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The Hebrew word used in Joshua 5:15 is Regel- רגל meaning FOOT.

H7272

Original: רגל

Transliteration: regel

Phonetic: reh'-gel

BDB Definition:

1) foot

To cause him to revere those grounds, the angel should have asked Joshua to take his sandals off his feet. But instead, the angel instructs him to honor the holiness of the ground by taking only one sandal off his foot and not his feet in Jos 5:15.

Taking his sandal off his foot and not feet would still defile the ground because he would still have a sandal on.

Joshua 5.15 (NKJV) Then the Commander of the LORD's army said to Joshua, "Take your sandal off your foot, for the place where you stand is holy." And Joshua did so.

This is unlike what the Angel of the burning bush said to Moses

Exodus 3.4 (NKJV) ....God called to him from the midst of the bush and said, "Moses, Moses!" And he said, "Here I am."

Then He said, "Do not draw near this place. Take your sandals off your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground."

There are only two references in the old testament that bear on the significance of this command to Joshua.

a) The first relates to any man who refuses to raise an heir to his brother. He would be asked to remove the sandal from his FOOT not FEET and it was regarded as shameful.

Deuteronomy 25.9 (NKJV) "then his brother's wife shall come to him in the presence of the elders, remove his sandal from his foot, spit in his face, and answer and say, 'So shall it be done to the man who will not build up his brother's house.'

b) The second occurs in Ruth 4:7, much after the days of Joshua. For this reason, the custom here may not bear as much significance on Joshua 5:15.

Ruth 4.7 (NKJV) Now this was the custom in former times in Israel concerning redeeming and exchanging, to confirm anything: one man took off his sandal and gave it to the other, and this was a confirmation in Israel

My Question:

What's the significance of the difference in the commands the Angel gave to Moses and then to his successor Joshua since in both instances, the grounds are holy?

  • 1
    What translation are you using? NLT, NIV, CEB, ESV, and MSG (my common reads) all say sandals and, when the word is used, feet. ASV, and a few others use the singular. This leads me to believe that it is just a difference among translators or perhaps time periods. – GamrCorps Nov 21 '17 at 4:41
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    @GamrCorps. The Hebrew original does in fact have sandal/foot in Joshua and sandals/feet in Exodus. – fdb Nov 21 '17 at 18:40
  • See also Genesis 8:9, 41:44; Numbers 22:25; Deuteronomy 8:4, 11:10, 25:9, 28:35, 28:56, 28:65, 29:5, 32:35, 33:24, etc. For EYE, see Deuteronomy 7:16, 13:8, 15:9, 19:13, 19:21, 25:12, 28:54, 28:56, 32:10, 34:7, etc. – Lucian Nov 22 '17 at 16:58
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    There could be a parallel between this, and also the forfeiture of rights, (c.f., Ruth). That, or it might be common to use a singular as a plural. – elika kohen Dec 5 '17 at 19:13
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    @user20490 - Sorry for the confusion - I was simply agreeing with you, (but in the other direction). It may be the case that the custom arose /because/ of what happened with Moses. In other words, the answer below about "holiness" (separation) might have some merit, if substantiated more. Or, it could have just been a regional / semitic / cultural use of the term. At the very least - the answers regarding plural / singular interchangeability have some validity. – elika kohen Dec 5 '17 at 23:07
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The singular usage of "foot" and "shoe"/"sandal" in Joshua 5:15 is the collective singular (יחיד קיבוצי) that is found in all historical layers of Hebrew from the OT1 to modern Hebrew2. This is not a question about feet, or shoes, or about historical interpretation or cultural analysis, so those tags can be dropped.

Four examples from the 14 OT verses that use the collective singular "foot" with the meaning of "feet" are:

Joshua 14:9 (NIV)

So on that day Moses swore to me, 'The land on which your feet (רַגְלְךָ) have walked will be your inheritance and that of your children forever, because you have followed the LORD my God wholeheartedly.'

Psalms 121:3 (NIV)

He will not let your foot (רַגְלֶךָ) slip —
he who watches over you will not slumber

Proverbs 1:15 (NIV)

my son, do not go along with them,
do not set foot (רַגְלְךָ) on their paths

Ecclesiastes 4:17 (NIV)

Guard your steps (רַגְלְךָ) when you go to the house of God.
Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools,
who do not know that they do wrong

For "shoe"/"sandal" the collective singular usage examples are the subject verse, Joshua 5:15, Deuteronomy 29:4, and I Kings 2:5. Remarkably in I Kings 2:5 (NIV):

Now you yourself know what Joab son of Zeruiah did to me--what he did to the two commanders of Israel's armies, Abner son of Ner and Amasa son of Jether. He killed them, shedding their blood in peacetime as if in battle, and with that blood he stained the belt around his waist and the sandals on his feet.

there is no agreement in number, in the MT Hebrew, between "sandals", which is singular (ובנעלו), and "feet", which is plural (ברגליו)!

Since the collective singular indicates a group, type or category, it is incorrect to translate as singular unless the translation methodology requires literal translation of Hebrew usage (like the KJV and derivative translations) or if the same word in the target language is also a collective, like "fish" in English, or "set foot", as in Proverbs 1:15 above.

Vernacular translation of Joshua 5:15 should use either the simple plural or a collective term such as "footwear" rather than the singular "shoe" or "sandal". In any event, the word "sandal" does not appear in the MT of this verse, only the more general term *naal" (נעל) which is usually a sandal but not always.

From the above example verse you can see that the semantic difference between Joshua 5:15 and Exodus 3:5 is that in Exodus 3:5 Moses is commanded specifically to remove the sandals/shoes (simple plural) that he was wearing from his feet (simple plural), whereas in Joshua 5:15 Joshua is commanded in more general terms to remove his footwear (collective singular) from his feet (collective singular).

There is a difference in tone between these two verses. The specificity of the language in Exodus gives it immediacy and force in comparison with the more general formulation in Joshua.

None of the classical Jewish commentators saw this difference in usage as worthy of comment because they understand it simply as the collective singular. OTOH several of them do comment on the fact that the word for "take off", (של) is written in contracted form. A later Medieval commentator, the Portuguese don Isaac ben Judah Abarbanel (1437–1508) comments that Moses was asked to remove both his sandals because the ensuing exodus was a completely divine miracle whereas the ensuing conquest of the promised land by Joshua was only a partially divine miracle, so Joshua is, as it were, asked to remove only one sandal. Of course, this is a speculative and interpretive comment. I think that it is an over-reading to read into this difference any deeper meaning than the simple semantic difference noted above.

So, to answer the OP question directly, although there is a difference in tone between the commands given to Moses and Joshua in Exodus 3:5 and Joshua 5:15 respectively, there is no other significance to this difference.


  1. See An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, Bruce K. Waltke, M.O'Connor, Eisenbrauns, Winona Lake, Indiana, 1990, ISBN 0-931464-31-5, page 113 section 7.2.1, "Countables and Collectives".
  2. In Mishnaic Hebrew there is a tendency to smooth out the collective singulars to simple plurals, which is problematic, as noted in The Recent Study of Hebrew: A Survey of the Literature with Selected Bibliography, Nahum M. Waldman, Hebrew Union College Press, Cincinnati, 1989, page 119 cites Sarfatti.
  • +1 Although I think you overlook the possibilities the text presents. The presumption is since the ground is holy, the command is to remove both individual items from the feet. IOW Moses and Joshua must become barefoot. However, as Deuteronomy and Ruth show removing a single item (from the feet) is also called for in both negative (Deuteronomy) and positive (Boaz) circumstances. The LORD is fulfilling a promise and will reclaim (redeem?) land from those who (wrongfully) claim ownership. So is the command to Joshua about a holy place or about affriming what the (Holy) LORD has promised? – Revelation Lad Dec 6 '17 at 16:41
  • @RevelationLad The presumption you mention is exactly the point that indicates that both feet must be bare even though the singular is used for both foot and sandal in Joshua. Both Moses and Joshua are commanded to remove their footwear (completely) because the ground on which they stand is consecrated. In Deuteronomy 29:4 there is no removal - the sandals remain on for 40 years, good as new. The promise in Joshua 14:9 is a figure of speech meaning "wherever you go" will be yours and isn't connected with removal of footwear or the other verses. – Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim Dec 6 '17 at 17:30
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It seems to me that the phrase שַׁל־נַֽעַלְךָ֙ מֵעַ֣ל רַגְלֶ֔ךָ used in Joshua 5:15 can properly be translated as remove your sandals from your feet. Using singular terms to refer to plural situations it is not uncommon in biblical Hebrew. For example, Deuteronomy 29:4 states:

וָאוֹלֵ֥ךְ אֶתְכֶ֛ם אַרְבָּעִ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה בַּמִּדְבָּ֑ר לֹֽא־בָל֤וּ שַׂלְמֹֽתֵיכֶם֙ מֵעֲלֵיכֶ֔ם וְנַֽעַלְךָ֥ לֹֽא־בָלְתָ֖ה מֵעַ֥ל רַגְלֶֽךָ

Which means: "I led you for forty years through the desert; your clothes did not wear out from upon you, and your sandals did not wear from on your feet." But sandal and foot are written in the singular despite referring to the feet of the entire Israelite nation.

The question, therefore is not why Joshua wasn't asked to remove both of his sandals but why the phraseology changed from what otherwise was the same command given to Moses in Exodus 3:5.

I think the answer might be that the phrase by Moses is written in the plural to indicate that it involved a higher level of holiness. Moses was being addressed by God himself as is clear from Exodus 3:4 and 3:6. Moreover, Moses was standing on the mountain of God, Horeb.

Joshua, in contrast, was being addressed by an Angel (that appeared as a man) and was not on otherwise holy ground (although both verses refer to a holy place, only by Moses is the place referred to as "אַדְמַת קֹ֖דֶשׁ"). To indicate the lower level of holiness in Joshua's encounter, the phrase (although carrying the same meaning in context) is written in the singular.

  • @robin It is not my own thinking that singular terms often refer to plural situations in biblical Hebrew. There are various rabbinic commentators that note this in various places throughout the Torah. See, e.g. Rashi to Genesis 32:6. The rest is my own thinking (unless I unconsciously got it from somewhere else). Conceptual Inertia is a phrase I came up with many years ago to describe the Talmudic concept of "chazaka." It is similar to the Bayesian idea about prior assumptions, but I did not know about Bayes at the time. – conceptualinertia Nov 29 '17 at 20:29
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It looks like we are dealing with semantics here.

If someone asks you to "take off your shoe from your foot", when you enter their house. Then you can either ask: " Which foot? Left or right?"; or assume that they meant that you should do it to one foot, and then repeat it to the other; and choose yourself which foot to start with. I think that the 2nd option is the logical one.

If there was a strange custom in the family that just one shoe should be taken off, then it most likely applied to a specific foot, like the right foot, which specifically would be singled out.

Consequently, the word "foot", in the Bible passage in question refers to feet in general. Like we say "on foot" for traveling involving our two feet (walking).

  • Why they were told to do this is a different story, but it was probably supposed to act as an antidote to stiffneckedness. – Constantthin Jan 12 at 9:47
-1

Background

This event recalls a similar event which began the Exodus:

And He said, "Do not come closer. Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground. (Exodus 3:5 JPS 1999)

The captain of the LORD's host answered Joshua, "Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy." And Joshua did so. (Joshua 5:15 JPS 1999)

In the commentary of Joshua, Carol Meyers states:

"Remove...holy" quotes Exod. 3.5 directly and provides one more connection between Joshua and Moses. 1

Actually, chapter 5 of Joshua contains four parallels with Moses bringing the people to the Promised Land:

  1. Circumcision
  2. Passover
  3. Manna
  4. Removal of sandal(s)

Joshua’s encounter with the captain of the LORD’s host follows the circumcising those who were born in the wilderness (5:2-8), observing the Passover (5:10-11), and the end to the manna (5:12). This same sequence occurs in Exodus. After the burning bush, Moses encounters the LORD who seeks to kill him but is saved when Zipporah circumcises their two sons (born in the wilderness). In Egypt the LORD institutes the Passover and the manna begins falls after crossing the Red Sea.

The sequence of events in Exodus is same except for the command in the question:

A:  Moses: Remove your sandals (Sinai)
B:  Moses: Circumcision of Moses sons born in the wilderness
C:  Moses & Joshua: Passover in Egypt
D:  Moses & Joshua: Manna starts
B’: Joshua: Circumcision
C’: Joshua: Passover
D’: Joshua: Manna stops
A’: Joshua: Remove your sandal (near Jericho)

"Removing" is one of the first events for Moses, while it comes at the end of the sequence for Joshua. Alternatively, the command to Joshua can be seen as starting a new sequence, the campaign to take possession of the land. Given these similarities it is reasonable to conclude the two instructions are intended to be considered in light of the other.

Footwear and Location

As Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim discusses in his answer to this question, the text need not be understood as removing a single sandal; it can be seen as a collective singular such as footwear. However, while the textual variances can be resolved by an understanding the two phrases mean the same, that approach has the effect of concealing the fact there are differences:

Exodus: שַׁל־נְעָלֶיךָ מֵעַל רַגְלֶיךָ כִּי הַמָּקֹום אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה עֹומֵד עָלָיו אַדְמַת־קֹדֶשׁ הֽוּא
Joshua: שַׁל־נַֽעַלְךָ מֵעַל רַגְלֶךָ כִּי הַמָּקֹום אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה עֹמֵד עָלָיו קֹדֶשׁ

Attempting to reconcile the two to give them the same meaning discounts the real differences which are present. There may be a question of footwear (sandals/sandal). There is the use of עוֹמֵ֣ד ("on which") in Exodus and עֹמֵ֥ד ("where") in Joshua, and "ground" is used in Exodus not in Joshua.

The LXX offers some insight:

Exodus: …λῦσαι τὸ ὑπόδημα ἐκ τῶν ποδῶν σου ὁ γὰρ τόπος ἐν ᾧ σὺ ἕστηκας γῆ ἁγία ἐστίν Joshua: …λῦσαι τὸ ὑπόδημα ἐκ τῶν ποδῶν σου ὁ γὰρ τόπος ἐφ᾽ ᾧ σὺ ἕστηκας ἅγιός ἐστιν

Exodus: Loose the sandal from your from your feet! For the place on which you are standing is holy ground. [LXX-NETS]
Joshua: Loosen the sandal from your feet for the place where you stand is holy. [LXX-NETS]

In both the collective singular is present (“feet”) but with a singular piece (“sandal”). The NET translator for Exodus renders λῦσαι “loose” where the translator for Joshua renders the same word as “loosen.” Apparently one recognizes the potential ambiguity of a command which applies to a single sandal. Based on the LXX, the footwear and the command given to Moses and Joshua are identical and apply to a single sandal. In other words, both Moses and Joshua are given identical instructions. What varies between the two is why the need to remove the sandal.

The omission of אַדְמַת ("ground") in Joshua is also reflected in the JPS translation:

Exodus: for the place on which you stand is holy ground
Joshua: for the place where you stand is holy

Using the LXX, Moses was standing in holy ground and Joshua was standing where it was holy. The difference could reflect Joshua was standing on the "Promised Land" while was on Mount Sinai. Using the JPS, the place on which Moses was standing (Mount Sinai) was holy ground and for Joshua the place which he was standing (Israel) was holy.

The difference could also be understood by the Ark of the Covenant which had been carried across the Jordan into the land where Joshua was standing. The Holy Place and Most Holy Place were identified by the Ark. So the omission of "ground" in Joshua could be taken as a reflection the presence of the Ark in Israel made the place (collective) “where” Joshua was standing holy while Moses was standing on the mountain, a place (singular) with holy ground.

A type of "collective singular" which can be applied to reconcile the two commands is found in why there is a need to remove the sandal. Moses is on holy ground (singular); Joshua is on the place (Israel) which is holy.

Conclusion

Based on the Hebrew collective singular and the LXX, the command given to Moses is the same as that given to Joshua: loose a single item from your feet. There is no plural/singular difference. Both Moses and Joshua were instructed to remove the same number of pieces from the feet. Logically this should be applied to both feet (although nowhere does the text state how Moses or Joshua responded to the command). If there is a difference in the type of footwear, the practical consequence is insignificant. If a single piece of footwear is to be “loosed” it is that act which matters, regardless of the exact nature of what is worn. The fundamental difference is where the meeting takes place as the text shows.

If the LXX is correct in seeing the command as the removal of a single sandal, there are similar events in Deuteronomy (25:9) and Ruth (4:7, 8) both of which are in the context of the kinsman-redeemer. The instruction to Joshua was given after Deuteronomy and the removal of a single sandal now has legal implications.

Joshua's location is "by Jericho." He was less than 20 miles from Bethlehem where Boaz will remove his sandal as described in Ruth:

Then Boaz said, “The day you buy the field from the hand of Naomi, you also acquire Ruth the Moabite, the widow of the dead, in order to perpetuate the name of the dead in his inheritance.” Then the redeemer said, “I cannot redeem it for myself, lest I impair my own inheritance. Take my right of redemption yourself, for I cannot redeem it.” Now this was the custom in former times in Israel concerning redeeming and exchanging: to confirm a transaction, the one drew off his sandal and gave it to the other, and this was the manner of attesting in Israel.
(Ruth 5-7 ESV)

The event, especially in the case of Joshua (who is about to take possession of the land), is in effect where and how the custom of redeeming and exchanging in Israel has its legal basis. It is "a custom" which began with the command given to Joshua. If the meaning is to remove a single sandal, the instruction should be considered in the light of the legal significance of that action.


1. The Jewish Study Bible, Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 473

  • You have apparently copied and pasted the wrong word twice, because עוֹמֵד and עֹמֵד do not mean "on which" and "which". Also contrary to your claim, there is in fact a difference in the number of footwear. Ex 3:5 spells shoes/sandals in the plural form, and Josh 5:15 spells shoe/sandal in the singular form, though as Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim's mentions in his answer, it should still be taken as plural. There is also no difference at all between both verses concerning אֲשֶׁר, which is the actual word for "which". – Boom Dec 3 '17 at 19:02
  • Also you seem to have misquoted the JPS 1985 Joshua 5:15 because it doesn't use "which" in that verse: "for the place where you stand is holy". – Boom Dec 3 '17 at 19:05
  • @Boom The JPS is quoted correctly. I wrote it wrong in the comparison. The fact is ground is missing from Joshua and that is the item of significance. – Revelation Lad Dec 3 '17 at 21:04
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    There is nothing clever about my rebuttal and you seem to be missing the point entirely, so I'll try to be as simple as I can. Here is a direct copy & paste from your answer: "There is the question of the footwear; the use of עוֹמֵ֣ד ("on which") in Exodus and עֹמֵ֥ד ("where") in Joshua..." <- that statement is 100% incorrect and those words have nothing to do with "on which" or "where". I've said this multiple times now but for some reason you still hold that they mean something else other than to stand. – Boom Dec 7 '17 at 0:29
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    "As bad as my Hebrew is, it is good enough to understand ground is missing from Joshua, something you don't see." What are you talking about dude?? See my 3rd comment where I say: "The only difference in these two passages is that the word "ground" is not present in Joshua." – Boom Dec 7 '17 at 3:27

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