6

וַיֵּ֙לֶךְ֙ הַנָּבִ֔יא וַיַּעֲמֹ֥ד לַמֶּ֖לֶךְ עַל־הַדָּ֑רֶךְ וַיִּתְחַפֵּ֥שׂ בָּאֲפֵ֖ר עַל־עֵינָֽיו׃

1 Kings 20:38 KJV

38 So the prophet departed, and waited for the king by the way, and disguised himself with ashes upon his face.

1 Kings 20:38 NLT

38The prophet placed a bandage over his eyes to disguise himself and then waited beside the road for the king.

1 Kings 20:38 ESV

38So the prophet departed and waited for the king by the way, disguising himself with a bandage over his eyes

Why does the KJV translate this text this way?

  • Young's Literal (1862) and Green's Literal (1993) both have 'ashes'. – Nigel J Jul 13 at 11:48
4

The root אפר, vocalized with a "tzeirei" vowel ('ey' sound, looks like ..) under the aleph, means ashes. Here, it's vocalized with a 'patach' ('ah' sound, looks like _ ) under the aleph and it means a scarf or kerchief.

This is actually a pretty unusual word, and the Jewish traditional commentators need to clear up the misconfusion.

For example see Rashi, Radak, Ralbag and metzudot tzion who all clarify that it means a scarf.

But it's an easy mistake for a translator to make, especially if they used a copy of the text which wasn't so clear. Two dots written next to each other could easily have been blurred together to look like a line, thus confusing the translator. (This last explanation is my own thought; I haven't seen it anywhere but it makes sense logically.)

| improve this answer | |
  • This is controversial. Where is the "tzeirei"taken from? The "niqqud" was invented a few centuries after the bible canonization. Moreover, Rashi, Radak Ralbag and the Metzudut are all religious/conservative commentators. – noam Jul 13 at 12:15
  • The OP was asking why the KJV translated it as ashes, when the other translation referenced used a more contextually accurate word (some sort of cloth.) I was explaining how even though 'cloth' makes more sense, especially contextually, there's a reason why someone could make the mistake. I brought Jewish sources who also feel the need to explain it; אפר meaning cloth is much less common. My comment thus related to the OP directly. I don't see how your comment affects that. – Binyomin Jul 13 at 16:17
  • I meant no offense. My comment just adds that (IMO) it makes more sense to translate אפר to ashes. – noam Jul 13 at 16:31
  • "But it's an easy mistake for a translator to make, especially if they used a copy of the text which wasn't so clear." I don't think this theory holds any water. It is more likely the KJV (or any older translation the KJV followed) followed a different version which had different nekudot for these letters, thus אֵפֶר instead of אֲפֵ֖ר, but it's not likely that they merely got "confused". – Bach Jul 13 at 18:16
  • @noam Keep in mind: 1) context is a person trying to disguise himself. What makes more sense, wrapping a kerchief over one's face or "disguising oneself with ashes"? What kind of disguise is it if your face is covered in ash, how would you do it and why is it a disguise? And where are the ashes coming from? The whole story seems to be taking place outside, no mention of fire pits on the street. Clothing is a lot easier to explain in the simple language. I agree that the the root אפר occurs more commonly referring to ash rather than clothing; but in context 'clothing' makes more sense. – Binyomin Jul 13 at 19:20
0

The KJV translation of "ashes" for both באפר in verse 38 and for האפר in verse 41 is difficult to explain in light of the fact that the Pshita, Septuagint, and the Targum attributed to Jonathan ben Uziel all indicate that the object in question is a cloth head covering as is commonly worn in the middle east. The context of verse 37, the wound that the prophet sustains, would suggest that a cloth head covering was used here as a bandage for the wound. Furthermore, the wording of verse 41, that the prophet quickly removed the covering is easy to understand in the case of a cloth covering but much more difficult to understand in the case of ashes.

Only the Vulgate translation indicates dust, aspersione pulveris.

Here are two possible explanations.

  1. Unusual word explanation

The use of אפר as noun meaning a covering or type of garment is found only twice in the OT, both times in this chapter, I Kings 20.

Assuming that both the Vulgate and the KJV translated from Hebrew texts that are similar to the Codex Leningrad and other Ben-Asher texts, where the diacritics are בָּאֲפֵ֖ר and הָאֲפֵר in verses 38 and 41 respectively, the KJV translators judged that these words were variant vocalizations or mistaken vocalizations of the more common word אֵפֶר (ash), rather than homographic words not related to any other familiar OT usages.

In this situation of doubt, the KJV translators decided to side with the Vulgate.

  1. Mistake in the base text explanation

The version of the MT that the KJV translators used was apparently the Mikraot Gedolot (Hebrew Bible with Aramaic translations and commentaries), edited by Jacob ben Hayyim. This edition, which was the finest of its day (in 1525) has a very large number of errors. It could be that an early printing used by the KJV translators had a mistaken vocalization for one or both of אפר in verses 38 and 41. If there was such a mistake, it was corrected early on as can be seen in the Internet Archive editions, First Rabbinic Bible and Second Rabbinic Bible.

It is important to note that the KJV was not based on any manuscript texts, but was based on a printed text with a poorly documented provenance and many many mistakes.1

The Leningrad Codex, and the Allepo Codex clearly have בָּאֲפֵר, with a masoretic mark indicating a unique usage, which makes the KJV and Vulgate that much more difficult.

Note also that the more the translation is recent and the more scholarly it is (and the less beholden to sectarian interests), the less likely it is to use "ashes" in this verse and the more likely it is to associate אַפֵר in this verse with Akkadian or Aramaic cognates meaning a covering.


  1. HEBREW SCRIPTURE EDITIONS: PHILOSOPHY AND PRAXIS, Emanuel Tov, paragraph 2a
| improve this answer | |

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.