the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24
Vine's Expository Dictionary of OT Words
Yâkôl (יָכוֹל, Strong's #3201), “can, may, to be able, prevail, endure.” This word is used about 200 times in the Old Testament, from the earliest to the latest writings. It is also found in Assyrian and Aramaic. As in English, the Hebrew word usually requires another verb to make the meaning complete.Yâkôl first occurs in Gen. 13:6: “And the land was not able to bear them, that they might dwell together.…” God promised Abraham: “And I will make thy seed as the dust of the earth: so that if a man can number the dust of the earth, then shall thy seed also be numbered” (Gen. 13:16, NIV; cf. Gen. 15:5).
The most frequent use of this verb is in the sense of “can” or “to be able.” The word may refer specifically to “physical ability,” as in 1 Sam. 17:33: “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him” (NASB). Yakol may express “moral inability,” as in Josh. 7:13: “… Thou canst not stand before thine enemies, until ye take away the accursed thing from among you.” For a similar sense, see Jer. 6:10: “Behold, their ear is uncircumcised, and they cannot hearken.…” In the negative sense, it may be used to express “prohibition”: “Thou mayest not eat within thy gates the tithe of thy corn …” (Deut. 12:17, NIV). Or the verb may indicate a “social barrier,” as in Gen. 43:32: “… The Egyptians might not eat bread with the Hebrews; for that is an abomination unto the Egyptians” (KJV, RSV, NIV, NASB, “could not”).
Yâkôl is also used of God, as when Moses pleaded with God not to destroy Israel lest the nations say, “Because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land … , therefore he hath slain them …” (Num. 14:16, NASB). The word may indicate a positive sense: “If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us …” (Dan. 3:17). The word yâkôl appears when God limits His patience with the insincere: “When the Lord could no longer endure your wicked actions … , your land became an object of cursing …” (Jer. 44:22, NIV)
When yâkôl is used without another verb, the sense is “to prevail” or “to overcome,” as in the words of the angel to Jacob: “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God, and with men and have overcome” (Gen. 32:28, NIV, KJV, NASB, “prevailed”). With the word yâkôl God rebukes Israel’s insincerity: “I cannot endure iniquity and the solemn assembly” (Isa. 1:13, NASB, NIV, “bear”). “… How long will it be ere they attain to innocency?” (Hos. 8:5, KJV, NASB, “will they be capable of”).
There is no distinction in Hebrew between “can” and “may,” since yâkôl expresses both “ability” and “permission,” or prohibition with the negative. Both God and man can act. There is no limit to God’s ability apart from His own freely determined limits of patience with continued disobedience and insincerity (Isa. 59:1-2) and will (Dan. 3:17- 18).
The Septuagint translates yâkôl by several words, dunamai being by far the most common. Dunamai means “to be able, powerful.” It is first used in the New Testament in Matt. 3:9: “… God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.”
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Vines, W. E., M. A. Entry for 'Can, May'. Vine's Expository Dictionary of OT Words. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​vot/​c/can-may.html. 1940.