[b-hebrew] "Rope Imagery" in Biblical Hebrew
JimStinehart at aol.com
JimStinehart at aol.com
Wed Dec 10 09:41:12 EST 2008
“Rope Imagery” in Biblical Hebrew
Let me follow up here on an excellent suggestion from Karl Randolph, of which
I was previously unaware. Karl asked about the Hebrew word MYTR. The root
of that word is YTR. We see YTR at Job 4: 21, where it means “tent-cord”,
which would be a fine “rope”. Very importantly, we also see that same word in
the Patriarchal narratives, at Genesis 49: 3-4, in connection with stating that
Reuben had “excellence” in being Jacob’s first-born, yet Reuben
unfortunately forfeited that “excellence”. Here is the JPS1917 translation of Genesis
“‘Reuben, thou art my first-born, my might, and the first-fruits of my
strength; the excellency [YTR] of dignity, and the excellency [YTR] of power.
Unstable as water, have not thou the excellency [TWTR]; because thou wentest up
to thy father's bed; then defiledst thou it -- he went up to my couch.’”
Genesis 49: 3-4
1. As I see it, YTR literally means “rope”, and as such is a very fine word
for the early Hebrews. The Patriarchs may have been one of the first
generations of tent-dwellers in Canaan who used “rope” to rig their tents. It was a
fine technological innovation, which while invented centuries or millennia
ago, only came to have widespread use among regular people in Canaan in the
Patriarchal Age. So “rope” and “excellence” were virtual synonyms to the early
tent-dwelling Hebrews. Now the pairing of YTR at Job 4: 21 and Genesis 49: 3
makes perfect sense: the literal meaning is “rope”, per Job 4: 21, whereas
as the figurative meaning “excellence” is front and center at Genesis 49: 3.
2. Bearing in mind that Karl also warned us not to trust BDB, we can now
also see how Hebrew grammarians, such as BDB, have gone wrong regarding this
Hebrew word YTR. BDB says that one meaning of YTR is “remainder, remnant (with
implied inferiority in number or quality)”. Yet without batting an eye, BDB
then also gives the following alternative definition of what BDB sees as being
the very same word, but having virtually the opposite meaning: “superiority,
excellency…Gn 49.3”. Where did BDB go wrong?
In fact, there are two completely different Hebrew words here, based on
completely different Assyrian roots. It’s just that the two Hebrew words happen to
be spelled the same.
Word #1 is when YTR truly does mean “an inferior remainder” or “left over”.
That comes from the Assyrian root that BDB properly sets forth as: “
Assyrian [ataru], remain over”. Yes, that makes perfect sense for word #1, but that
has nothing to do with “rope”!
Word #2 is a completely different Hebrew word, though it is also spelled YTR.
Here I see the Assyrian root as being tR’, meaning “a net (presumably made
of rope)” in Assyrian. [For the existence of tR’ in Assyrian, see “Some
Assyrian Etymologies” by Paul Haupt, in “The American Journal of Semitic
Languages and Literatures”, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Oct., 1909).] It matters not that
Assyrian tR’ may itself be a derivative form. In effect tR’ came into Biblical
Hebrew as the following archaic 2-consonant root: TR. From that archaic
2-consonant Assyrian root, Biblical Hebrew gets YTR, having the literal meaning of “
rope”, but also having the figurative meaning to the early Hebrews of “
By following up on Karl’s timely suggestion and not trusting BDB, we have
made an important discovery that helps us understand the Patriarchal narratives.
The first Hebrews greatly admired “rope”, and had more than one word meaning
“rope”. Unlike other peoples before or after them, the early Hebrews had an
extremely positive view of “rope”. So here, from the Assyrian root TR,
meaning a net made of “rope”, the early Hebrews derived YTR, which literally
means “rope” for rigging a tent, as we see at Job 4: 21 later in the Bible. But
of critical importance to us here, in the Patriarchal narratives we see YTR at
Genesis 49: 3 as having the figurative meaning of “excellence”. Only the
early Hebrews would equate “rope” with “excellence”. At any other time, in
any other place, that would seem a bizarre equation. But not to the
tent-dwelling Patriarchs, for whom manufactured, twisted rope was a wondrous
technological innovation, which was invaluable both in rigging their tents, and in
carrying out their animal husbandry and agricultural pursuits. The Patriarchal Age
likely was the first time when tent-dwellers in Canaan had the “luxury” of
using manufactured, real “rope” on a regular basis, made from flax in Canaan.
For our purposes here, it is only word #2 that is important to us, which we
see in the Patriarchal narratives at Genesis 49: 3-4. We now realize that it
is word #1, an unrelated word meaning “left over”, that appears in the
Patriarchal narratives three times at Genesis 30: 36; 32: 25; 44: 20. Word #1
has no connection whatsoever to “rope”, and hence is of no concern at all to
Thank you, Karl, for helping us see how important and positive “rope” was to
the first Hebrews, and how BDB completely blew the etymology of YTR at
Genesis 49: 3-4. The literal meaning of YTR (word #2) is “rope”, but the early
Hebrews equated both “rope” and YTR (word #2 only) with “excellence”.
This is all in addition to what I am still planning to post about XBR vs. XBL
as showing an amazing amount of positive “rope imagery” in the language of
Biblical Hebrew. But it’s a very welcome addition. Very welcome indeed.
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