In which we ask how to know

We’ve seen a few things written on Genesis 15 recently (by David and John) and now it’s my turn.

Crucial to this whole passage is verse 8:

But he said, “O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” (ESV)

We know it’s crucial, because God answers saying “Then the LORD said to Abram, ‘Know for certain … ‘” (verse 13, ESV)

My question is, what’s going on here? “How am I to know …” is at least very odd English, if not non-standard. It’s even stranger considering what was just said about Abram, “And he believed the LORD.”

A handful of translations (NLT, God’s Word) use “how can I be sure/certain”, but is that the right approach? Is this verse about Abram’s cognitive dissonance, or do all these translations miss the point completely?

7 thoughts on “In which we ask how to know

  1. Gary Simmons says:

    Actually, I do not find that wording awkward at all. At least in the Southern US, that is not strange. There are two country songs titled “How Was I to Know?” One by John Michael Montegomery in the 1990s, and another by Reba McIntire from 2005. I didn’t know there was a Reba one til I looked up the lyrics just now.

    So, I will say that I personally don’t find the construction odd English. After all, country singers don’t exactly try for nonstandard English (though sometimes it just comes naturally).

  2. Mike Sangrey says:

    Like Gary, I don’t find the construction too odd. I would have said, “How can I know…” I just looked up Gen. 15 in the NIV, and it has “How can I know…”

    I will say, however, that “how am I to know…” is more metrical. Musicians apparently have noted this. 🙂 Even Frank Sinatra.

  3. John says:

    To me, “how am I to know” is idiomatic, but only as a standalone statement and not introducing a “that” clause. It has a different meaning.

  4. Theophrastus says:

    Whitney Houston has a song entitled “How Will I Know” (true, she fails to get the shall/will distinction correct, but let’s skip over that.)

    If one is talking about mathematics, one might easily use an expression such as “How do I know the lemma is true” or “How can I know that the assumption is satisfied”.

    And when question another person (for example, imagine a cross-examination in court) it is entirely reasonable to imagine asking “How do you know that X is the case and not Y?”

    Not only are these expressions natural to me, I use expressions such as this frequently — at least weekly. I found 10 hits among outgoing e-mails I sent since January, for example.

    In terms of Abram’s expressing trust in the Lord and then asking Lord God “how am I to know?”, note that Abram’s question is about evidence, not doubt. See the parallel construction with the same word במה at Exodus 33:16, for example.

  5. Dannii says:

    Thanks everyone for your comments.

    Perhaps I have overstated the oddity of these verses, perhaps their English is still fine. I still think though that their use here might not be the best.

    Now I care about precision, and I’ve realised I’ve made a mistake: what Abram asked God how to know about is now exactly what he believed God about. But does that matter?

    Theophrastus, thanks for that insightful comment. Asking about knowing is probably a quite legitimate question when it’s a request for evidence. I’m not sure that’s what Abram asked for though, and it’s definitely not what God answered with.

  6. Joel H. says:

    I agree with others that the English syntax is fine, but I think it misses two points.

    In Genesis 15:8, we find the fairly rare question bama. “How” in Hebrew is usually eich or ma (literally, “what?”). Here we find bama, that is, “through what,” perhaps alluding to “through what sign?” I think the question in Hebrew is more specific than the general “how?”

    Then in verse 13 we find the translation “surely know,” which is almost surely wrong. This is a case of the infinitive absolute, commonly — but wrongly, in my opinion — translated as emphasis. (I have more here.) The repetition of “be sure” in the NLT is an invention of the translator.


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