While doing some reverse interlinear work a few days ago, I came across Josh 15:18. The verse concerns Caleb’s newly-won bride:

18 When she came to him, she urged him to ask her father for a field. And she got off her donkey, and Caleb said to her, “What do you want?”

My interest was drawn to the question: “What do you want?” The Hebrew literally reads: “What to you?” This is a fairly common Semiticism that I have run across a number of times before. And each time the idea pops into my head that I ought to write an article on it — since it is the idiomatic expression behind the statement/question Jesus says to his mother Mary in John 2:4. Jesus says, literally, “What to me and to you, O woman?” (“woman” is in the vocative case for direct address.)  Many readers mistake the question as a statement of irritation on Jesus’ part, and some translations don’t do much to avoid that misapprehension.

In Josh 15, Caleb is portrayed as wanting to be kind to his new bride. He is not irritated; he wants to do something for her to make her happy. This is the pretty clearly the case in some of the other 18 occurrences of the precise phrase found in Josh 15:18. Some examples (to my eye anyway) are: 2 Sam 14:5; 1 Kings 1:16; Esther 5:3. My point is that the phrase is at times clearly a gentle one.

The similar phrase (“What to me?”) also occurs in the Hebrew Bible, at times in combination with “to you,” as in John 2:4. The most generic way to capture what the full statement (“What to me to you?”) means is “what is there that concerns me and you?”  Context should steer the translator to word choices that move the translation from this neutral meaning to something that captures the situation, whether it is adversarial or congenial.

There is no reason to see John’s use of this idiomatic expression as indicative of irritation, or that his mother had become insufferable to Jesus. When Jesus says to Mary, “What to me to you?”, he isn’t saying “What is it now, lady?” He’s basically asking his mother, who brings a concern to him, “What can I do for you?”

Anyway, just a bit of a hobby-horse issue for me that I periodically run into. On to weightier things.