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?