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.
- 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.
- 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.
- HEBREW SCRIPTURE EDITIONS: PHILOSOPHY AND PRAXIS, Emanuel Tov, paragraph 2a