What does “fetch a compass” mean?


by Shawn Brasseaux

Our 1611 (King James) Bible translators used the phrase “fetch a compass” five times. The expression is rarely, if ever, heard in contemporary English. Hence, it can make Bible study a bit tricky. Nevertheless, we need not be intimidated. (In fact, we already know a similar word to use as a clue to figure out its definition.) Exactly what does “fetch a compass” mean? To the Scriptures we go!

Notice the five occurrences of the expression in the Authorized Version:

  • Numbers 34:5: “And the border shall fetch a compass from Azmon unto the river of Egypt, and the goings out of it shall be at the sea.”
  • Joshua 15:3: “And it went out to the south side to Maaleh-acrabbim, and passed along to Zin, and ascended up on the south side unto Kadesh-barnea, and passed along to Hezron, and went up to Adar, and fetched a compass to Karkaa:”
  • 2 Samuel 5:23: “And when David enquired of the LORD, he said, Thou shalt not go up; but fetch a compass behind them, and come upon them over against the mulberry trees.”
  • 2 Kings 3:9: “So the king of Israel went, and the king of Judah, and the king of Edom: and they fetched a compass of seven days’ journey: and there was no water for the host, and for the cattle that followed them.”
  • Acts 28:13: “And from thence we fetched a compass, and came to Rhegium: and after one day the south wind blew, and we came the next day to Puteoli:”

From the above verses, we learn that “fetch a compass” is descriptive of: (#1) borders (Numbers 34:5; Joshua 15:3), and (#2) routes of travel (2 Samuel 5:23; 2 Kings 3:9; Acts 28:13). When we read of “fetch a compass,” we should immediately think of encompass (same idea). The notion of “fetch a compass” is simply “make a circuit, go partly around, march or walk around, surround, loop around, go about to, turn around.” The Greek word rendered “fetched a compass” in Acts 28:13 further reinforces this idea. It is perierchomai, taken from peri– meaning “around” (as in perimeter, “distance around something”), and erchomai meaning “come, go.” To wit, perierchomai literally means “go around.”

By the way, what in the world does “fetch” have to do with any of this? We usually think of “fetch” as the retrieval of something—such as telling a dog to go “fetch a stick.” “Fetch” as it sits in “fetch a compass” means something else: it means “to move or maneuver,” as in traveling. “Fetch a compass” then literally means “travel a circuit,” “move in a loop,” “curve or turn about.” Simple!

Also see:
» What does the Bible mean “rude in speech?”
» What does “a land flowing with milk and honey” mean?
» What does “kick against the pricks” mean?