Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Sunday, June 3, 2012

Strike or Kill (Joshua 20:3)

I came across a good example of semantic range today in church. I know Monday with Mounce is about Greek, but a little Hebrew wouldn’t hurt any of us, and it illustrates the point well.

The Lord is instructing Joshua to establish the Cities of Refuge, and he says, “Tell the Israelites to designate the cities of refuge, as I instructed you through Moses, so that anyone who kills a person accidentally and unintentionally may flee there and find protection from the avenger of blood” (20:2-3).

The Hebrew for “kill” is נָכָה (hifil). The semantic range is basically anything from “hitting” to “killing.” NIDOTTE gives this range: “The meaning of the vb. ranges from hitting to killing. The vb. is used of one person hitting another (Exod 2:11, 13), striking one on the cheek (Ps 3:7 [8]; Lam 3:30), clapping hands (2 Kgs 11:12), and killing (Josh 10:26; 2 Sam 2:23). Any manner of blow or smiting can be described by נָכָה, such as hitting a donkey (Num 22:23, 25, 27), a river (2 Kgs 2:8, 14), striking a house to demolish it (Amos 3:15; 6:11), hitting weapons (Ezek 39:3), a loaf striking a tent (Judg 7:13), smiting and so killing a lion or bear (1 Sam 17:35), or a lion killing a man (1 Kgs 20:36). The heart can strike one, in the sense that the conscience protests (1 Sam 24:5 [6]). The sun and the moon can smite (Ps 121:6). A worm can strike a plant and kill it (Jon 4:7). A city can be struck and its inhabitants killed (Josh 19:47; 2 Kgs 15:16). Indeed entire nations can be smitten (Isa 14:6).”

Wow. That is quite a range of meaning, and you can see how learning simple glosses for vocabulary, in Hebrew as well as in Greek, can lead to exegetical problems. But this is where it gets interesting.

I was using my iPhone to read along with the pastor, so I switched over to the ESV. I was surprised to see what it says: “that the manslayer who strikes any person without intent or unknowingly may flee there” (emphasis added).

Remember the context. The Cities of Refugee were created to stop the bloodshed of a culture that called for revenge. Even if a person was killed accidentally, the culture tended toward revenge. The Cities gave the killer the opportunity to flee, plead his case, and not be killed if it was an accident.

But the Cities of Refugee were not built for a person who got in a fight and beat up somebody. How else would we read “strike” in the ESV.

A quick survey of the ESV’s translation of the verb’s 454 occurrences shows a willingness to use a range of English words, so this is not an issue of concordance.

I don’t remember this discussion on the ESV, but the RSV has “kills” so it was an intentional change; and as always, I am sure there was a reason. But at the end of the day, it seems to me that this is a good example of why watching a word’s semantic range is so important. The Cities were not for someone who struck someone, but for someone who accidentally killed someone.


Smite might be the best translation for it since it also has a wide range in English. Can "hifil" also refer to being in love? :)