Did the Israelites Walk or Swim? (Heb 11:29) — Mondays with Mounce 251
Allowing for the fact that we all hear words a little differently, I was surprised to read that in many translations the Israelites really did not cross the Red Sea on dry ground. We’ve been tricked all these years!
At least that is how I hear the “as” in Heb 11:29.
The ESV reads, “By faith the people crossed the Red Sea as on dry land.” Was it dry land, or was it “as if” it were dry ground? How do you hear it? I can only hear “as if it were.”
Several translations use “as” (NIV). The NRSV and NET are even more confusing; they say “as if.” As if it were dry? What does that mean? Was it really wet, and the people pretended it was dry?
You can see other translations aware of the problem. NLT and HCSB write “as though they were on dry ground.” The NJB (New Jerusalem Bible) interestingly has, “They crossed the Red Sea as easily as dry land.”
ὡς is actually a very flexible word. BDAG lists nine categories of meanings. Only two are relevant to our verse.
“1. a comparative particle, marking the manner in which someth. proceeds, as, like.” The important point to note here is that BDAG means “as, like” in the sense of “οὕτως=‘so, in such a way’.” This is certainly what the text means.
“2. a conjunction marking a point of comparison, as.” An example would be, “οἱ δίκαιοι ἐκλάμψουσιν ὡς ὁ ἥλιος the righteous will shine out as the sun (shines) Mt 13:43.” This is what I am hearing with “as if.” The righteous shine like the sun shines. But the righteous are not actually the sun.
The point the author to the Hebrews is making is that the children of Israel did cross the Red Sea, and the manner in which they crossed was not by swimming but by walking on ground that was dry. They crossed the Red Sea in the same manner in which you cross any dry land. They walked.
“As” doesn’t communicate that, at least to me.”
William D. [Bill] Mounce posts about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics on the ZA Blog. He is the author of numerous works including the recent Basics of Biblical Greek Video Lectures and the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek. He is the general editor of Mounce's Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation, and is currently on the Committee for Bible Translation for the NIV.
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