Many translations treat נָקָה which means "to be empty, pure or innocent" [H5352-naqah] inconsistently. For example, וְנִקֵּיתִי is found in Psalm 19 and Joel 3:

Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me! Then I shall be blameless, and innocent (וְנִקֵּיתִי) of great transgression. (Psalm 19:13 ESV)

גַּם מִזֵּדִים חֲשֹׂךְ עַבְדֶּךָ אַֽל־יִמְשְׁלוּ־בִי אָז אֵיתָם וְנִקֵּיתִי מִפֶּשַֽׁע רָֽב׃

I will avenge (וְנִקֵּיתִי) their blood, blood I have not avenged, for the LORD dwells in Zion.”
(Joel 3:21 ESV)

וְנִקֵּיתִי דָּמָם לֹֽא־נִקֵּיתִי וַֽיהוָה שֹׁכֵן בְּצִיֹּֽון׃

Many translations like the ESV, render the word "I shall be avenged" in Joel.

A few such as the Wycliffe treat these consistently:

and of alien sins spare thy servant. If those have not lordship of me, then I shall be undefouled of alien sins, or without wem; and I shall be cleansed of the most sin.

And I shall cleanse the blood of them, which I had not cleansed; and the Lord shall dwell in Zion.

"Avenge" is נָקַם [H5358-naqam] not נָקָה and being avenged is separate from being cleansed. In fact, it is possible one could be avenged yet not be cleansed.

Why do many translations have "avenge" in Joel?

  • Naqam is 'avenge' [Strong 5358]. Naqah is to be guiltless, unpunished or innocent.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Jan 8, 2018 at 16:38

2 Answers 2


There are two issues here.

First, Psalm 19:13 (Heb. v.14) uses נקיתי in the nifal stem. That is passive. Here it means "be free (from guilt), be blameless" 1. On the other hand, Joel 3:21 (Heb. 4:21) uses the exact same form -- נקיתי -- as a piel (active, transitive). It's not common for piel and nifal verbs to be identical in form, but for 1-nun, 3-heh verbs in the imperfect, it happens.

Distinguishing between piel and nifal in this case is contextual. Psalm 19:13(14) has no object (rather, a מ-phrase), and the intended meaning "to be free [from guilt]" is clear. On the other hand, Joel 3(4):21 includes the object דמם and is piel, meaning "leave unpunished", "acquit", or "cleanse". This is a predictable relationship between the nifal and the piel, and it is reflected in translations such as the KJV and Wycliffe, cited by the OP, as well as the footnoted alternative translation in the ESV.2

Second, many modern translations, including ESV, accept a textual variant וְנִקַּמְתִּי, from נקם, "to avenge". Although this conclusion requires a bit of mind-reading of the ESV translators, there are several reliable sources that transparently state their approval/consideration of this variant.

  1. The variant is noted in the apparatus of BHS, the scholarly version of the Hebrew Bible on which the ESV is based.3

  2. With characteristic clarity, the NET footnote explains their choice of translation "I will avenge their blood" as acceptance of the variant.4

  3. The Dictionary of Classical Hebrew includes the possibility of this variant in its entries for both נקם and נקה.‎1,5

  4. The commentaries explain this.6

The decision about whether נקם or נקה is correct is beyond the scope of this Q&A. The verse is difficult to interpret/translate, and many options have been proposed, none of which is without weakness. One summary of the options is found in Leslie Allen's commentary. The final possibility mentioned there is that accepted by the ESV.


1. All lexical glosses are from Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, Vol. 5 מ-נ, Ed. David J.A. Clines (Sheffield, 2001). The author has categorized every usage in the Hebrew Bible, so the choice of gloss from among the options is not mine but the author's.

2. The note reads: "Or 'I will acquit their bloodguilt that I have not acquitted'".

3. The apparatus reads: "𝔊(𝔖) καὶ ἐκδικήσω (vel ἐκζητήσω), prb l וְנִקַּמְתִּי" . Being "translated": "the Greek witness (supported by the Syriac) read καὶ ἐκδικήσω ['and I will avenge'], with a variant reading ἐκζητήσω ['I will search out']; the Hebrew should probably be read as וְנִקַּמְתִּי ['I will avenge']".

4. The note reads: "the present translation follows the reading וְנִקַּמְתִּי (véniqqamti, “I will avenge”) rather than וְנִקֵּתִי (véniqqeti, “I will acquit”) of the MT."

5. At the piel for נקם it mentions Joel 4:21 as a possible usage: "if em. וְנִקֵּיתִי and I will leave unpunished to וְנִקַּמְתִּי and I will avenge".

6. I will cite only the one linked at the end of this answer: Leslie C. Allen, The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), p. 126.


There are three related but distinct senses in which נ-ק-י/ה is used in the OT1:

  1. To be without obligation
  2. To exempt from punishment
  3. To be innocent

Psalm 19:13 uses נִקֵּיתִי in the third sense. In this verse from Joel, נִקֵּיתִי is used in the first sense, to be relieved of obligation2. The obligation is the obligation that God is depicted as being under to avenge the blood of the innocents of Israel who the nations have abused, as related in the previous verses of chapter 3. Justice by blood revenge features prominently in the OT, from Genesis 9:6, to Deuteronomy 19:2, Judges 8:18-21, II Samuel 1:16, II Samuel 3:26-27,39, II Samuel 4:11-12, I Kings 2:31-32.

The inferred meaning is that God will discharge His obligation by taking revenge on the nations and will thereby be "cleaned" of his obligation. The literal wording is to be discharged of obligation, but the actual meaning is to avenge.

IMHO the ESV is over-linear in its translation. The language of נִקֵּיתִי דָּמָם לֹֽא־נִקֵּיתִי is in the formula of oath, so the translation of the meaning is better given as in the NIV:

"Shall I leave their innocent blood unavenged?
No, I will not."
The Lord dwells in Zion!

Other verses that use נ-ק-י/ה in the sense of to be without obligation are:

  1. Genesis 24:8
  2. Genesis 24:41
  3. Numbers 32:22
  4. Deuteronomy 24:5
  5. Joshua 2:17
  6. I Kings 15:22

Some of the other verses that use נ-ק-י/ה in the sense of to be exempt from punishment are:

  1. Genesis 44:10
  2. Exodus 21:19
  3. Exodus 21:28
  4. Exodus 34:7
  5. Numbers 5:19
  6. Numbers 5:31
  7. I Samuel 26:9
  8. II Samuel 3:28
  9. I Kings 2:9
  10. Jeremiah 2:35
  11. Job 9:23

Verses in which נקי is used in the sense of without sin or innocence include:

  1. Genesis 20:5
  2. Judges 15:3
  3. Jeremiah 2:34
  4. Psalms 24:4
  5. Psalms 26:6
  6. Psalms 73:13

There are some verses where the meaning of נקי is unclear, such as:

  1. Exodus 23:7
  2. Isaiah 3:26

There is a curious allusion between the expression נִקֵּיתִי דָּמָם in Joel 3:21 and נקי meaning innocent with דם, blood, in the expression דם נקי, "innocent blood", usually mentioned in the context of murder as in

  1. Deuteronomy 19:10,13
  2. I Samuel 19:5
  3. Jeremiah 26:15

This allusion gives Joel 3:21 much of its power in the context of the preceding verses of the chapter.

1. Arel Segel HaLevy, The Bible Navigator (Hebrew), and WikiSource.Org

  • Do you think the LORD dwelling in Zion supports cleansing? The blood defiled the land (Numbers 35:33) and so it will need to be cleansed in order for the LORD to dwell there. Commented Jan 9, 2018 at 2:04
  • @RevelationLad Joel 3:21 isn't about cleansing anything. It's about taking an oath to avenge the innocents of Israel. Joel 3 has no connection with the laws in Numbers 35. Joel 3 describes a particular historic and political setting at his time. What I think or believe is of no importance. What is important is what the verse actually says in its textual and historical context.
    – user17080
    Commented Jan 9, 2018 at 8:03
  • I do not think prophetic statements are to be seen so narrowly focused and to say there is no consequence of blood defiling land ignores what is written. The centrality of Zion is a theme which runs throughout Joel and the historical context of Zion and its people is two-fold: innocent blood was shed in other lands (3:19) and in Zion.The other lands will be left desolate because of bloodshed there. So the verse and the context do imply: "What of the blood shed in Zion?" FHIW the JPS is "Thus I will treat as innocent their blood which I have not treated as innocent." Commented Jan 9, 2018 at 15:41

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