[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 
49: 3-4:
 
“‘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 “
excellence”.
 
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[24];  44: 20.  Word #1 
has no connection whatsoever to “rope”, and hence is of no concern at all to 
us here. 
 
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.
 
Jim Stinehart
Evanston, Illinois 

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