Understanding Numbers 24:24

The Prophet Balaam and the Angel
by John Linnell (1792-1882)
Wikimedia Commons

A few days ago, a reader asked me to explain Numbers 24:24. The interpretation of this verse is not easy because of the problems of translation and the issues raised by the text. In what follows, I will try to explain how three translations have dealt with the text and then try to explain the message of the text.

Numbers 24:24 is a section of the Balaam cycle. Balaam was the son of Beor. He was a diviner employed by Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab, to curse Israel. According to the biblical text, Balaam tried to curse Israel but God told Balaam to bless Israel. Unable to curse Israel, Balaam told Balak to entice Israel by engaging Israelite men into having sexual relations with the women of Moab.

There are seven oracles in the Balaam cycle. Numbers 24:23-24 is Balaam’s seventh oracle, an oracle against Asshur and Eber. The three examples below reflect the ways the versions have translated Numbers 24:24:

New Revised Standard Version (NRS): “But ships shall come from Kittim and shall afflict Asshur and Eber; and he also shall perish forever.”

Douay-Rheims American Edition (DRA): “They shall come in galleys from Italy, they shall overcome the Assyrians, and shall waste the Hebrews, and at the last they themselves also shall perish.”

New King James Version (NKJ): “But ships shall come from the coasts of Cyprus, And they shall afflict Asshur and afflict Eber, And so shall Amalek, until he perishes.”

According to the text, Kittim refers to a place from which a group of invaders will come in ships to conquer Asshur and Eber. The name Kittim is probably a reference to a city in Cyprus named Kition. Kittim is also used to designate Cyprus (Isaiah 23:1). The invaders from Kittim have been identified with the Sea Peoples and more specifically, with the Philistines. In the Septuagint of Daniel 11:30 the word Kittim is translated as “Romans.” In 1 Maccabees 1:1, Kittim refers to the Greeks. In the literature of Qumran, Kittim becomes a word to describe the eschatological enemies of God

Asshur has been identified with the Assyrian empire that dominated the Ancient Near East from the ninth to the seventh centuries BCE. Some scholars have identified the word “Asshur” with the Asshurim (NIV: Asshurites), a nomadic group who lived in the Negev (Genesis 25:3, 18; Psalm 83:8). If Asshur is a reference to the Asshurim, then Eber must be one of their neighbors.

The name Eber appears in the genealogy of Shem (Genesis 11:14-17). Some have identified Eber with the inhabitants of Mesopotamia. The Septuagint translates the name Eber as “Hebrews.”

The Douay-Rheims version follows the Septuagint and translates Kittim as Italy and Eber as Hebrews.

The New King James Version (NKJ) adds the word “Amalek” to verse 24. The word “Amalek” does not appear in the Hebrew text. The word comes from verse 20. It seems that the translators of the New King James Version wanted to emphasize that Amalek was one of the nations that would also be destroyed.

Various interpretations have been proposed to solve the difficulties offered by the text. The most probable interpretation and one that has satisfied a number of commentators is that the words of Balaam are an oracle alluding to the conquest of the Moabites (24:17), the Edomites (24:18), the Amalekites (24:20), and the Philistines (24:24).

Thus, Numbers 24:24 says that the invaders from Kittim, that is the Philistines, would conquer the Asshurim and the Hebrews (the Israelites) but the Philistines would also be conquered and destroyed. The defeat of the Philistines was accomplished by David after he established his kingdom.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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