[b-hebrew] "Rope Imagery" in Biblical Hebrew

JimStinehart at aol.com JimStinehart at aol.com
Mon Dec 15 10:53:47 EST 2008

Isaac Fried wrote:  “It is a fundamental (alas a very common) mistake to look 
 "horizontal" relationships among different Hebrew words derived from  
 the same root, say, XEBEL, 'region', XEBEL, 'rope'….  A region is  
 certainly not something ’roped in’.” 
I could not disagree more.
The main meaning of XBL as a noun is certainly “rope”, namely manufactured, 
twisted rope, which in Canaan was usually made from flax.  As noted in an 
earlier post, on 19 occasions in the Bible, XBL is translated by KJV as “ropes” 
or “cord” or “cords”.
1.  I will start with Zechariah 2: 5-6[1-2], where JPS1917 translates XBL as “
measuring line”.  That is a “rope” that will be used to measure the land of 
the city of Jerusalem:  “‘And I lifted up mine eyes, and saw, and behold a 
man with a measuring line [XBL] in his hand.  Then said I: 'Whither goest thou?' 
And he said unto me:  ‘To measure Jerusalem, to see what is the breadth 
thereof, and what is the length thereof.'”  This is a critical component of “rope 
imagery” in the language of Biblical Hebrew:  using “rope” to measure land or 
a city.  In the ancient world, “rope” (XBL in Hebrew) was used to measure a 
field, land, city or district.  “Rope”/XBL is very closely identified with 
land in the ancient near east generally, and in the language of Biblical Hebrew 
in particular.  
It could be noted here that in Mesopotamia, we know from statuary that rope 
was often associated with measuring land, and even with a divine power of the 
gods to measure things on earth generally.  In the 18th century BCE, a 
Hammurabi statue features the sun-god Shamash holding a rope circle:  “With the 
measuring rod and rope [ROPE] circle of authority, he dictates the holy laws to the 
good king.” 
(http://learn.roguecc.edu/art/kbrake/ART204/docs/AncientNearEastArt.doc)   In a 2007 Oxford publication, “Kathryn Slansky reviews the literature on 
the image of ‘rod and ring’, which is (for the most part) a staff and rope 
[ROPE] held by gods and offered to rulers, with variations in images from 2100 to 
610 BCE.  Justice in Mesopotamian languages means more or less ‘something 
made straight’ and the rod and ring are measuring tools for the job.”   
2.  KJV translates XBL as “coast” at Zephaniah 2: 5-7.  But only in the 
first two verses is XBL paired with the word for “water” or “sea”.  JPS1917 
properly switches the translation to “portion” on the third occasion.  All three 
usages in fact refer primarily to “portion”, as in a people’s rightful share 
of an inheritance of a region of land, which could be measured by a “rope”, 
per #6-#8 below.  XBL/“rope” here is used as a virtual synonym for a 
well-delineated tract of land, or a proper inheritance of a region of land (an 
inheritance of land that can be forfeited, if YHWH so sees fit).  We will see that key 
Biblical Hebrew metaphor on many occasions in this post.
3.  XBL is translated as “country” by KJV at Deuteronomy 3: 14, though a 
better translation here is probably that of Gesenius:  “a tract of land, a region”
.  JPS1985 uses “district”.  A “tract of land” is a piece of land that 
could be measured by a “rope”, and the same general concept applies to a “district
” or “region”.  The context here is regarding a proper inheritance, which in 
that sense is like #6-#8 below.  XBL/“rope” is often used in Biblical Hebrew 
as a metaphor for “a divinely-approved inheritance of a region of land”.  
English does not have such a word, nor does the English language have such “rope 
imagery”.  But such “rope imagery” is fundamental to Biblical Hebrew, where 
a people’s “rope”/XBL is a people’s “divinely-approved inheritance of a 
region of land”.  This type of “rope imagery” makes perfect sense in an ancient 
near east historical context, no matter how odd it may seem in English.
The same “region” or “district” is also referenced by the word XBL at 
Deuteronomy 3: 4, 13 and I Kings 4: 13, but only at Deuteronomy 3: 13 is it in the 
context of an assignment or inheritance of a region of land.  (I Kings 4: 13 
refers to the XBL of Argob as being a region within Bashan, with Bashan in turn 
being the northern quarter or so of the Transjordan.  Perhaps the XBL/region 
of Argob was approximately the size of the Aijalon Valley.  XBL as “a tract of 
land measurable by a rope” does not usually mean a small plot of land.)
4.  JPS1917 translates XBL at Amos 7: 17 as a “measuring line”, which is 
probably a “rope”.  Note the concept of dividing up land by measuring it with a “
rope”, as we saw in #1 above.
5.  At Psalms 16: 6, XBL in the plural is used to reference a divine 
inheritance, which would probably include, and might well focus upon, land:  “O LORD 
[YHWH], the portion of mine inheritance and of my cup, Thou maintainest my lot. 
 The lines [XBL] are fallen unto me in pleasant places;  yea, I have a goodly 
heritage [or ‘estate’].”  Psalms 16: 5-6 (JPS1917)  The New International 
Version translates XBL here as “boundary lines”, which may make more sense in 
English.  This usage of XBL/“rope” is referencing a divinely-approved 
inheritance, which likely focuses on land (that would be measured by “lines”, made 
with a “rope”), and as such is very similar to #3 above and #6-#8 below.
6.  KJV translates XBL as “lot” at Deuteronomy 32: 9, I Chronicles 16: 18 
and Psalms 105: 11.  All three times the phrasing is essentially identical, 
referring to the “lot of your inheritance” or “your allotted heritage”.  The 
concept is a reference to the part of one’s inheritance that is measurable, as if 
by a “rope”:  the boundary or compass or extent (as if measured by a “rope”
) of one’s inheritance.  It’s a figurative use of what could in theory be 
measured by a “rope”.  See #7 regarding “portion” immediately below.  The “lot”
 of your inheritance is what measurable “portion” of the world shall 
constitute your inheritance, with the focus often being on land, which could be 
measured by a “rope”.
7.  XBL means “portion” at Joshua 17: 14;  19: 9, relating to an 
allotment/inheritance/assignment of land.  A “portion” regarding an inheritance of land 
is that which can be measured off from all other land, as if by a “rope”.  As 
we are seeing, XBL frequently refers to measuring or dividing land by means 
of a “rope”.  
8.  KJV translates XBL as “portions” at Joshua 17: 5 and Ezekiel 47: 13.  
JPS1985 translates XBL at Joshua 17: 5 as “districts”, meaning a region of land 
that has been delineated by men.  A district could be measured or divided, 
and boundaries drawn concerning such, by means of using a “rope”.  The 
unsolvable problem for the translators is that XBL simultaneously means “rope” and “
portion” and “inheritance” and “district” and “land” and “a 
divinely-approved inheritance of a region of land”, and there is no word like that in 
English.  Nor does the English language have this “rope imagery”.  
At Ezekiel 47: 13, the “portions” in question are inheritances of large 
regions of land, that have been delineated and measured as if by “ropes”.  Over 
and over again, XBL is tied to land in the Bible, with “rope” being used to 
draw boundaries and borders for land, and to measure the extent of land, which 
often is a sizable district as a divinely-approved inheritance.  (In Biblical 
Hebrew, XBL/“rope” as a “district” or “region” often refers to a tract of 
land approximately the size of the Aijalon Valley.)
One important point here is that the overtones of “rope” to the early 
Hebrews are completely different than in modern English.  English-speakers don’t 
associate “rope” with divinely-approved inheritances of regions of land, but the 
Hebrews did.  There are many statues from Mesopotamia that exhibit similar “
rope imagery”.  “Rope” and “land” and “divinely-approved inheritances of 
regions of land” go hand in hand in the ancient near east.
On a surprising number of occasions, XBL/“rope” in the Bible means a 
well-delineated inheritance of a region of land/XBL.  The substantive connection may 
be obtuse to modern English speakers, but it’s fundamental to the language of 
Biblical Hebrew.  Strange as it may seem to us moderns, “rope” and “land” 
are at times almost synonymous in Biblical Hebrew.  Yes, it’s a metaphorical use 
of the word “rope”/XBL, but that metaphor is very pervasive in the Bible.  
The mundane English word “portion” can hardly do this rich Hebrew symbolism 
justice.  One begins to understand how critically important “rope” was to the 
early Hebrews, who profoundly shaped the language of Biblical Hebrew.
In this post I have noted many times in which XBL/“rope” is a virtual 
synonym for “land”, or “a well-defined tract of land”, or “district”, or a “
divinely-approved inheritance of a region of land”.  To the early Hebrews, “land” 
and “rope” were inseparable, and at times are veritable synonyms.  This 
aspect of the language of Biblical Hebrew is eternally showing us how very 
important manufactured, twisted “rope”/XBL was to the early Hebrews.  “Rope imagery” 
is embedded in the very fabric of Biblical Hebrew.  In particular, XBL/“rope”
 often means “land”, or “a well-defined tract of land”, or “district”, or 
a “divinely-approved inheritance of a region of land”.
Jim Stinehart
Evanston, Illinois

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