In Numbers 23:10 (KJV)

Who can count the dust of Jacob, and the number of the fourth part of Israel? Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his!

The original word is rōḇaʿ. Checked in NLT, NASB, NIV, ESV and they all use the word "fourth". Interestingly, ESV mentions "or dust clouds".

How was the decision to select between "fourth" and "dust clouds" done?

2 Answers 2


"dust cloud" as a translation option to render the Hebrew word רֹ֣בַע (rō·ḇa‘) in Num 23:10 was based on the discovery of an Akkadian cognate of רֹ֣בַע (see Anchor Yale Commentary quote below). The Akkadian language was deciphered in the 19th century. The first volumes of the standard Akkadian dictionary were published in 1956 continuing to 2011 (final volumes). (see Encyclopedia Britannica article Akkadian language).

Because that option is relatively new (mid 20th century), that is probably why most translations are using the more traditional "fourth part" option with only the newer translations using the better "dust cloud" option, either by:


  1. Quote from Anchor Yale Bible commentary on Numbers 23:10 by Baruch A. Levine (emphasis mine):

    The sense of this verse is that the Israelite encampment is vast beyond measure. It expresses A-B parallelisms: (a) verbal m-n-h//s-p-r "count//number," which is well known; and (b) nominal ‘ā·p̄ār//rō·ḇa‘, which is unique, because Hebrew rō·ḇa‘ is difficult to translate with certainty.

    To begin with, most commentators, including Albright, follow the LXX, which takes Masoretic ûmispār "and the number of-" as: umî-sāpar (kaì tiś ’exarithmêsetai) "and who has numbered?" This is surely preferable.

    The parallelism ‘ā·p̄ār//rō·ḇa‘ is difficult to interpret with confidence. The notion that the Hebrew rō·ḇa‘ = reba‘ "a quarter (twenty-five percent)," has given rise to an hyperbolic translation: "And who has numbered [even] a quarter of Israel!" This rendering has been generally regarded as forced. ... The search for a more suitable meaning for Hebrew rō·ḇa‘ has yielded a proposed Akkadian cognate, turba‘u, variously tarbu‘u "dust cloud." (Albright 1944; and see AHw:1328-29, s.v. tarbu‘(t)u(m)). The Masoretic text could be read consonantally as follows: wm-spr ’t [t}rb‘ Yśr’l, assuming haplography; or, regressively: wm-spr ’[t] trb‘ = tirba‘) Yśr’l "And who can measure the dust cloud of Israel?" There is much to recommend this interpretation, which has wide acceptance (Albright 1944:213, note 28; Cohen 1978:28-37).

  2. The Albright 1944 reference can be found in an article in the Journal of Biblical Literature article The Oracles of Balaam by W. F. Albright, page 213, note 28.


It appears that both the NRSV and the ESV have similar marginal references about this.

The Cambridge Bible commentary offers this explanation:

  1. Or number the fourth part of Israel] involves a necessary emendation, the Heb. text (represented in R.V. marg.) being scarcely translateable.

For ‘the fourth part’ (רֹבַע) some would read ‘the myriads’ (רִבְבֹת), or perhaps, as LXX. suggests, ‘the multitude of the people of Israel’ (רֹב עַם י״).

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