“I will be with you”: Joshua 1:5 translation

The Hebrew of Josh 1:5 is not particularly difficult. The sentence, however, has a weird feature in its use of pronominal suffixes, but English translations cannot represent that feature because the English language cannot represent all linguistic details of Hebrew. I do not mean that the hidden feature of the passage contains esoteric or profound theological meanings that English readers cannot see. Nonetheless, I still think it is important to understand that translations sometimes, unintentionally, hide certain features or problems of Hebrew texts.

Linguistic traits of (biblical) Hebrew

BHS

Hebrew has ‘gender’ and ‘number.’ For example, many words are ‘masculine,’ but some words, such as ‘torah‘ (law) and ‘ḥochmah‘ (wisdom), are feminine nouns. Famous words, such as ‘elohim‘ (gods) and ‘neviim‘ (prophets), are plural forms of the nouns–these words usually end with ‘~im‘ suffix. Plural forms of feminine nouns typically end with ‘~ot‘ suffix, such as ‘torot‘ and ‘ḥochmot.’ 

It does not mean, however, that grammatical genders of nouns have something to do with actual genders. A feminine noun, “torah,” for example, does not mean that ‘law’ is only for women or the characteristics of ‘law’ are feminine. Genders of words are only grammatical. But, of course, certain words, such as “husband,” “wife,” “Moses,” and “Joshua,” are naturally related to actual human genders. So when to refer to “Joshua,” a male person, with a pronoun, you must use its gender-specific pronoun, for instance, 3rd person masculine singular, not feminine singular!

Now look at Joshua 1:5

No one shall be able to stand against you all the days of your life.
As I was with Moses, so I will be with you;
I will not fail you or forsake you.

NRSV

The passage above is YHWH’s speech to Joshua. Thus, YHWH is the first person, and Joshua is the 2nd person. Let’s try to replace the pronouns with actual names.

No one shall be able to stand against Joshua (you, 2ms) all the days of Joshua’s (your, 2ms) life.
As YHWH (I) was with Moses, so YHWH (I) will be with Joshua (you, 2fs);
YHWH (I) will not fail Joshua (you, 2ms) or forsake Joshua (you, 2ms).

NRSV with modifications

As you can see, one of the pronouns is the 2nd person feminine singular in Hebrew (more specifically, pronominal suffix). See below.

Everywhere else is used the 2nd person masculine singular, of course. The symbol in green, which looks like /ㅜ/, is a vowel, pronounced as /a/, as in father. The consonantal letter ך (kaph) that has the symbol that looks like /ㅜ/ is pronounced like /k/ (more accurately /ch/ =(aspirated k). So the letters in green above is pronounced as /ka/ (or /cha/), and that is the pronominal suffix, 2nd person masculine singular. But the letter in yellow, which also has ך (kaph) though, has a different shape. The consonant is the same as ך, but it has double dots aligned vertically as its vowel. In fact, the double-dot symbol, in this case, is not a vowel; it merely signifies that the consonant is the end of the syllable. So you should just pronounce it like /k/ or /ch/. This letter is a pronominal suffix, 2nd person feminine singular. In this case, with the word combined, it is pronounced as /im-mɑk/ or /im-ch/ meaning “with you” (woman). Since “you” here is Joshua, this form is a grammatical error. It has to be like /im-mə-ka/ or /im-mə-cha/, that is “with you” (man).

*note: /im/ in /im-mɑk/ is a preposition, meaning “with.” And /im/ in the famous word “imma-nu-el” is that preposition. and /nu/ is the pronominal suffix, the 1st person common singular, ‘us.’ And the word /el/ means “god.” So Immanuel means “God is with us,” which is a verbless clause.

Closing words

As demonstrated above, our Hebrew Bible has grammatical errors. In fact, there are lots of such errors and many other kinds of errors too. Some people believe that the Bible, in general, is flawless and perfect because the book is “God’s word.” But the assumption that the book called “the Bible” written in a human language is flawless and perfect is downright wrong. Not to mention the grammatical errors, the manuscripts and translations of the Hebrew Bible have many variations and discrepancies mong them. Some books even have shorter or longer versions. Meaning: there is no “one true genuine copy” of God’s Word. So the assumption that the Hebrew Bible is flawless and perfect cannot stand. 

What kind of book is the Bible? Why is the Bible “God’s Word”? How the Bible can be “God’s Word”? What is “God’s Word”? We should keep these crucial questions in mind, and asking good questions is much more important than groundless belief about the Bible’s perfection or flawlessness.

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