In a previous post, I drew from Michael Rydelnik’s The Messianic Hope to discuss the implications of textual criticism for messianic prophecy. Here I will give an example of the implications.

In Balaam’s prophecy over Judah, he says the following:

Water shall flow from his buckets, and his seed shall be in many waters; his king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted.


— Numbers 24:7

Many interpreters understand David as the fulfilment of this prophecy, considering that he did what Saul did not: defeat Agag (1 Sam 15:8-9). As the lion of the tribe of Judah, Jesus certainly fulfils the entirety of the prophecy (exactly how is debated: direct fulfillment, dual fulfillment, typology, etc), but what if this this is exclusively a prophecy of Jesus, and not David at all.

The Messianic HopeRydelnik notes that there is a variant reading of this verse in other manuscripts (Septuagint, Samaritan Pentateuch, and others) that reads “Gog” in the place of “Agag”. As Rydelnik summarizes, “[a]ccording to this reading, Balaam foresees a king from Jacob who would be exalted over Gog, the end-time enemy of Israel (Ezek 38:3)” (p38). If true, this changes things significantly! Balaam wouldn’t be predicting David, but Jesus!

As an aside, the case for details in Num 24 referring to Jesus and not David does not entirely depend on accepting Rydelnik’s text-critical conclusions. However, if true, this could settle the case.

Despite the widespread nature of the variant, I couldn’t find a modern English text that prefers the “Gog” reading over “Agag”, so what arguments does Rydelnik give?

  1. First, Balaam is speaking of the “latter days” (Num 24:14).
  2. Second, in Num 24:7 the future king is exalted “using more glorious terminology than what would be used of David or one of his nonmessianic descendants” (p39).
  3. Third, Gog, in Ezekiel 38:17, is “known from earlier Scripture…an obvious reference to the variant reading in Num 24:7” (p39).
  4. Fourth, Timothy Ashley (author of the Numbers commentary in the NICOT series) says that the Masoretic text rendering of the verse is “’difficult and obscure (and possibly corrupt)’” (p39). Admittedly, Ashley prefers the Masoretic reading (Agag) over the alternative (Gog), holding that the Septuagint was adjusted due to intense messianic expectation during the period of the translation.

Rydelnik concludes that we should take the Septuagint as the original reading: “in an obscure verse in the Torah, it appears that the variant readings point to a future, glorious, Messiah with an exalted kingdom, not merely to King David” (p39).

Now, though I am sympathetic to Rydenik’s concerns, a closer look reveals that some of Rydelnik’s arguments may not be as compelling as they first appear.

  1. Rather than a distant term, “latter days” could merely be relative, in which case it could easily apply to David, who was certainly in Balaam’s future.
  2. Rydelnik doesn’t explain why the language in Num 24:7 is too exalted to be describing David.
  3. Yes, Ezek 38:17 does imply that Gog is referred to elsewhere in Scripture, but this may not be a reference to the variant reading in Num 24:7. According to Ezek 38:17, Gog was spoken of by “my servants the prophets of Israel”, of which Balaam was certainly not a member! My Bible has Jer 6:22-23 as a related text, which may be a better contender than a textual variant. Daniel Block, an Ezekiel expert, also suggests a deceptively simple interpretation that the answer to the question in Ezek 38:17 is “no”! That is, Gog is not an elsewhere-predicted agent of judgment on Israel, but instead his destructive intentions will be thwarted by God.
  4. Ashley could be correct about a messianic bias in the Septuagint. Unfortunately biases can go both ways; while the LXX may be overly-messianic, the MT may be under-messianic.

In his A New Testament Biblical Theology, Beale makes a good case that the “in the latter days” phrases should be read synoptically to refer to the time of the Messiah, so if true, that would overturn my first objection. However, I’m not sure how 2-4 could be answered. But I could certainly be wrong; is Rydelnik on to something here about Gog?

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