he proceeded to bless.


King James follows Nachmanides


It is interesting then that the King James Bible also chooses the literal translation, like Nachmanides and Ibn Ezra. The King James Bible writes, For from the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him: lo, the people shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations.


This translation of the king James is entirely consistent with the King James former translation of the word Shefi that Balaam was not just standing on a high place, the heights of Ba’al, overlooking the camp of the Israelites, but on the actual peak of a rock or mountain itself.


Why Rabbis choose non-literal translation


The question one may pose then is on the translation of the classic rabbinic commentary of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki who chooses the non-literal translation.


This however can be explained by a particular word that describes the kind of language with which Balaam spoke these blessings. It sates (23:7), He took up his parable and said.


Exception to the rule – text itself demands non-literal reading


The text itself suggests that the blessings are being spoken in parables, non-literal. If this is the case then one can assume that other parts of the text may also not need to be tied to their literal translation.


One can, therefore, in the view of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, disregard in retrospect also the literal meaning of the word Shefi. Even though in other places like Jeremiah and Isaiah it clearly means a hilltop, in this case it can mean merely that he went to be alone. Furthermore, one can say that he went into solitude to attain a level of spirituality that was as a hilltop compared to the others around him for the purpose of prophecy.


If one were to say that Balaam first went to the heights of Ba’al and then went even higher to the hilltop itself by himself, one would have no choice but to interpret the words, From the top of hills, also literally, as does the King James.


The source therefore in both cases in the King James follows the opinion of Ibn Ezra that chooses both interpretations in the literal. We can conclude that both translations are right, the literal and also the non-literal, based on the literal meaning of the word parable.


It makes one wonder whether Tyndale and the Kings James had directly or indirectly use of Ibn Ezra’s commentary, as opposed to Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki’s. This would however need more research to be proven.

Comments on: A dispute about a hilltop between the King James Bible and some rabbis
There are no comments.