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The Hebrew in Joshua 5:14 reads

וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא כִּי אֲנִי שַׂר צְבָא יְדוָד עַתָּה בָאתִי

A literal translation of the text would render this:

And he replied "No. For i am the commander of the army of the Lord; I have come now."

However the KJV and the NIV both aware of the difficulties with this translation choose to interpret differently

“Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” (NIV)

The KJV concurs with the NIV on this albeit with minor differences. However, this doesn't seem to me to be an accurate translation of this dialogue. There is no indication in the text that the phrase "עתה באתי" ("I have come now") is connected to the previous clause (commander of the army of the Lord)!

Furthermore, the KJV and the NIV completely omit the words "כי אני" ("for I am"); instead, to improve the flow they join the two phrases into one whole and get their desired translation "but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come" which is in my view wrong and misleading. If we are looking for the most accurate translation, there should be a semicolon between "commander of the Lord" and "I have now come", making the latter an independent clause.

So my questions are,

  1. am I correct in translating this verse the way I do.
  2. In light of this new translation what is the meaning of "I have now come"?
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  • The Vulg. has "Nequáquam : sed sum princeps exércitus Dómini, et nunc vénio" (Neither! but I am the chief of the host of the Lord, and do come now). I don't know much Hebrew but it seems to me that the most natural way to read it might be "Neither: I the chief of the Lord's army have come now." (where כי is taken as a 'colon') (i.e. I'm neither, but who I am is more important.) Clearly this Angel conflated with YHVH throughout the Hebrew Bible (e.g Joshua 6:2) is immensely powerful, significant, holy etc. The very ground beneath him is holy. Feb 26 '18 at 0:24
  • The Septuagint in verse 14 does not include the negation. It reads, "And he said to him that, I am commander-in-chief of the force of YHVH--now I have come. And Joshua fell upon his face . . . "
    – Dieter
    Feb 28 '18 at 1:43
  • @Dieter thanks for pointing it out. This only makes me wonder what the angel was really saying here.
    – Bach
    Feb 28 '18 at 4:57
  • Notice that the the continuing dialog is unusual and masterful, leading some to believe that Joshua was speaking with Deity. Also compare this to Abraham's conversation with YHVH seemingly embodied by three men, two of which were revealed to be angels in Genesis 18 and 19.
    – Dieter
    Feb 28 '18 at 6:03
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The context of this verse the Israelites have crossed the Jordan, re-circumcised, celebrated the Passover and are about to engage in their first major battle of conquest in the promised land. Joshua encounters and armed stranger who he challenges as a sentry would challenge, with a simple binary proposition, "Are you for us or are you for our enemies?". This context indicates that in the stranger's reply, לא כי should be read as the two-word expression meaning "neither", or to take exception, rather than as " לא comma כי... ", which would be interpreted as, "No, because". The latter interpretation does not fit the context. We would have to ask, "because what?". "Because I am commander"? "Because I came now"? Neither of these make sense as replies to Joshua's challenge.

The expression לא כי meaning "neither" or to take exception, and the related expression כי אם meaning to take exception or "only if" appear in:

  1. Genesis 18:15
  2. Genesis 19:2
  3. Deuteronomy 32:30
  4. I Samuel 8:19

These expressions did not pass into later Hebrew.

The stranger reveals himself to be a messenger of the LORD and commands Joshua to remove his sandals and that's the end of the story. We are left to ask why does this messenger say "Now I have come", and what is the purpose of this cryptic story.

The probable answer is that messenger appears as a reassurance of imminent divine intervention in the coming battle of Jericho, which indeed happens, and reminds the Israelites that the victory will be achieved by divine intervention on their behalf now that they have fulfilled the commandments of circumcision and Passover. There is more than a hint of an allusion to Exodus 4:24-26 in this encounter. The purpose of this allusion is to reinforce the view that the calling of Joshua to the battle of Jericho is comparable to the calling of Moses to return to Egypt to lead the exodus. The encounter is also an allusion to the ambush at Jabok gulch related in Genesis:32:22-31 before Jacob's encounter with Esau.

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  • Abu Munir thanks, how do you explain the meaning of עתה באתי?
    – Bach
    Jan 24 at 1:50
  • @Bach Thanks for the nudge, it really did need more work. Jan 24 at 17:53
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I would have a different view in terms of punctuation. The atnach provides the break point, - or semi-colon- which comes after the phrase ‘now I have/am come’, the mercha/tipcha just embodies the construct phrase ‘I am the commander of the army of the LORD’. In answer to Joshua’s question,”Are you for us or for our adversaries “ it could read: And he said “No”, I am the commander of the army of the LORD; I am now come. The “No” (to my thinking) is in answer to the second part of the question and the rest of the answer affirms that he is there to take charge of the battle on behalf of the children of Israel, who have been led here by the LORD. “I am now come” also affirms the fulfilment of the promise made twice in Joshua 1 “I will be with you”.

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  • This is a great answer and addresses my second question, and i'm satisfied with that. In regards to the proper translation of the verse you seem to agree with me that it is not to be read like one sentence the way the NIV has it, and you insert a semicolon just like i do between the two clauses, so i do not understand in which sense you are disagreeing with me? Please clarify by editing your answer
    – Bach
    Mar 26 '18 at 1:04
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First, as a general point, there is no basis for calling a translation misleading for not being extremely literal, as translations must balance literalism with readability (or correctly translating "sense").

As to the specific issue raised:

There is no indication in the text that the phrase "עתה באתי" ("I have come now") is connected to the previous clause (commander of the army of the Lord)!

The original Hebrew had no punctuation, but the Masoretic cantillations clearly associate "I have come now" with "And he said - no/neither - I am commander of the army of YHWH", as both are in the same athnah, and the other athnah has the rest of the verse, so if you are to follow the Masoretic markings, a faithful translation would be

"And he said no, I am the commander of the army of Yahweh and I have now come" or

"And he said no, I, as the commander of the army of Yahweh, have now come",

or something equivalent. The point being that this is one logical unit (the first athnah) and it would be balanced against the second logical unit, starting with "And Joshua bowed his face down to the earth, etc." These two logical units could be written as two separate sentences or two separate clauses, but given the complexity of the verse, it makese sense to write each athnah as its own sentence.

You may not agree with the cantillations, of course, but then the burden of proof would be on you to argue that the Masoretes got this one wrong.

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I was looking at the Hebrew translation and of course I'm not a Hebrew scholar but the word 'no or neither' does not seem to appear? So am I incorrect, because to me it reads "I am the commander" שַׂר, means commander or leader with 'no' not appearing. Help me understand with my limited knowledge. Raymond T Davey

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  • The English translation for Joshua / Yehoshua 5:14 would be : "And he said, No, but I am the captain of the host of the Lord; I have now come. ( וַיֹּ֣אמֶר | לֹ֗א כִּ֛י אֲנִ֥י שַׂר־צְבָֽא־יְהֹוָ֖ה עַתָּ֣ה בָ֑אתִי ) the word "No" is Lo לֹ֗א which is the second word in the sentence. Jan 22 at 13:32

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