As I am studying, I have encountered different renderings of the last phrase in this verse, which describes the prophesying of the seventy elders of Israel after the Spirit was placed on them. An initial search has shown me that the KJV reads "and did not cease" while the ESV, NASB and a few others read, "but they did not do it again." These phrases are apparently opposite in intent from one another. I can read both in the context of the events surrounding Moses needing help managing the people of Israel and see how either way is possible, but I'm wondering if there are reasons why the modern translators have all seemed to go with the second rendering—even the NKJV.
Part 1 – The ambiguity
ולא יספו, ve'lo yasafu
“ve'lo” means: “and didn't/weren't”
The suffix “-u” means “they”
Without knowing the meaning of the word yasaf, we have “and they didn't/weren't ... [yasaf]”
Asaf means “to gather,” yasaf means “to increase.” “And they weren't gathered” means they weren't gathered in from their act of prophesying, which means they didn't cease prophesying. “And they didn't increase” would mean they didn't continue prophesying (asaf can be rendered as yasaf in a future tense conjugation).
There are two types of ambiguities that arise when translating a text from one language to another:
This yasaf/asaf ambiguity does not derive from our ignorance of the Hebrew language, or Biblical grammar or some unknowable cultural reference. In all likelihood, this is an example of a fundamental ambiguity which was also ambiguous to the original readers of the Bible.
In literature and in the Bible, ambiguity may be intentional. Intentional ambiguity is when an excess or multiplicity of meanings contribute to the literary effect and overall experience of a text.
Part 2 – What is going on in Numbers 11?
It is not easy to fully appreciate intentional ambiguity. To understand what is happening in 11:25 and why the asaf/yasaf ambiguity is probably an intentional and highly effective literary device, requires a careful reading of the wider literary context.
The Numbers narrative (the whole book minus the legal parts) can be divided into two distinct sections. Part 1 is exciting, optimistic, uplifting, promising, hopeful, etc. Part 2 is depressing, hopeless and profoundly tragic.
The book of Numbers opens after the people of Israel left Egypt, and received the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. It's now one year since the Exodus and the people are ready to conquer the land of Israel and establish themselves as a nation. The magnitude of this moment is captured in long descriptions of the Israelite encampment and the methods by which they travel. The opening ten chapters can be outlined as follows:
The rest of the book of Numbers from chapter 11 and on, like so much of the Bible, is a story of complete and utter failure. Subsequent chapters will recount complaints, delays, death and punishments which culminates in a forty year sojourn in the desert and the death of the entire nation that originally left Egypt. Now we come to the turning point of this book (11:1-10):
The people complain to God and the people are punished. Then Moses hears the people craving meat. Following this setback, Moses, like the reader, becomes utterly depressed and despondent and loses all hope for the future as though he intuits the impending disasters (11:11-15):
Numbers part 2 is not only about the failure of the people, but also the failure of their leadership. Within the context of this sobering and tragic narrative, Moses is harshly criticized. Moses and Aron will not be permitted to lead the Israelites into the land of Israel (20:12) and the book of Numbers contains the motivation for that decree. Throughout the book Moses comes off as meek and unable to confront the people directly. When the people complain, Moses and Aron consistently respond by falling on their faces instead of standing up and addressing the wants of the people (14:5, 16:4 and 20:6). Moses' authority is consistently under question (14:40 – 45, chapter 16). In chapter 20 Moses loses his Temper at the people.
In 11:16-17, we first see the leadership begin to slip away from Moses:
Then in verse 25:
This tension and ambiguous nature of this event is captured in the message delivered by an unnamed “young man” who approaches Moses (11:26-28):
The young lad, like the rest of Israel saw this act of prophecy as a direct affront on the authority and leadership of Moses. Joshua, the successor of Moses who will lead the people into the land of Israel, is deeply troubled by this event and urges Moses to take action. Moses is unfazed and conveys his readiness to share others in his role of spiritual leader and this is communicated to Joshua (11:29)
Exactly how long the seventy elders prophesied for, either yasafu or asafu, isn't an important question and the Bible probably doesn't care to give us that detail anyway. But the intentional ambiguity in that word shares with us the uneasy, mysterious and powerful nature of what transpired. This ambiguity speaks to the tension which characterizes this story: is the religious and spiritual experience of these people authentic and justified or a mockery of Moses' leadership and authority?
Like the people living at the time, we're not quite sure what to make of this event. Like all spiritual experiences, prophesy is fundamentally impenetrable—no one really knows how much of what is on display is authentic and how much might have been feigned. To this end the Bible speaks a great deal about how distinguish false prophets from real prophets (Deuteronomy 13:2-6, 18:15-22, and elsewhere). The lo yasafu ambiguity captures this mystery and allows for more than one ways of imagining the transition away from Moses' leadership.
[All translations taken from the KJV.]
Perhaps someone has a more authoritative answer, but I'll try to explain as best I understand it: The KJV (as well as most of its predecessors, eg: Tyndale, Coverdale, Geneva Bible, etc) were based off of manuscripts that were available at the time. We hadn't found the dead sea scrolls amongst other ancient manuscripts that most modern translations also consider when selecting their translations.
To quote one website's explanation of the KJV's translation sources:
So in essence, we have older documents to consult
Another website suggests [More authoritative sources welcome here] the source of the less popular "did not cease to prophesy" translation is the Targumim ("commentaries the rabbis wrote on the Old Testament scriptures long after the time of Jesus") but that even the Greek old testament documents which would have been available at the time indicate the opposite ("did cease to prophesy").
One other potential spot for confusion here, is the phrase
It's also worth noting that with a pre-christ worldview, we would not expect the elders to continue to prophesy indefinitely, we would expect that, consistent with other texts in the old testament, the spirit came and went as he pleased, such that the elders may have continued to prophesy without ceasing for a short period of time (like perhaps until the end of the day), but it would be strange to suggest they retained the spirit permanently to prophesy on an ongoing basis, which the KJV translation might erroneously lead one to believe.