(The above rendering comes from the RJPS translation, an adaptation of the NJPS translation. Before accounting for this rendering, I will analyze the plain sense of the אִישׁ term, by employing a situation-oriented construal as outlined in “Notes on Gender in Translation,” pp. 11–16.)
Here a situation-oriented construal resolves a well-known interpretive crux. The noun phrase in question is אִישׁ טוֹב. Scholars have long differed about the identity of its intended referent.
- Some interpreters the term as the name of the leader of a contingent of troops (among translators: Septuagint, Vulgate, Syriac; among interpreters: Josephus, Joseph Kara, and Abravanel—at v. 8). After all, the syntax seems to place אִישׁ טוֹב in parallel with מֶלֶךְ מַֽעֲכָה. Such a construal seems to be modeled after the purported name Ish-Baal (cf. 2 Sam 2:8; 1 Chr 8:33).
- Others construe אִישׁ as the title of a leadership office occupied by the force’s leader (Jirku 1950; HALOT 1967, citing Jirku).
- Still others prefer to construe אִישׁ as a collective term that is equivalent to its plural, yielding: ‘men (inhabitants) of Tob’ (Fuenn 1887; BDB 1906; 18th edition of Gesenius, 1987).
Happily, a situation-oriented construal can make more sense of the text. This usage of אִישׁ turns out to be conventional: it profiles the referent as a distinct entity within a larger military force. Consider the following.
- Singular אִישׁ is regularly used as a “collective” term in the context of hostilities, see my comment to Judg 7:23. On its occasional use to denote a contingent of military forces, see my comment at Judg 7:24.
- The syntactic linkage of אִישׁ טוֹב with מֶלֶךְ מַֽעֲכָה signals that the king of Maacah is also in command of a force from the region of Tob. (The two locales appear to be proximate—each of them being adjacent to, or overlapping, the Transjordanian territory of Manasseh (cf. Josh 13:11; Judg 11:3, 5; 1 Chr 7:14–16. I.e., the dominance of Maacah over its neighbor Tob could easily have been a matter of common knowledge that would have gone without saying.)
- If so, then the use of the singular-collective label אִישׁ to denote a fighting force in terms of the overall conflict situation creates a modest distinction from the king’s own force.
In that light, the noun אִישׁ refers here straightforwardly to the force contributed from the land of Tob, ready to fight on the Ammonites’ side. And then the passage becomes coherent and informative, which is the hallmark of its plain sense.
This construal of אִישׁ טוֹב is similar to a suggestion by John Zhu-En Wee, “Maacah and Ish-Tob,” JSOT 30.2 (2005): 191–99. Yet he rejects such a construal after pointing out (p. 197) that nowhere else in the Bible is a foreign force labeled with אִישׁ in this manner. To my mind, that objection is not compelling. Given that domestic forces are so named on a regular basis, such usage is evidently conventional. Anyway, I can find no comparable “foreign” case—no other instance of a distinct body of foreign troops as it is depicted as ready to act in concert alongside, or in the face of, another force. (Rather, foreign forces are depicted elsewhere as an undifferentiated mass, labeled either by nationality or in terms of the king who leads them. The particulars of their organization is not otherwise of interest.)
As for rendering into English, the NJPS ‘men from Tob’ follows interpretation #3 above. Nowadays that phrasing places undue emphasis on masculinity. (The fact that women are not in view can go without saying, because it is self-evident from the military context.) Furthermore, it relies upon an archaic sense of men as participants. Worst of all, it misses the situational nuance described above. On properly rendering the collective usage of אִישׁ into idiomatic English, see my comment at Josh 10:24.