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Jacob or Angels

by Tim O'Hearn

It is not unusual for some people to study the Bible using several different translations. They do this to get a broader insight into what the scriptures teach. A variety of translations can prove interesting because of the differences in opinion of the translator, which may be reduced when the translation is by committee. Translations also differ because of the variation in methods of translation, ranging from formal equivalence to dynamic equivalence. The formal equivalence method gives, as nearly as possible, a word-for-word direct translation from the original languages. The more formal the equivalence, the more difficult the translation is to read in English. Also, some idioms may be difficult to translate. Dynamic equivalence may not even be considered a translation at all, but rather a paraphrase or commentary, in its most extreme form. The translator using this method wants to convey the ideas expressed, perhaps in the way that the original readers would have understood. These versions are prone to express the editor’s biases. Nevertheless, using several translations throughout the gamut of styles may lead to new insights.

One interesting example of this may be found in Deuteronomy 32:8-9. The common translation goes something like:

When the most High divided to the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of Adam, he set the bounds of the people according to the number of the children of Israel. For the LORD'S portion is his people; Jacob is the lot of his inheritance.

This is pretty straightforward, if somewhat confusing. Does this mean that God divided the nations of the world into twelve basic groups or territories? And did he do this just because Jacob had twelve sons? Or does “the number of the children of Israel” mean the total population of the Hebrew people that ever existed and will exist on the earth? That would mean each boundary would be rather small.

There is, however, another translation. It is much more obscure, and raises different questions.

When the Most High assigned lands to the nations, when he divided up the human race, he established the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of angelic beings [or sons of God]. And the Lord’s portion is his people, Jacob is the bond of his inheritance in Israel.

Rather than setting the bounds of the nations based on Jacob’s descendants (which did not exist until many years after Adam), this version (the Septuagint Greek translation of the Hebrew) says he based them on the number of angels, and that Jacob’s inheritance was limited to “Israel,” commonly thought to comprise the Land of Promise. Is there any other scripture that would support the idea that the nations were assigned according to the number of angelic beings? Perhaps.

In Daniel 10, an angel comes to explain what Daniel had been praying to understand. He admits that it had taken a while to come. That was because the “prince” of Persia had withstood him. He later speaks about the “prince” of Greece. That these princes were angelic (or demonic) beings becomes even more obvious when he speaks of “Michael your prince.” The word translated prince may also be rendered as keeper. This would seem to indicate that each nation was kept by a particular angelic being, in keeping with the one version of the Deuteronomy passage. This may even be enhanced by the words of Jesus. Of the little children, he says “in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven.” (Matt 18:10) This is sometimes interpreted that each individual person has a guardian angel, but it could also refer to the angels of the nations to which the little ones belonged.

This is not to say that the Septuagint/Dead Sea Scrolls version is better or more accurate, even though there may be more textual support for it in Daniel. It is merely to show that the use of multiple translations may produce interesting—though not necessarily clearer—results.