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2014-03-13

To be fair, if someone traveling through my lands spied on me, I wouldn’t respond very cheerfully either. I can understand why Arad, a Canaanite King, attacked the Israelites and took prisoners, as read in Numbers 21:1. Their attack seems pretty far-fetched considering the Israelites have the largest army in the world by far, but the Canaanites are defending their homeland, so what choice do they have?

But just where is their homeland? The previous verse told us we were at Mt. Hor, and after this tangential story, the bible will again place us there. You’d assume we’re still at Mt. Hor, but this story arc includes its own geographical locations. The first is translated from the Biblical Hebrew word negev, which just means “southern.” But we already know that Mt. Hor is next to Edom, which in the south, so this is only repeating what we already know.

Of course, we may have been given a second location as well. English translations tells us that the king’s name is Arad, but the Hebrew is so ambiguous, it could just as accurately be translated to mean the Canaanite king of a city called Arad. The fact that Arad is the name of more than one city in this region lends weight to this hypothesis, but Arad is in the west of this land, not the south.

There’s third location mentioned, but some translations ignore it. The KJV says the Israelites came “by the way of the spies,” while the NIV says they came “along the road to Atharim.” One implies spying, the other merely implies a city’s name; that’s a very big discrepancy! The reality is, the Biblical Hebrew word Atharim has an unknown meaning, but it’s probably the name of a city or caravan route. So why does the KJV call it “the way of the spies”? The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia of 1915 suggests this came from the KJV authors sourcing their translation from the Peshitta, a Syriac translation of the bible, which had the word in question mistakenly written as tarim, meaning “spies.” Atharim is most likely the correct word, and even though it probably has nothing to do with spies, biblical commentators, who didn’t know any better at the time, still tried to justify the Israelites doing such a dishonest act!

Despite all this ambiguity and historical translation errors, most biblical publications don’t bother with a single footnote explaining how unsure we are about this story.

 

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Oh the irony!