Loanwords in Biblical Hebrew

John 3, 16 Greek Bible image

Photo: ideacreamanuela2 CC BY 2.0.

Every language has a history. English, for instance, has a storied history, with many foreign words borrowed from other languages. “Pachyderm” for instance, comes from Greek “pachys” = “thick” + “derma” = “skin.” An elephant is a pachyderm. “Millennium” on the other hand, comes from Latin “mille” meaning “thousand” and “annus” = “year,” and the word originally referred to Jesus’s thousand-year reign on earth as foretold by the Book of Revelation.

As it turns out, Biblical Hebrew has a no less storied history, as a peek at some foreign words that infiltrated into the vocabulary shows. A fascinating example is the Hebrew word, ʾabaṭiḥîm, “watermelons,” which appears only in Numbers 11:5: “We remember the fish we ate free in Egypt, the melons, the watermelons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic” (author’s translation).

Each of the foods mentioned in v.5, with the exception of the fish, is a hapax legomenon, meaning each occurs only once in the entire Hebrew Bible. All of them have good Semitic etymologies, except for melons (not cucumbers as commonly translated) and watermelons. The word for melons—qišuʾîm—originated where the melon was first domesticated, which could be almost anywhere in Asia, Africa, and the Mediterranean.1 Tomb paintings and archaeobotanical evidence show that melons were known in Egypt. Thus, it is not surprising that the Bible associates them with Egypt. Onions and garlic, popular vegetables in ancient Egypt, were even part of the wages of workers on the Great Pyramid.2 We see that Numbers 11:5 rings true!

Getting back to the watermelon, it, too, was cultivated and eaten in Egypt, as the Egyptian word for watermelon attests, bddw-k.3 It has the root *bd, meaning “gourd” in Egyptian, Nilo-Saharan, Chadic, and Omotic. Although there is some resemblance between the Hebrew word and the Egyptian term, the one cannot be derived from the other. Instead, it seems both came from a language in Sub-Saharan Africa, the birthplace of watermelon domestication. Watermelon seeds have been found in sites dating back to the 12th Dynasty (1991–1768 B.C.E.), and Egyptian tomb paintings often depict watermelons.4

All this goes to show that Numbers 11:5 is an accurate depiction of foods eaten in ancient Egypt. While by itself this verse cannot prove that Israelites dwelled and ate in Egypt, it is a bit of evidence that the Israelite memory of the sojourn in Egypt may have a solid foundation. The fact that the list of foods contains fish but not meat adds further plausibility to the listing being a diet of slaves.

We now turn our attention to another loanword, this time from the Book of Genesis. The word ’abrek, a cry before Joseph’s chariot which appears in Genesis 41:43 has been understood as coming from the word berek, “knee,” with the meaning “kneel down!” Thus, some translations like the Modern English Version that follow the King James Version still say, “Bow the knee!” This is unlikely to be correct, however, because it does not account for the anomalous initial aleph in the word.

Another explanation is that it comes from the Akkadian word, abarakku, meaning in this case “royal steward.”5 While this seems suitable and has been adopted by at least one translation, there is another solution to the problem.6 That is that the word comes from Egyptian ib-r.k “heart to you!”—meaning “attention, pay attention.” Some translations, like those of the NJPS and Robert Alter simply transliterate the word rather than venture a translation.

The question is, if the word is a foreign loan, as seems certain, either Akkadian or Egyptian, the Masoretes (scholars who punctuated the Hebrew Bible) would not necessarily have known how to choose the right vowels for the word. After all, great scholars though they were, the Masoretes knew neither Akkadian nor Egyptian. So, it is not possible to rule out abarakku entirely. On the other hand, the Egyptian derivation is appealing, as the setting is Egyptian. Donald Redford, an Egyptologist with an excellent grasp of the Bible, in his monograph on the Joseph story, just mentions the word in passing, citing Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen’s opinion that it is an example of specifically New Kingdom Egyptian.7 On the other hand, Redford thought ‘abrek could be late, and he later dated the Joseph story as a whole to the seventh or sixth century B.C.E.8

Let’s now consider an entirely different case, in which it is not obvious at all that we are dealing with a loanword, but the fact that the word is borrowed has profound implications. The word is kōmer, “priest (of a foreign god).”9 The word occurs three times in the Hebrew Bible. It first appears in 2 Kings 23:5:

He terminated the pagan priests whom the kings of Judah had appointed to burn [offerings] on the shrines of Judah’s cities and the environs of Jerusalem, and [they] were burning [offerings] into smoke to Baal, to the sun and moon and the constellations, and ̣[indeed] to all the stars of the sky.

Although the word kōmer is rare, this verse itself provides sufficient context for the word’s meaning to be pretty well established. Even so, the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) transliterates the word with Greek letters, apparently unable to offer a translation.

A far less straightforward verse is Hosea 10:5, which is complicated poetry:

For the calf of the ‘House of Deception’ they fear.
The resident of Samaria mourns for it.
Its people and its pagan priests would rejoice over its glory—
Which has departed from it.

The prophet is railing against the worship of the image of a calf in the Northern kingdom. The word kōmer (pagan priest) fits with the idolatrous worship, but without the help of 2 King 23:5, we would be at a loss to know what it means here. The Septuagint is completely at a loss in its translation, translating it as a (plural) verb, not a suffixed noun, as in the Hebrew text we have.

The last appearance of the word is in Zephaniah 1:4:

I will stretch out my hand against Judah
And against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem!
I will erase from this place
The remnant of Baal,
The name of the pagan priests and the priests [of YHWH].

Here the Septuagint makes a stab at it, translating kōmer as Baal, the pagan deity, also a mistake but closer to the truth.

Incidentally, the prophet’s pairing of pagan and non-pagan priests is further evidence that the lexica are right in their definition of kōmer.

If kōmer is a loanword, from what language? One thing is clear, although the three letters of the root k-m-r exist in Hebrew, they mean “to be hot” or “to be agitated.” Normally when you have a three-letter verbal root, the noun is plainly derived from the root meaning, as the verb derived from the root z-k-r means “to remember” and the noun means “memory.” Yet it is hard to see here the relationship between the Hebrew root and the noun form. It is this discrepancy that suggests kōmer may be a loanword.

To make a long story short, the word kōmer can be traced to a Hurrian word kumri-, which means a type of priest.10 Along with this word and other terms, the scapegoat ritual of Leviticus 16 is said to reflect Hurrian influence.11 Checking into the supposed Hurrian roots of the scapegoat ritual showed me that there is a credible theory to that effect—if not complete certainty.12

We will conclude our little peek at loanwords in Biblical Hebrew by turning to some loanwords in the Song of Songs, of which there are many. There are two definite Persian loanwords in the Song of Songs: pardēs, “park, garden” (Song 4:13) and ʾegōz, “nut (-tree)” (Song 6:11). In this connection, some scholars date the Song to the Persian or possibly to the Hellenistic period—on the basis of lack of clear evidence of Persianisms in the Bible prior to the Persian Period (a.k.a., the Achaemenid Period, 559–330 B.C.E.).13

The word pardēs is derived from Old Iranian *pardēza, which itself comes from Old Iranian *paridaiza, and it was borrowed during the Achaemenid Period.14 Its original meaning (in Old Iranian) was an enclosed area, such as an estate or garden. The word was also borrowed into Greek by Xenophon (born around 430 B.C.E.; died around 350) and by the Septuagint writers. It came into English from Greek as “paradise, Garden of Eden” by a circuitous route, through Latin and then Old French paradis.

The word appears in Nehemiah 2:8, Ecclesiastes 2:5, and Song 4:13. Many translate pardēs as “garden, parkland” in Song 4:13, but I would translate it as “grove” within the verse: “Your boughs are a grove of pomegranates with luscious fruits: henna with nard.”

Although ʾegōz has been translated as “walnut,” relying mainly on the evidence of the Arabic,15 I prefer to translate it as “nut garden” in Song 6:11 (the only occurrence of the word):

I made my way down to the nut garden
To watch the shrubs of the brook—
To see if the vine had flowered,
If the pomegranates were in bloom.

The word ʾegōz stems from Old Iranian *agauza-, *gauza-, meaning “hidden” (like a nut in its shell). The change of vowels indicates it was borrowed in the Achaemenid Period.16 Space does not permit, but there is also a Greek loanword in the Song of Songs, ʾappiryōn.17

These loanwords suggest that the Song of Songs is either from the Persian Period (a.k.a., Achaemenid period), that is, from 559–330 B.C.E. or—as I think for a multitude of reasons I cannot detail here—very likely, from the Hellenistic Period in which, following Alexander the Great’s conquests, Greek became a major Near Eastern language. This is why the first great biblical translation (the Septuagint) was written in Greek from the third to the first centuries B.C.E. and, later still, the New Testament was written in Greek.

Thus, we see from the limited selection of words we looked at that there is much to say about the history of Biblical Hebrew and the Bible just by examining the penetration of other languages that helped make Biblical Hebrew the glorious language it is!

[1] Benjamin J. Noonan, Non-Semitic Loanwords in the Hebrew Bible: A Lexicon of Language Contact, Linguistic Studies in Ancient West Semitic 14 (University Park, Penn.: Eisenbrauns, 2019), p. 35.

[2] Edwin M. Yamauchi and Marvin R. Wilson, Dictionary of Daily Life in Biblical and Post-Biblical Antiquity, vol. 1 (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2017), p. 695.

[3] Raymond O. Faulkner, A Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian (Oxford: Griffith Institute, Ashmolean Museum, 1986), p. 86.

[4] Noonan, Loanwords, p. 35.

[5] CAD A1 p. 33a.

[6] See Chaim Stern’s translation, in W.G. Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, revised ed. (New York: Union for Reform Judaism, 2005), p. 271.

[7] Donald Redford, A Study of the Biblical Story of Joseph (Genesis 37-50), Vetus Testamentum Supplements, 1970), p. 227.

[8] Donald Redford, Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1992), p. 429.

[9] HALOT 482a, DCH 4:429a.

[10] Noonan, Loanwords, p. 125.

[11] Noonan, Loanwords, p. 125.

[12] See Harry Hoffner, Jr., “Hittite-Israelite Cultural Parallels,” in William Hallo, ed., Context of Scripture 3 (Leiden: Brill, 2002)), p. xxxii.

[13] See, e.g., C. L. Seow, “Linguistic Evidence and the Dating of Qohelet” JBL 115/4 (1996), pp. 648–649; Avi Hurvitz, A Concise Lexicon of Late Biblical Hebrew, SVT 160 (Leiden: Brill, 2014), p. 5.

[14] Noonan, Loanwords, p. 182.

[15] Noonan, Loanwords, p. 37.

[16] Noonan, Loanwords, p. 38.

[17] Noonan, Loanwords, pp. 60-61.

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