Prepositional Combat

One of the difficulties in translating Hebrew into English are the wide range of usage of Hebrew prepositions. Understanding what a particular preposition means is very dependent upon the context. Just in the first few verses of Israel’s combat with Amalek, we excellent examples.

Then Amalek came and fought against Israel at Rephidim. So Moses said to Joshua, “Choose men for us and go out, fight against Amalek. Tomorrow I will station myself on the top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.”

Exodus 17:8-9 NASB

The Hebrew prepositions are as follows:

  1. …Amalek came and fought with Israel…
  2. Moses said toward Joshua
  3. “Select for us men…”
  4. “Go, fight in Amalek…”
  5. “I will stand on the top of the hill…”

The problems aren’t obvious until you read most translations, and see only about half of these prepositions. For instance, the NASB uses “against” for “with” in number 1, and almost all have “against” instead of “in” for number 4. This more explains the difficulty in translating Hebrew prepositions than it does what actually happened.

But why one preposition in one place, and another where you would expect what was used earlier? For instance, why didn’t Moses say “fight with Amalek” instead of “in Amalek”? The preposition, with, was used to introduce Amalek showing up to fight Israel in verse 8, why not use it again in verse 9?

My concern is perhaps unfounded, because there may not be much, if any, significance in using with versus in when speaking of engaging in combat. On the other hand, in Greek for instance, there is much difference. The preposition para in Greek, means “beside” or “alongside”, and this roughly corresponds to the Hebrew preposition “with”. But there are a couple of Greek words for “in”, one of which means, “inside”, as opposed to “among”. In Hebrew, there’s not much differentiation, in is in. So, perhaps Amalek was more tentative (“alongside” for combat), where Israel rushed in among them for combat (or Moses instructed Joshua to fight that way).

It’s hard to make definitive assertions one way or the other. The elasticity of Hebrew prepositions truly makes it difficult to know for sure. But knowing the various choices that were made may help at least expand the visualization of the event. What did it look like? What did the people see? What was it like to be there, standing among those Joshua tested in choosing for battle? What did the people feel when Amalek showed up? Was it over the sudden presence of water at Rephadim?

We don’t know for sure, but perhaps exploring the event through the additional lenses provided by these prepositions may help us bring a dusty ancient event into more vibrant focus.

That’s my view through the knothole this morning, what’s it look like from yours?


Passion Week XIXg

And He said to them, “When I sent you out without money belt and bag and sandals, you did not lack anything, did you?” They said, “No, nothing.”  And He said to them, “But now, whoever has a money belt is to take it along, likewise also a bag, and whoever has no sword is to sell his coat and buy one.  For I tell you that this which is written must be fulfilled in Me, ‘And HE was numbered with transgressors’; for that which refers to Me has its fulfillment.”  They said, “Lord, look, here are two swords.” And He said to them, “It is enough.” (Luke 22:35-38 NASB)

Once again, Luke provides a unique glimpse of Jesus to us.  Jesus reminds the disciples of being sent out without provisions, and yet, they were provided for.  Having reminded them, Jesus now says they are to go with provisions. But in addition to the provisions they avoided before, Jesus instructs them to sell a coat and buy a sword.

I’ve read commentators who claim the instruction is “spiritual”, as if the coat has a spiritual meaning as does the sword. But is the explanation that Jesus would be numbered with transgressors also only spiritual?  How about the direction to take money belt and bag, was that only spiritual?  I suspect the idea of an armed ambassador of the peace of God causes uncomfortable feelings in most theologians.  I just don’t just derstand why being on the run as a religious refugee doesn’t bother them as much or at all.

Regardless of what theologians do or don’t understand, maybe the question that troubles people most might be the “why” of the sword.  Why would they need one?  Jesus explains that the reason for the sword is that He will be counted, not as a criminal, but a “sinner”, as one who transgressed the law.  So, why is a good question to ask. Why does a transgressor of the Jewish law need a sword?  Or why do the disciples of a transgressor of Jewish law need swords?  

The disciples already had two swords for the eleven of them, and Jesus says that was sufficient. Clearly, the point isn’t that every disciple have a sword.  Maybe it was the selling of the coat and buying of the sword, rather than that everyone has a sword. If a sword is more important than a coat, what does that imply about that person?  I think the real problem is that it’s difficult to discern a purpose in two of twelve being armed.  But if we take this statement of Jesus at face value, then there are all sorts of possibilities.  Perhaps they will need guards now.  Maybe they will need some to stand to delay attackers so the rest escape?  There are all sorts of things that can be imagined. But in that culture was there an obvious reason more likely than another?  Honestly, I don’t know, but I suspect there was.

I think it was essentially that some of them have a sword, not everyone.  The obvious reason for this would be because they aren’t a “fighting force” in the typical sense but still needed a defense for some reason.  If they are considered “sinners”, their personal safety could be in jeopardy.  Yet, they wouldn’t be in danger from the Romans as much as from the Jewish establishment, synagogues, the Sanhedren, and religious leaders; maybe the people.  So they wouldn’t be on their guard from an army as much as from a mob.  

Only much later does Paul refer to Scripture as a sword.  So, seeing this reference of Jesus as obtaining Scripture I believe to be mixing metaphors improperly.  I think that, as uncomfortable as it may be, the reference is to arming His followers, at least minimally.  The reason escapes me, but I suspect it has to do with guarding the group, the safety of the people.  I’m not sure how the swords were to be used specifically, but I still can’t allegorize the reference without also obscuring the other elements.  And seeing the whole reference as allegory just doesn’t make sense to me.

That’s my view through the knothole this morning.  What do you see through yours?