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I am curious about the wording of Genesis 17:1. When Abraham was told to "walk before me," was there a specific context implied? Why not use "walk with me" or "follow thou me"?

I was studying using an online version of the Tanach to see what modern English would be used for the verse. Regrettably, I do not read Hebrew.

Does the Hebrew for this verse help us understand why the phrase "walk before me" was used, especially in comparison to the two alternatives I suggested above?

  • NB The reflexive verb form is used here, which technically is perhaps closer to "bring yourself to walk before Me", instead of plain walking. – Zev Spitz Jul 16 '18 at 23:27
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R. David Kamchi explains the word choice as follows (I'm taking the first part from here):

as rendered by Onkelos, "serve Me" by carrying out what I command you ( in order to become perfect). This is also that meaning of the word התהלך in Genesis 24,40 as well as in Genesis 48,15. It is a reference to serving the lord in thought and deed. All service of the Lord is rooted in man's heart. This is why King Chiskiyah in Kings II 20,3 in his prayer says: אני ה' דבר נא את אשר התהלכתי לפניך באמת ובלבב שלם, "please o Lord remember how I have served you in truth and with a pure heart, etc." Chiskiyah first refers to his serving G'd with his heart, before mentioning that he had performed deeds which constituted service of the Lord also, when he said והטוב בעיניך עשיתי, "and I have done what is pleasing in Your eyes."

The Shadal speaks of the word choice as referring to a more physical sense of being guided.

התהלך לפני: כתינוק המהלך לפני אביו שאביו הולך אחריו ומנהל אותו

The Tur HaAroch refers to the Ramban and writes

Nachmanides explains the word התהלך as similar to the commandment to the Jewish people in Deut. 13,5 אחרי ה' אלוקיך תלכו, i.e. “follow all the instructions of the Lord your G’d.” (after you have been instructed about them) The command התהלך לפני goes beyond this and asks Avraham to anticipate G’d’s commandments and to act in accordance with his understanding of what G’d would later on command him. [it is difficult to imagine a greater compliment to Avraham than our verse here. Ed.]

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Two explanations based on the word לפני meaning “in front of” or “before”.

SFORNO

לפני כמסתכל בי לדעת דרכי כפי האפשר אצלך כענין שויתי ה' לנגדי תמיד: לפני,

Wherever you go, turn to me for guidance and try to emulate me. We have adopted this concept when we inscribe our synagogues with the verse שויתי ה' לנגדי תמיד, "I am ever mindful of the Lord's presence." (Psalms 16,8)

In short, look round to Me for guidance always.

TUR HA'ARUCH

Nachmanides explains the word התהלך as similar to the commandment to the Jewish people in Deut. 13,5 אחרי ה' אלוקיך תלכו, i.e. “follow all the instructions of the Lord your G’d.” (after you have been instructed about them). The command התהלך לפני goes beyond this and asks Avraham to anticipate G’d’s commandments and to act in accordance with his understanding of what G’d would later on command him.

In short, anticipate My commandments.

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The Hebrew word לפני means before Me, so neither with Me nor follow Me would be appropriate translations.

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