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Psalm 3:2 (WLC) רבים אמרים לנפשי אין ישועתה לו באלהים סלה׃

(My translation) They are many who say to my soul, 'There is no salvation for him with God.'"

Question

"Soul" (נפש) is feminine, and "for him" (לו) is the masculine singular pronoun with the prefix ל. We would expect gender agreement if "it" was meant, however: is it possible for the masculine pronoun to be used in the "it" sense? That is, could this verse be translated, "They are many who say of my soul, 'It has no salvation in God.'"

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The word נפשׁ can with a suffix also be used to form (reflexive) pronouns. See for example Isaiah 46:2, וְנַפְשָׁם בַּשְּׁבִי הָלָֽכָה "they (themselves; lit. their soul) went into captivity". You have translated the verse literally, but I would argue that leaving "soul" in the English suggests an emphasis on that concept which is absent in the Hebrew; I would rather translate "who say to me, ...".

This also explains why the 3ms suffix on ל does not agree syntactically with נפשׁ; it has semantic agreement with "me", the psalmist, instead. (Semantic agreement also occurs, for instance, when עם "people" occurs with a plural verb despite being singular morphologically—this phenomenon is widespread cross-linguistically.)

is it possible for the masculine pronoun to be used in the "it" sense?

This assumes the Indo-European three-way gender distinction (masculine–feminine–neuter). The Semitic languages only have two genders (masculine–feminine), so I would be careful with this suggestion.

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  • Thanks for that. I concur that retaining the literal "soul" could be misleading, as the emphasis produced in English is not present to the native Hebrew ear; but I think "soul" as idiomatic for 'person' is just that—I wouldn't go as far as to say 'it means' just the simple pronoun; that would be a step in the other direction as far as failing to reproduce the distinctions in the Hebrew, in my opinion, which aren't entirely redundant. – Sola Gratia Mar 27 '19 at 15:48
  • You're right that Hebrew has only masculine and feminine, however, I meant simply that can either (here masculine) be used in the equivalent sense to our English 'it.' E.g. Gn. 4:3: "Now it happened that [ויהי]" (literally, "and he happened"). – Sola Gratia Mar 27 '19 at 15:51
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Interesting question. Could the problem be the incomplete translation of "ishuothe" in Psa. 3:3? The same term is fully translated in Isa. 62:1.

Psa.3:2 [3:3]

Many-ones (rbim 7227) ones-saying (amrim 559) to~soul-of~me (l~nphsh~i 5315) (there)-is-no (ain 369) salvation [of her] (ishuoth~e 3444) for~him (l~u 9999) in~Elohim (b~aleim 430) interlude (sle 5542): -

Isa. 62:1

As~(the)~brightness (k~nge 5051) righteousness-of~her (tzdq~e 6664) and~salvation-of~her (u~ishuoth~e 3444) as~torch (k~lphid 3940) he-shall-consume (ibor 1197):

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    According to the Masoretic vowelization, in which the word has penultimate stress and no mappiq in the letter ה, the word isn't possessive. In Isaiah the word is possessive – b a Mar 27 '19 at 21:57
  • @b a Many elect not to use the Masorete system. – tblue Mar 27 '19 at 22:09

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