The correct understanding of a simple word like כי in context has the potential of illuminating the sense of an entire passage. Despite the fact that the standard grammars and lexica interpret כי at the boundary between quotative frame and quotation as if it were equivalent to די recitativum in Aramaic or ὅτι recitativum in Greek whenever that possibility is not precluded by the semantics of the passage in question, it makes more sense, in line with Miller 1996: 103-116, to replace that default interpretation with another, namely, that כי is a clause-initial conjunction which subordinates the clause it heads to a matrix clause in all cases in which a semantically appropriate matrix clause, expressed or unexpressed, is recoverable from the context.
In this post, I apply that criterion to Ex 3:12 and a syntactically parallel passage, Jdg 6:16. In a previous post, I picked on NIV and NLT’s less-than-ideal translations of Num 22:29. In this post, I pick on KJV, NASB, HCSB, NET, and ESV’s less-than-ideal translations of Ex 3:12 and Jdg 6:16.
Here is Ex 3:10-12
וְעַתָּה לְכָה וְאֶשְׁלָחֲךָ אֶל־פַּרְעֹה
וְהוֹצֵא אֶת־עַמִּי בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמִּצְרָיִם׃
וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל־הָאֱלֹהִים
כִּי אֵלֵךְ אֶל־פַּרְעֹה
וְכִי אוֹצִיא אֶת־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמִּצְרָיִם׃
וְזֶה־לְּךָ הָאוֹת כִּי אָנֹכִי שְׁלַחְתִּיךָ
בְּהוֹצִיאֲךָ אֶת־הָעָם מִמִּצְרַיִם
תַּעַבְדוּן אֶת־הָאֱלֹהִים עַל הָהָר הַזֶּה׃
“Go, then! I hereby send you to Pharaoh. Lead my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and that I should lead the Israelites out of Egypt?” He said, “Because I am with you. That will be the sign that it was I who sent you. When you have led the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”
The matrix clause to which the כי-introduced clause in 3:12 relates is gapped from the preceding context. “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and that I should lead the Israelites out of Egypt?” He said, “[You should go to Pharaoh and you should lead the Israelites out of Egypt] because I am with you.”
So far as I know, all existing English translations fail to transfer into target language a functional equivalent to the adjacency pair just noted. Baldly put, that means that all existing English translations are not functionally equivalent to their source text.
The “causal” force of כי in Ex 3:12 (“causal” in the broad sense) was apparently recognized in the ancient Targumim: Onqelos (ארי), Pseudo-Jonathan (ארום), and Neofiti (ארום). To be sure, the range of possible meanings of the Aramaic function words in question has not been adequately studied. (Michael Sokoloff’s magnificent dictionaries fail to acknowledge their existence!) In any case, it is no longer the practice of English Bible translators to compare their construals of the text to be translated with the work of the ancient Targumists (it was different in the days of KJV). One might think that such comparative analysis would be an obligatory step if the goal is to produce an authoritative translation. It could be that the rush to get a product out is behind the obvious fact (to me at least) that Bible interpreters and Bible translators rarely consult the Targumim in the course of their work. Edward Cook might have a handle on what ארי in Onqelos Ex 3:12 means.
On the literal-to-paraphrastic continuum of Bible translations, in the case of less literal translations, it’s hard to tell whether the translators misunderstood the syntax of the source text, or simply omitted a translation of כי in the target language because it was regarded, in terms of the overall semantics of the passage, as superfluous. The advantage / disadvantage of more literal translations is that it easier to detect cases in which the grammar of their source has been misunderstood. KJV, NASB, HCSB, and NET all translate as if כי were asseverative. Here is KJV Ex 3:12:
“And he said, “Certainly I will be with thee; and this shall be a token unto thee, that I have sent thee: When thou hast brought forth the people out of Egypt, ye shall serve God upon this mountain.”
NASB: “Certainly I will be with you.” HCSB: “I will certainly be with you.” NET: “Surely I will be with you.” Apart from the fact that the very existence of an asseverative כי needs to be questioned, it amounts to a “Hail Mary” translation in context. The pragmatics of the source text were not understood, the adjacency pair in the Hebrew went unobserved, so the translators went fishing for something, anything, that might work in context.
ESV’s rendering is a variation on the same theme: “But I will be with you.” Adversative כי (= כי־אם) is no doubt an attested usage. But it is not the most plausible way to take כי in context.
Bible translators need to give more thought to adjacency pairs, and how to translate them. A pioneering article in this sense is Greenstein 1989.
Here is Jdg 6:14-16, a text that is built on the same pragmatic, syntactic, and semantic scaffolding as Ex 3:10-12:
וַיִּפֶן אֵלָיו יְהוָה וַיֹּאמֶר
לֵךְ בְּכֹחֲךָ זֶה
וְהוֹשַׁעְתָּ אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵל מִכַּף מִדְיָן
בִּי אֲדֹנָי בַּמָּה אוֹשִׁיעַ אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵל
הִנֵּה אַלְפִּי הַדַּל בִּמְנַשֶּׁה
וְאָנֹכִי הַצָּעִיר בְּבֵית אָבִי׃
וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו יְהוָה
כִּי אֶהְיֶה עִמָּךְ
וְהִכִּיתָ אֶת־מִדְיָן כְּאִישׁ אֶחָד׃
יהוה turned to him and said, “Go with the strength that is yours. You will deliver Israel from the Midianites. Have I not sent you?” He said to him, “Please, Lord, why should I deliver Israel? Look at it from my point of view. My clan is the humblest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s family.” יהוה said to him, “Because I am with you. You will whup Midian, down to the last man.”
Once again, an adjacency pair is to be observed. The matrix clause to which the כי-introduced clause in 6:16 relates is gapped from the preceding context. Gideon asked, “Why should I deliver Israel?” God replied, “[You will deliver Israel] because I am with you.”
The translations previously cited, KJV, NASB, HCSB, NET, and ESV, translate either with an asseverative (“surely”) or an adversative (“but”). Given the adjacency pair, both options are unworkable. Even without the hypothesized adjacency pair, it would make better sense to construe כי as a subordinating conjunction. In line with Gen 3:17-19 and similar passages in which a subordinate כי-clause is fronted, one would then translate: “Because I am with you will beat Midian to the last man.”
Edward M. Cook, A Glossary of Targum Onkelos: According to Alexander Sperber's Edition (Studies in the Aramaic Interpretation of Scripture 6; Leiden: Brill, 2008 [unavailable to me]); Edward L. Greenstein, “The Syntax of Saying ‘Yes’ in Biblical Hebrew,” JANES 19 (1989) 51-59 (pdf here); Cynthia L. Miller, The Representation of Speech in Biblical Hebrew Narrative: A Linguistic Analysis (HSM 55; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1996) 103-116; Michael Sokoloff, A Dictionary of Jewish Palestinian Aramaic (Dictionaries of Talmud, Midrash, and Targumim 2; Ramat-Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press, 1992); idem, A Dictionary of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic (Dictionaries of Talmud, Midrash, and Targumim 3; Publications of the Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon Project; Ramat-Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002); idem, A Dictionary of Judean Aramaic (Ramat-Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003) [in Judean Aramaic, דיalone is attested, including די recitativum recitativum]