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Exodus 9:23-24 NIV reads

When Moses stretched out his staff toward the sky, the Lord sent thunder and hail, and lightning flashed down to the ground. So the Lord rained hail on the land of Egypt; 24 hail fell and lightning flashed back and forth. It was the worst storm in all the land of Egypt since it had become a nation.

Exodus 9:23-24 ESV reads:

Then Moses stretched out his staff toward heaven, and the Lord sent thunder and hail, and fire ran down to the earth. And the Lord rained hail upon the land of Egypt. 24 There was hail and fire flashing continually in the midst of the hail, very heavy hail, such as had never been in all the land of Egypt since it became a nation.

It appears that the author of the Torah could differentiate between fire (e.g. Gen 19:24) and lightning (e.g. Exodus 20:18). That said, it is surprising - to me at least - that hail and fire would coexist at the same time ("fire flashing continually in the midst of the hail").

What's the right translation - fire or lightning?

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The operative word in Ex 9:23, 24 is אֵשׂ (esh). BDB provides six basic meanings of this word - see appendix below.

Heavenly fire from God (as is the case here) could easily be seen as "lightening" that causes destructive fire. [One must remember that Hebrew word meanings are very fluid and not so precise as Greek and Latin.] Thus, the various versions have:

  • NIV: lightning
  • ESV: fire
  • BSB: lightening
  • NKJV: fire
  • NASB: fire
  • CSB: lightning

This is clearly destructive fire from God and any of these translations is correct.

The word in Gen 19:24 is the same word, אֵשׂ (esh) used in Ex 9:23, 24, "fire". However, the word used in Ex 20:18 is לַפִּיד (lappid) = "torch" and this is the only occasion it is translated "lightning"; the other 13 times it is translated "torch", eg, Gen 15:17, Judges 7:16, 20, 15:4, 5, Job 12;5, 41:19, Isa 62;1, Eze 1;13, Dan 10:6, Nah 2:4, Zech 12:6.

There is a more specialised hebrew word for Lightning, namely בָּרָק (baraq), eg, Ex 19:16, Deut 32:41, 2 Sam 22;15, Job 20:25, 38:35, Ps 18:14, 11:18, 97:4, 135:7, 144:6, Jer 10:13, 51:16, Eze 1;13, 21:10, 15, 28, Dan 10:6, Nah 2:4, Zech 9:14, etc.

APPENDIX - BDB meanings of אֵשׂ (esh)

1 fire, of conflagration, e.g. in briers, endangering or destroying crops תֵּצֵא אֵשׁ וּמָֽצְאָה קֹצִים Exodus 22:5; compare Exodus 3:2 הַסְּנֶה בֹּעֵר בָּאֵשׁ (both E); more often of deliberate destruction by fire, especially שָׂרַף בָּאֵשׁ (בָּ with qam. preton.) object golden calf Exodus 32:20 (J), other idols Deuteronomy 7:5,25, Asherim Deuteronomy 12:3, chariots Joshua 11:6,9; 2 Kings 23:1, house Judges 12:1; Judges 14:15, tower Judges 9:52, city-gates Nehemiah 1:3; Nehemiah 2:3,13,17, city Joshua 6:24; Judges 18:27 compare Isaiah 1:7 +; also שִׁלַּח אֵשׁ בְּ Amos 1:4,7,10 +; שִׁלַּח אֶתהָֿעִיר בָּאֵשׁ Judges 1:8; Judges 20:48 compare 2 Kings 8:12; הִצִּית אֶתהָֿעִיר בָּאֵשׁ Joshua 8:8,19; Jeremiah 17:27 +, compare Judges 9:49; 2 Samuel 14:30,31 (of field, compare Exodus 22:5 above)

2 of supernatural fire, attending theophany Exodus 3:2; Exodus 19:18 (both J E) Deuteronomy 4:11,12,15,33,36 +; specifically עַמּוּד (הָ)אֵשׁ Exodus 13:21,22; Exodus 14:24 (all J E) Nehemiah 9:12,19 compare Deuteronomy 1:33 (see מַרְאֵהאֵֿשׁ Numbers 9:15,16 P); of destructive fire from ׳י Numbers 11:1,2,3 (J) Numbers 26:10 (P) Leviticus 10:2 (P); compare אֹכֶלָת ׳א in simile of Yahweh's glory Exodus 24:17 (E) Deuteronomy 4:24; Deuteronomy 9:3; see also 1 Kings 18:24,38; 2 Kings 1:10 (twice in verse); 2 Kings 1:12 (twice in verse); 2 Kings 1:14; Job 1:16 (perhaps lightning intended), compare further of lightning Exodus 9:23,24 (JE) Psalm 18:13; Psalm 18:14; Psalm 148:8 etc.

3 fire for cooking, roasting, parching, etc. צְלִי אֵשׁ roasted at a fire Exodus 12:8,9 (P) compare Leviticus 2:14; 2Chronicles 35:13; Isaiah 44:16,19; of tinder for lighting fire Genesis 22:6,7 (E); of fire for melting (gold for the idolatrous calf) Exodus 32:24; for refining Jeremiah 6:29, where read with Qr מֵאֵשׁ תַּם עֹפֶרֶת; compare Malachi 3:2 (simile of purifying work of messenger of cov't).

4 especially of altar-fire Leviticus 1:7 (twice in verse); Leviticus 6:2; Leviticus 6:3; Leviticus 6:5; Leviticus 6:6 +; in offering incense Leviticus 10:1, also אֵשׁ זָרָה strange fire, i.e. an incense not commanded, offered presumptuously Leviticus 10:1; Numbers 3:4; Numbers 26:61; fire from ׳י consuming sacrifice (compare 2) Leviticus 9:24; 2Chronicles 7:1,3; of fire in child-sacrifice (usually הֶעֱבִיר בֵּן בָּאֵשׁ (לְׅ) 2 Kings 16:3; 2 Kings 21:6; compare 2 Kings 17:17; 2 Kings 23:10; 2Chronicles 33:6; also ׳שׂרף בָּא 2 Kings 17:31, ׳בער בָּא2Chronicles 28:3.

5 figurative of Yahweh's anger Psalm 89:47 (simile) compare Nahum 1:6; Lamentations 2:4 אֵשׁעֶֿבְרָתִי Ezekiel 21:36; Ezekiel 22:31; Ezekiel 38:19, אֵשׁקִֿנְאָתִי Ezekiel 36:5; see also Isaiah 66:15; Psalm 79:5; Psalm 89:47 etc.; of word of ׳י Jeremiah 23:29; figurative of outbursting emotion Psalm 39:4; of flagrant wickedness Isaiah 9:17, etc:

6 in various combinations, לַמִּיד אֵשׁ Genesis 15:17 (J) a torch of fire (compare Di); לַבַּתאֵֿשׁ Exodus 3:2 flame of fire, לַהַב אֵשׁ Joel 2:5, לַמִּידֵי אֵשׁ (in simile) Daniel 10:6 compare Zechariah 12:6, לַהֲבוֺת אֵשׁ Psalm 29:7 לַהֲבֵי אֵשׁ Isaiah 66:15 compare לְהָבוֺת ׳א Psalm 105:32, לָהָבָה ׳נֹגַהּ א Isaiah 4:5 compare Hosea 7:6; שְׁבִיב אִשּׁוֺ spark of his fire Job 18:5 compare כִּידוֺדֵי אֵשׁ Job 41:11; תַּנּוּר אֵשׁ Psalm 21:10 oven of fire, כִּיּוֺר אֵשׁ Zechariah 12:6; אוֺר אֵשׁ light of fire Psalm 78:14; אֵשׁ לֹהֵט flaming fire Psalm 104:4; לְשׁוֺן אֵשׁ Isaiah 5:24 tongue of fire, גַּחֲלֵי אֵשׁ Ezekiel 1:13 coals of fire, so Ezekiel 10:2, compare רִשְׁמֵּי אֵשׁ Songs 8:6; on אַבְנֵי אֵשׁ Ezekiel 28:14,16 see אֶבֶן; אֵשׁ דַּת Deuteronomy 33:2, literally fire of a law, or fire was a law, but דָּת law is Persian & late; read perhaps דֹת[לַמִּ] אֵשׁ compare Exodus 20:18 or דֶת [יֹקֶ] אֵשׁ compare Isaiah 65:5.

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The right translation is fire. The word being translated is 'eshl 379 times in 348 verses in the Hebrew concordance of the KJV. That same word is used for

  • fire, flames

  • supernatural fire (accompanying theophany)

  • fire (for cooking, roasting, parching)

  • altar-fire

  • God's anger (fig.)

The Gesenius' Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon also agrees it means fire

from the Blueletterbible

For curiosity, my Portuguese bible BPT09 also uses "raio" which means "lightening".

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    Thanks @Tiago. And thanks for the blue letter bible link. Very helpful. To clarify though, it appears to me from blue letter bible that the word being translated Lightning/Fire is 'esh? <blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/…> – whiskey92 Jan 23 at 14:53
  • @whiskey92 ups right, my bad. Fixed it. Blueletterbible is a great resource for word studies. Initially I had acquired a printed version of Gesenius' Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon, handy for OT study, until found this site through sharing of one other member of this community. Thanks for the comprehension and for pointing that out – Tiago Martins Peres 李大仁 Jan 23 at 15:41
  • @DerÜbermensch fixed it. There was a problem with the initial version of the answer which then led to other fixings and that one slipped. Thanks for pointing that out – Tiago Martins Peres 李大仁 Jan 23 at 20:52

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