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Exodus 33:6,

וַיִּתְנַצְּלוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-עֶדְיָם, מֵהַר חוֹרֵב.

So the Israelites stripped off their ornaments at Mount Horeb. (NIV)

The problem with the NIV's translation is that the wrong Hebrew preposition is used here. Instead of the expected letter בְּ which means at or by, we find the prefix מֵ which stand for מִן meaning from. So a literal translation would render something like,

So the Israelites stripped off their ornaments from Mount Horeb

This is problematic, since there only two possible exegetical meanings here:

  • That the Israelites got the ornaments at Horeb and now stripped themselves of it (the Jewish-midrashic interpretation), thus the phrase "from Horeb" is understood in connection with the ornaments concerning their origin.
  • That it means "from Horeb onward". (ESV and others)

The first one is not very convincing, since nowhere do we find that the Israelites got any special ornaments at Horeb. And the second one suffers from not being very loyal to the original text.

My questions are, how do we interpret the text in a satisfying way while still remaining loyal to the text. Second, is there another instance in the bible where מֵ and בְּ are used interchangeably so as to justify the interpretation of the NIV?

  • 1
    +1 Great question! But I actually think that "from Horeb onward" (i.e. from the time they were at Horeb) might be a plausible interpretation, especially if taking off the ornaments was a penitential gesture to show remorse for worshiping the golden calf. Why isn't "from Horeb onward" loyal to the original text? The Hebrew verse doesn't have an extra word for "onward," but do the laws of Hebrew grammar actually require it? – Pascal's Wager Jan 30 '19 at 2:15
  • @Pascal'sWager I think the term מן by itself is never used in such a way, I would expect it should be accompanied by another word or phrase ("from Mount Horeb, the whole time they wandered in the desert"), or a different term should be used altogether like מאז . In fact the text can skip the whole הר חורב segment and the meaning of the text would still be clear. I can't say with certainty but as it is now, and assuming the ESV translation is correct, it looks more like a fragment, an unfinished sentence (from Mount Horeb...). I read a lot of biblical Hebrew and I can feel that this is wrong. – Bach Jan 30 '19 at 2:58
  • In any case, if you can show me that this term is used elsewhere in the bible in the same way (denoting "onward") that would be an acceptable answer. – Bach Jan 30 '19 at 3:06
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    Here are other verses that you might want to consider if you haven’t already. 2 kings 5:22, psalm 42:6, songs of Solomon 4:1, Jeremiah 4:15, Obadiah 1:8, Obadiah 1:9 – Nihil Sine Deo Jan 31 '19 at 22:25
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    @Autodidact I found none particularly relevant besides for Psalm 42:6 which is spot-on! Thanks for the reference. One thing to keep in mind though that it is poetic language in Psalms, so not sure if it vindicates biblical language in Exodus, but very useful nevertheless. – Bach Feb 1 '19 at 14:33
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First of all, the מ prefix present in the Hebrew properly means "from." It is worth noting that the LXX and Vulgate stay true to the Hebrew by using ἀπό (away from) and a (away from) respectively in this verse.

For the sake of those who may be unfamiliar with this passage, I will briefly summarize its context. In the preceding chapter, the Israelites (being camped at Mount Horeb) make a golden calf and worship it. In this chapter, God essentially tells Moses to go chastise them for this sin. They are called a stiff-necked people, are almost threatened with destruction, and are commanded to take off their ornaments as a sort of penitential gesture to appease the wrath of Almighty God. (Comparable to wearing sackcloth, or rending one's garments, or fasting.) (c.f. Exodus 33:4-6)

My first theory (posted as an answer on 1/29/2019) was that the מ prefix is used to indicate the origin of the Israelites, and that the verse should be rendered, "The Israelites-from-Horeb stipped off their ornaments." But as OP pointed out, this theory is not very convincing if they were still at Horeb.


Another theory is that the Israelites went some distance away from Mount Horeb, and then stripped off their ornaments in this new location. This is the interpretation given by Gill's Exposition, which I will quote below.

by the Mount Horeb; before their departure from thence, and where they had been guilty of the idolatry: the words may be literally rendered, "from Mount Horeb" (u); and Jonathan understands the preceding clause of something they put off which they received from thence; but the meaning is, that they went to some distance from Mount Horeb, and there stripped themselves to show their greater humiliation, and the sense they had of their unworthiness of being near to the Lord, or enjoying his presence.

The new location need not have been very far away from Mount Horeb, for even moving a small distance away would have carried the same symbolism, namely that the people of Israel have separated themselves from God (symbolized by Mount Horeb, the "mountain of God") through their sin of worshipping the golden calf.


Yet another theory is that the Israelites, while still remaining at Mount Horeb, cast away their ornaments in a direction away from the mountain. This interpretation would be fitting because of the symbolism. Recall that the golden calf was made from golden earrings. The Israelites sinned in the preceding chapter when they allowed golden earrings (ornaments!) to become a "barrier" between themselves and God. By choosing to remain at Mount Horeb and cast away their ornaments behind their backs (away from the mountain), the Israelites would have been symbolically removing a "barrier" which previously separated them from God.

enter image description here

In this interpretation, the verse would be translated as, "The sons of Israel stripped themselves, their ornaments (away) from Mount Horeb."

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  • 2
    +1 for graphic excellence. – Der Übermensch Jan 31 '19 at 2:05
  • Pascal nice work +1. Can you please include in your post an exact translation of the verse according to your last theory? – Bach Jan 31 '19 at 14:54
  • @Bach Of course! – Pascal's Wager Jan 31 '19 at 21:56
  • I upvoted just for the magnificent art. I didn't read the answer (jk). – Sola Gratia Feb 1 '19 at 18:57
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My theory is that the verse means, "The Israelites-from-Mount-Horeb stripped off their ornaments." That is, the מ prefix is used to indicate the origin of the Israelites. Even though they weren't born at Horeb, nevertheless they dwelt there for a while so they are, in a sense, "from" Mount Horeb.

My favorite part of this interpretation is that it fits well into the verse's context. In the preceding chapter, the Israelites (being camped at Mount Horeb) make a golden calf and worship it. In this chapter, God essentially tells Moses to go chastise them for this sin. They are called a stiff-necked people, are almost threatened with destruction, and are commanded to take off their ornaments as a sort of penitential gesture to appease the wrath of Almighty God. (Comparable to wearing sackcloth, or rending one's garments, or fasting.) (c.f. Exodus 33:4-6) Therefore, it would be fitting for the verse to emphasize that the people who took off their ornaments were the same stiff-necked people who worshipped the golden calf.

It's not just "the Israelites" who take off their ornaments; it's the Isralites-from-Horeb. It's the Israelites who worshipped the golden calf.

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  • Pascal thanks for your time and effort. However, I do not fully understand your interpretation. "Israelites from Horeb" as opposed to "Israelites from..." where? Of course they are the Israelites from Horeb! In fact they are still standing at Horeb while this narrative is unfolding (hence the NIV "at Horeb"). So it seems a bit awkward for the verse to state "Israelites from Horeb" as if there is another group of Israelites that are not from Horeb?! I can't say I find your interpretation satisfactory, but +1 anyways. – Bach Jan 30 '19 at 14:28
  • @Bach I agree with you that the way I worded it in the last paragraph was a little ambiguous, so let me explain. I'm not claiming that it was the Israelites-from-Horeb as opposed to the Israelites-not-from-Horeb. I agree with you that basically all the Israelites were from Horeb. I was claiming that the text emphasizes that the Israelites were from Horeb. Does that make more sense? – Pascal's Wager Jan 30 '19 at 21:58
  • Pascal I'm afraid not. What is the point of emphasizing this, if the fact that they were camping at Horeb is widely known? Your claim that it is to emphasize that they were the same worshippers of the golden calf doesn't make sense because the phrase "from Horeb" doesn't in any way point in that direction. Horeb would only have connotations of idol-worshipping if the Israelites would be camping in a different area, but since they are still on Horeb this emphasis does not really work! – Bach Jan 30 '19 at 22:59
  • @Bach Good point! It's not as meaningful to emphasize that these are the Israelites from Horeb (the place of golden calf worship) when they're still at Horeb. Looking at the verse again, I have another theory and I'm tempted to post another answer :) – Pascal's Wager Jan 30 '19 at 23:57
  • Pascal please do, I'm always open to new suggestions! – Bach Jan 31 '19 at 0:30
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An Expanded Context May Help

I don't dispute the OP's desire to translate this as "from," and think that is correct. What I think it means in context is that "from Mount Horeb" is being used as figure of speech known as metonymy, where the mountain is substituting for the idea of what happened at the mountain, and so means something to the effect of "from the Mount Horeb failure and chastising they just had."

Context makes this more clear. The OP gave v.6, but in v.3 God declares "for I will not go up in your midst, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people" (NKJV, bold added) and then the reaction is vv.4-6 (NKJV, except the word in question translated in brackets to from):

4 And when the people heard this bad news, they mourned, and no one put on his ornaments. 5 For the LORD had said to Moses, “Say to the children of Israel, ‘You are a stiff-necked people. I could come up into your midst in one moment and consume you. Now therefore, take off your ornaments, that I may know what to do to you.’ ” 6 So the children of Israel stripped themselves of their ornaments [from] Mount Horeb.

So there is a shame Israel is feeling about what they have done at Mount Horeb, and how that has affected God's relation to them in that He will not be "in the midst" of them the same way He was planning to be before. So the ornaments they were no doubt wearing during the golden calf festivities (Exo 32:5-6), they are commanded to set aside (v.5) and had done so in their mourning (v.4). So "from" (i.e. because of; the preposition min can have a causal idea) Mount Horeb as the place of the experience they had there that they mourn having ever occurred.

Immediately after this, the tabernacle of meeting came into being, which was pitched outside of Israel's tents (v.7) because God was not going to dwell in their midst.

And then Israel sticks around Horeb, Moses gaining new tablets and renewing the covenant (Ch. 34), and freewill offerings for the tabernacle are called for (35:5, 9; which was God's plan for the ornaments before [see Exo 25:1-9] and still as here in ch. 35) and the congregation responds in 35:21-29 (NKJV, bold added):

20 And all the congregation of the children of Israel departed from the presence of Moses. 21 Then everyone came whose heart was stirred, and everyone whose spirit was willing, and they brought the LORD’s offering for the work of the tabernacle of meeting, for all its service, and for the holy garments. 22 They came, both men and women, as many as had a willing heart, and brought earrings and nose rings, rings and necklaces, all jewelry of gold, that is, every man who made an offering of gold to the LORD. 23 And every man, with whom was found blue, purple, and scarlet thread, fine linen, goats’ hair, red skins of rams, and badger skins, brought them. 24 Everyone who offered an offering of silver or bronze brought the LORD’s offering. And everyone with whom was found acacia wood for any work of the service, brought it. 25 All the women who were gifted artisans spun yarn with their hands, and brought what they had spun, of blue, purple, and scarlet, and fine linen. 26 And all the women whose hearts stirred with wisdom spun yarn of goats’ hair. 27 The rulers brought onyx stones, and the stones to be set in the ephod and in the breastplate, 28 and spices and oil for the light, for the anointing oil, and for the sweet incense. 29 The children of Israel brought a freewill offering to the LORD, all the men and women whose hearts were willing to bring material for all kinds of work which the LORD, by the hand of Moses, had commanded to be done.

From these ornaments the majesty of the tabernacle and its instruments was made (Exodus chapters 35-39).

Conclusion

So "from" the Mount Horeb experience of calf worship and the result of God's no longer dwelling in their midst, the ornaments are set aside (by God's command), to be picked up again soon as freewill offerings to adorn the tabernacle. God made beauty from ashes.

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