7

I have learned that in the biblical language, in religion or for prayer "may" is used to express a wishful benediction. As in the following examples:

  1. May God bless you.
  2. May your children always be healthy and happy.

But my problem is with the following case:

  1. "Let me alone, then, that my wrath may blaze up against them to consume them. Then I will make of you a great nation." (Exodus 32, 10)

What is the meaning of "may" in this last example (example 3)? possibility?

Also, I wonder if "let me alone" in this context means "I don't want company" or "Stop bothering me".

18

First, a note on "biblical language." Feel free to skip ahead to the answer, below the horizontal rule.

Let's be careful when we talk about "biblical language." The Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) was originally written in Biblical Hebrew and Biblical Aramaic. The Christian New Testament was probably originally written in Koine Greek. These texts have been translated into many other languages, and there are even many different English translations. The most famous English translation is the King James Version. This translation was written in the very beginning of the 1600s in style that was somewhat old fashioned, even for the time.

Many English speakers strongly associate this somewhat-old-fashioned 1600s English with the Bible. But there is nothing particularly biblical about the language. It was more formal than the language typically used by people in England in the 1600s, but it was not meant to sound so alien as it does today.


Like most words, may has multiple uses.

may auxiliary verb

3 — used in auxiliary function to express a wish or desire especially in prayer, imprecation, or benediction
// may the best man win

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/may

You'll notice that the example given has an entirely unreligious context. It's the sort of thing you'd say at the beginning of a hot dog eating contest, for example.

It is true that prayers often come in the form "May something good happen...", but not every sentence like this is a prayer. In addition to the sporting example, they're often toasts: "may you live a long and healthy life."

Another use of may is

1 c archaic : have the ability to

That's the meaning of may in your third example. In contemporary English, we might write this, "Leave me alone, then, so that my wrath can blaze up against them to consume them."

Notice, in this definition, that the word is marked as archaic1 (which means it's no longer commonly used). This use of may is also often found in religious contexts, but that's really just because many translations of the Bible use older forms of English. You can find this same usage of may in completely secular contexts, like this Sportsman's Dictionary from 1800:

You need not be afraid of his having a great belly, provided it be not cow-bellied, which will make him appear deformed; he should have full, but not broad flanks, that he may not sway in the back at his labour.


1 In the comments, it's been pointed out that this use of may is not archaic in all dialects of English. It definitely sounds old-fashioned in Standard American English, but may be appropriate in some British dialects.

| improve this answer | |
  • 3
    Welll ... if he's reading the King James or one of the other old translations, the English of the time MAY be different from modern English. People often say "Biblical English" to mean "the English language as it was written when the King James version was produced". – Jay Mar 27 at 3:24
  • 6
    1 c archaic : have the ability to - I would argue that may in that sense is far from archaic in British English, especially in formal usage. Having said that, of course, I am very, very old myself, so perhaps not the best possible arbiter of the usages of "archaic". – Spratty Mar 27 at 9:16
  • 3
    @Jay What's interesting specifically about the King James and the English "of the time" is that the King James translators intentionally used words and phrases that were already considered archaic, because they thought it sounded more dignified. – GalacticCowboy Mar 27 at 14:16
  • 2
    @TheAtomicOption, I'm sure that most people who say "Old Testament" do so because of convention, rather than out of an intention to imply that it's been superseded by the New Testament. That is, I'm sure they don't mean to be insulting. Still, I think it's worth pointing out the benefits of more neutrally descriptive language. I've updated my answer, hopefully in a way that requires less guessing at my intent. As for Torah vs Hebrew Bible, the Torah only refers to the first five books of the Bible. It's the T in Tanakh, which also includes Prophets (Nevi'im) and Writings (Ketubim) – Juhasz Mar 27 at 17:57
  • 1
    I also was not aware that anyone might take offense to "Old Testament". It was always my assumption that the name was simply based on the fact that it was written at an earlier point in time (and is thus chronologically older) than the chronologically more recent "New Testament". These terms seem pretty neutral to me, and I've never encountered any reason to assume that "old" or "new" in the name is supposed to have anything to do with one superseding the other (and I don't believe I've ever met any Christians who espoused that view, really).. – Foogod Mar 27 at 18:31
4

This isn't really an issue of "Bible English" versus "modern English" or "religious language" versus "secular language", but simply that the word "may" has multiple definitions. You can find the same issue you're talking about in everyday writing today.

The word "may" can be an expression of hopeful intent. Like, "May you find happiness in your marriage".

But it can also mean that a person might or might not do something or that an event might or might not happen. Like, "If you ask Bob, he may be willing to help you".

Following on that meaning, "may" can be used as a warning of a possibility. Like, "If you smoke too much, you may get lung cancer", or, "If you do that again, I may not be so forgiving next time."

The first meaning is what is intended in "May God bless you." The third meaning is intended in, "My wrath may blaze up against them."

| improve this answer | |
  • I actually disagree about "my wrath may blaze up". I believe that "may" here is in the sense of "will be able to" or "will be allowed to". That is, "if you let me alone, that will make it possible for my wrath to blaze up against them". – Foogod Mar 27 at 18:19
2

‘May’ is often used in religious language as a wishful benediction, but — as you have seen — not always. The usage of ‘may’ is more like an indicator of ‘I want this to happen’. So the sentences would become ‘I want God to bless you’ and ‘I want your children to always be healthy and happy’, and lastly ‘I want my wrath to blaze up against them to consume them’.

As to ‘let me alone’, it does mean something akin to ‘stop bothering me’ or ‘go away’.

| improve this answer | |
0

'May' in this context could be replaced with 'might' in contemporary English. E.g., "Let me alone, then, that my wrath may blaze up...," could be written as, "Leave me alone, then, so that my wrath might blaze up..."

| improve this answer | |

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.