Balaam’s Donkey and a Play on Words in LXX Numbers 22:27–29

55836This morning I started reading a bit in Evans’ chapter on Numbers in  T & T Clark’s Companion to the Septuagint where he comments upon the “liveliness of language and style and independence from the underlying Hebrew” (62). One specific feature he touched upon was the manner in which the translator rendered the Hebrew verbs in this passage. For instance:

וַתֵּ֤רֶא הָֽאָתוֹן֙ אֶת־מַלְאַ֣ךְ יְהוָ֔ה וַתִּרְבַּ֖ץ תַּ֣חַת בִּלְעָ֑ם
And the donkey saw the angle of the Lord and laid down under Balaam

becomes

καὶ ἰδοῦσα ἡ ὄνος τὸν ἄγγελον τοῦ θεοῦ συνεκάθισεν ὑποκάτω Βαλααμ
And when the donkey saw the angel of God, it laid down under Balaam.

The change might seem subtle, but the translator rises above the level of the clause by subordinating the wayyiqtol (“and saw”) to the subsequent wayyiqtol (“laid down”).

As I read the accompanying text of Numbers 22:27–29 in the LXX, I noticed a subtle play on words that might help contribute another piece to Evans’ argument about the stylized nature of this section.

NETS 22:27–33 reads:

27 And when the donkey saw the angel of God, it settled down under Balaam, and Balaam was angered and kept beating the donkey with the rod.  28 And God opened the mouth of the donkey, and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you that you have struck me this third time?”  29 And Balaam said to the donkey, “Because you have mocked me! And if I had a dagger in my hand, I would already have stabbed you!”  30 And the donkey says to Balaam, “Am I not your donkey on which you would ride from your youth to this very day? Disregarding with disregard—I have not done so to you, have I?” And he said, “No!”

31   Now God uncovered the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of God standing opposed in the road and the dagger drawn in his hand, and he bowed down and did obeisance to his face.  32 And the angel of God said to him, “Why have you struck your donkey this third time? And behold, I came out to oppose you, because your way was not pretty before me.  33 And when the donkey saw me, it turned away from me this third time. And if it had not turned away, now surely I would have killed you but kept it alive.”

In this passage, we find God’s sense of humor. I won’t do a full exegesis—or really anything close to it. It just want to point out a few details before showing you a little gem from the LXX.

  • Balaam, a self-proclaimed seer does not see.
  • Balaam’s donkey receives a word from God; Balaam has no such word.
  • Balaam threatens that if he had a sword in his hands, he would kill the donkey for making a fool of him; the angel of the Lord possesses the very sword Balaam seeks.
  • Balaam is on a mission to make a fool of/curse God and his people; Balaam is made a fool of by his donkey.
  • Balaam’s threat to kill his donkey for making a fool of him is matched by God’s threat to kill him for attempting to make a fool of him (see v. 33).

The LXX translator ties Balaam’s act of hitting his donkey to his claim that the donkey has mocked him by using παίω and ἐμπαίζω in vv. 27–29.

In verse 27, we are told that Balaam becomes angry and “kept beating the donkey with the rod.” The Greek verb used here is ἔτυπτεν (MT וַיַּ֥ךְ ).  But instead of using the same lemma (τύπτω) to translate הִכִּיתַ֔נִי in verse 28, the translator varies vocabulary in favor of πέπαικάς (“What have I done to you that you have struck me this third time?”). In so doing, the translator sets up a phonetic parallel with Balaam’s response in verse 29: Ὅτι ἐμπέπαιχάς μοι (“Because you have mocked me!”).

Once again, the translator rises above the clause being translated to create a more stylistic reading. And in this case, a translation that helps draw together the ironic elements within the Balaam story.

This entry was posted in LXX, Old Testament Studies, Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Balaam’s Donkey and a Play on Words in LXX Numbers 22:27–29

  1. Pingback: Biblical Studies Carnival – December 2015 |

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