In English the word 'hair' is an orphan. That means that it sits on top of the derivation tree; there's no word or idea in use in the English language where the word hair comes from. But because hair is such a distinct item, the word hair is also a very fertile parent. Everything that is either long or thin or occurs in bristles, is referred to by means of that distinctive word hair. Hence we eat hair-pasta, repair hair-cracks, and grow hair-grass. Expressively, we try to not go against the hair, or get in someone's hair. When, in the morning, one hangs by a hair, we subscribe hair of the dog. And when we let our hair down, we try not to split any.
In Hebrew, however, the word and idea of hair is part of a larger symbolic and verbal superstructure.
Of course this theory is rejected by those who on general principle reject the theory that us humans once had a few sibling species, as well as by those who reject the theory that very old data can be preserved in a culture's collective memory. But that's beside the point right now.
Another derivation of our mysterious root word is the noun , male goat or buck ( denotes the female). If the meaning of the mystery root is indeed 'to be hairy,' a goat was known as a hairy one. But that seems a bit odd since a goat is not more hairy than any other animal, and certainly not the most hairy of the herd animals. For us the most important difference between goats and sheep, however, is that goats 'are generally more alert than sheep' (according to Dr. Clive Dalton). That means that a shepherd would keep an eye on his goats more than his sheep, to get an early indication that danger approached.
A large majority of occurrences of this word deals with the goat as sin offer (Lev 4 and 16). In Dan 8:5 the hairy he-goat returns as symbol of Javan (Greece; the culture that taught the world philosophy and math and all that). This word also serves as the name Seir, the nickname and place of residence of our friend Esau.
Four instances of the word are a bit disputed, although the dispute has been largely settled. In the texts Lev 17:7, 2 Chr 11:15, Isa 13:21 and 34:14 the King James Version translated the word with demon or satyr. TWOTOT disdainfully remarks that 'there is no need to go to this bizarre translation. NIV translates the first two instances as "goat idol," the last two as "goat" and "wild goat." The NASB is similar but uses "satyr" in 2 Chr 11:15.' And paces a footnote 'demon' under Isa 34:14, we would like to add.
The feminine noun (se'ora 2274f) denotes barley. The connection between hair and this 'bearded' grain seems obvious, but it should be noted that barley was typically used as fodder for animals (1 Ki 4:28), and by people only consumed by the very poor (Ruth 2:7, Jud 7:13, John 6:5). Barley, remarkably, also played a part in the jealousy trial, 'for it is a food offering of jealousy, a food offering of memorial, a reminder of sin' (Numb 5:15). Since the barley harvest takes place a few weeks before the wheat harvest, the barley harvest signified the time of the Feast of First Fruits, a.k.a Feast of Weeks, and Feast of Pentecost (Num 28:26-31; Ruth 1:22; 2:23; 2 Sam 21:9, 10)
That the meaning of the root is probably not simply 'to be hairy' but something upon which the symbolic meaning of hair was grafted becomes clear by the derived verb (sa'ar 2274d), to be very afraid. Both TWOTOT and BDB suggest a meaning of 'to bristle with terror,' but that seems highly artificial. This verb occurs in the following four texts:
Job 18:20, "those in the West shall be amazed at his day, and those in the East were seized (horrified or hairified?)."
Jer 2:12, "Be amazed, O heavens, at this, and be (horrified or hairy?), be utterly desolated, declares YHWH." (Even with all anthromorphic lenience and poetic licence, to pin bristling as an attribute to the heavens is really rather daft.)
Eze 27:35, "All the inhabitants of the coastlands are appalled at you, and their kings are (hairy and hair/ horrified and horror) trembles their faces." (Hebrew repeats a word to present an emphasis, but in this case a correct rendering would be: and their kings are horrified; horror trembles on their faces). A similar message occurs in Eze 32:10.
It seems that the most basic meaning of our root is one of intense awareness, with undertones of fear or reverence and the wish for self-preservation. Hence the goat is not 'the hairy one,' but 'the aware one,' or rather, 'the one who makes aware' and serves in the sin-offering ritual as symbol of awareness of sin, which parallels the later doctrine of forgiveness via confession, which obviously requires an awareness first (1 John 1:9). The demon-translation that the KJV proposes may actually be rooted in a forgotten tradition that still linked awareness to goats. Demons, after all, do nothing but convince people of their sin; the word diabolo comes from the Greek word for accuser. This forgotten tradition may even have helped the Knights Templars choose their goat-headed Baphomet.
Barley is not a 'bearded' grain but a produce that made aware of the time of the year, and reasons for gratitude. It's typical that the Holy Spirit was poured out on Pentecost, and that a strong wind was heard (Acts 2:1-2). We've already noted a connection between hair and certain storm-words and we'll have a better look below. The killer-cake that rolled into the Midianite camp was typically made of barley (Judg 7:13), and Gideon's campaign was specifically designed to cause the kind of fear that is also noted in the above cited texts (Job 18:20, etc).
Words are grouped by roots, and if a word-group is spelled the same as some other word-group but obviously means something different, we assume that the two come from different roots. The word (sa'ar), hair, is generally assumed to come from one of four different roots, but now that we are disputing the meaning of , we are inevitably disputing the sole reason why it is thought that there are multiple roots that look the same but aren't.
The Bible writers didn't have the benefit of dictionaries and spelling standards, which sometimes resulted in an interchanging of letters that sounded the same, or at least that's what we assume. An example of this are the letters (shin) and (samekh), that both probably sounded like our letter 's'. Later the itself breached into two different letters, namely (shin, with the dot to the right, sounds like 'sh') and (sin, with the dot to the left, sounds like 's'). That these differences in pronunciation had to do with different dialects that were spoken in different regions is illustrated by the style of writers from those regions. The book of Judges tells of a speech test based on the word shibboleth (a regular word that either means flowing stream - Isa 27:12 - or head of grain - Ruth 2:2). Those who pronounced this word as (shibboleth) spoke with the Gileadite dialect; those who said (sibboleth) spoke with the Ephraimite dialect.
Hence, when we are looking at a word that contains a , or a , it's always interesting to look at possible alternate spellings. It so happens that our root 2 has a such a by-form:
The verb (sa'ar 1528) means to storm, whirlwind, tempest, rage, and is obviously a by-form of (sa'ar 2275). The curious thing about this word, however, is its remarkably frequent usage in denotements of metaphorical storms; 'storms' that describe anger, fear, the wrath of the Lord or full fledged theophanies. Since this word tends to be used 'metaphorically' in earlier texts and literally in late text, we propose that the original meaning of the verb had to do with human passion, and that the usage to describe meteorological storms is in fact the metaphor.
Most notable instances are the whirlwind in which Elijah ascends (2 Ki 2:1, 11), and the whirlwind that precedes Ezekiel's theophany (Eze 1:4). Out of this whirlwind God speaks to Job (Job 38:1, 40:6), and Zechariah predicts that the Messiah will march in the whirlwinds of the south (Zech 9:14).
Root number three (TWOTOT index 2276) is the verb and nobody knows what it means. It's been deemed a separate root because its sole Biblical usage is at odds with the traditional meaning of any other the other -roots. The text where this 'new' root occurs is Deut 32:17, the Song of Moses: "They sacrificed to demons who were not God, to gods whom they did not know, new ones who came lately; your fathers had not them."
Suggestions on how to translate this peculiar verb range from 'dread' (NAS, Green, others) to 'had acquaintance,' 'revere with awe,' and 'shudder before' (BDB). Here at Abarim Publications we have less trouble with this verb. It is of course a straight-through-the-gate instance of our primary definition: intense awareness. This third root is not a root but an application of root 1.
Root number four (TWOTOT index 2277) is the assumed and unused root of the plural derivation (se'irim 2277a), apparantly denoting some kind of precipitation. Like the previous 'root' it is used only once. And it's used in close proximity to the unique instance of the previous 'root,' again in the Song of Moses. All the more reason to be suspicious:
Deut 32:1-2 reads, "Give ear, O heavens, and let me speak; and let the earth hear the words of my mouth. Let my teaching drop as the rain, my speech distil as the dew, as the on the fresh grass and as the showers on the herb."
This exquisite line consists of an intricate symmetry, about which is much to say. But it is obviously primarily permeated with images of precipitation. Since Israel was an agricultural society, rain in all its forms stood at the base of prosperity. As such it was held indistinguishable from wisdom, knowledge and revelation, and this becomes most clear by the word (which, by the way, isn't used in Deut 32:1-2).
The word (moreh 910b) means early rain (as used in Joel 2:23 and Ps 84:7). This word - inclusive later added consonants - is identical to the word (moreh 910c), which means teacher. Both words come from the verb (yarah 910), throw, cast or shoot. This verb is also used to describe shooting arrows (2 Chr 26:15, see also Eph 6:16). Another derivation of this root is the word (torah 910d), Torah, meaning Law. The name Jerusalem may have reminded the Hebrews of this verb, and that's maybe why they didn't change it when they conquered it...
The verb (yarah 911), to be afraid (only used in Isa 44:8), is identical to (yarah 910), save for the dot in the heart of the last letter. That dot is called a mappiq and it serves to indicate pronunciation. Even though both words end up being pronounced the same, the dot suggests that they are different words. However, TWOTOT admits that this word probably comes from (yare 907), fear, be afraid, revere. And about the identical word (yare 908), means to shoot or pour (2 Chr 26:15, 2 Sam 11:24, Prov 11:25) TWOTOT states that it is 'doubtless a by-form of' (yarah 910). Go figure.
The word (matar 1187a) means rain; the verb (matar 1187) means to rain. TWOTOT states, "Rain is never to be taken for granted by mankind; it comes from the hand of God (Ps 147:8, Job 5:10, 28:26) in amounts proportional to the spiritual condition of the inhabitants of that land," (Deut 11:10-18, Amos 4:7).
(tal 807a), dew, comes from the assumed root (tll 807). Apart from the regular observations of dew, dew yielded manna after it evaporated (Ex 16:13-14), is compared to the king's favor (Prov 19:12), instructions (Deut 32:2), brotherhood (Ps 133:3), prosperity (Job 29:19), and the remnant of Jacob among the people (Mic 5:7). The identical root (talal 808) means to cover over (Gen 19:8, Neh 3:15).
(rebibim 2099f), copious showers, comes from the verb (rabab 2099), become many or much. The identical verb (rabab 2100) means to shoot and, like the verb (yarah 910), is used to denote the action of archers (Gen 49:23).
Rain in all its forms made the Hebrews think of God's blessings or instructions. If we take the word to mean some kind of rain, it may very well be taken from our basic meaning of intense awareness. Root 4 is also not a root but may in fact stem from the words generally grouped under our root 2.
More alternative spellings
We already looked at the alternative spelling , where the was replaced by . In some cases there is also a clear correlation between words spelled with a and those spelled with a (although these two letters have specialized so much that often these semi-similar words are really quite different; so caution is in order). The form (sha'ar) is associated with three roots:
Root 1: (sho'ar 2437a) is the assumed root of (sha'ar 2437a), gate (in the sense of a bustling center of commerce, government and court - see our remarks on Samson above). Another derivation is (sho'er 2437b), gatekeeper/ porter.
Root 2: is the verb (sha'ar 2438), calculate, reckon (Prov 23:7) which may have to do with the activity pursued in the gate. Derivation (sha'ar 2438a) means measure (a hundred fold; Gen 26:12).
Root 3: (sh'r 2439), the assumed root of words such as (sho'ar 2439a), horrid, disgusting (Jer 29:17); (sha'arura 2439b), horror, appaling (Jer 5:30, 23:14); (sha'aruriya 2439a) or (sha'arurit 2439c2), horrible thing (Hos 6:10, Jer 18:13). There seems to be some relation between this root and verb (sho'ar 2274d), to be very afraid/ horrified.
To understand something it may be beneficial to study the opposite. Hair itself doesn't have an opposite, but hairy is the opposite of bold or hairless. There are a few words in the Bible that deal with this.
The smoothness of Jacob is denoted with the word (halaq 670c), and comes from yet another root-twin, namely (halaq 669 and 670). Root (halaq 670), from which our word supposedly comes, means to be smooth or slippery. This word is sometimes used to denote slippery stones or bald mountains but most often to denote flattery and slander. The other root, (halaq 669), denotes sharing, dividing or apportion, mostly of plots of land.
There are at least two instances in which TWOTOT suggests that a derived word was placed under the wrong root. In many translations Hosea 10:2 speaks of a 'divided' heart (taken from 669) but better would be a 'slippery' heart (taken from 670). And in 1 Sam 23:28 occurs the name Sela-hammahlekoth, and the question is whether this denotes a place called Slippery Rock (yes says BDB; probably not, says TWOTOT) or Rock Of Divisions, as some others have it, or Rock Of Escapes (after an Akadian root meaning to escape).
It seems as if our word for Jacob's smoothness would fit right under root 670, but at second glance this root emphasizes poor footing and not some kind of exterior. The opposite of Jacob's smoothness is Esau's hairiness, but the opposite of a slippery rock or a slippery tongue is by no means a hairy rock or a hairy tongue. The opposite of a slippery rock is a big flat solid boulder, and the opposite of a slippery tongue is a tongue that speaks truth. It seems much more likely that the word for Jacob's smoothness comes from root 669, and that it refers to Jacob's few islands of hair in contrast to Esau's full coat.
Another hairy-antonym is the Bible's regular word for bald or baldness: (qerah 2070a), and this word occurs without exception in negative contexts. Baldness could be deliberate, as a permitted sign of mourning (Mic 1:16) or as a forbidden sign belonging to an rivaling religion (Jer 9:23). Baldness could also be involuntary and if it wasn't accompanied by rashes of any kind, the person was clean (Lev 13:40-42).
2 Kings 2:24Assuming that holiness also brings about a certain forgiveness for a child's foolishness, the horrible scene in which forty-two young boys are torn apart by bears after they shouted 'baldhead' to Elisha (2 Ki 2:24) can only be explained by the metaphorical meaning of baldness. We've suggested that hair stands for intense awareness, specifically about God's wrath or revelation (which makes the shaving of hair a logical response to grief). Since baldness usually occurs in aged men, who also may show signs of a slipping mind, the kids were basically stating that Elisha was dementing. Specifically, since they used the word 'go up,' it seems likely that they expressed an unbelief that Elijah had 'gone up' to heaven in the whirlwind.
Elijah's ascension was witnessed by Elisha but also by fifty prophets from Bethel and Jericho, who had even predicted this twice (2:3 and 5). Still, when it had happened, even the prophets could not believe it and demanded that they go search for Elijah. It seems likely that they couldn't clearly see what was going on in the distance, and perhaps they didn't even see the chariot of fire (the same thing happened to Paul, after all - Acts 9:7). Their adamancy ashamed Elisha (2:17) and perhaps because of two reasons. First of all, it is always sad to see men of the cloth unable to believe a miracle, but secondly, the authority of Elisha came from Elijah and was only valid if Elijah was actually gone.
Only after three days of searching the prophets reluctantly gave up, but not before asking Elisha for a demonstration of his powers (2:19). As Elisha finally went on his way, the children of Bethel showed up and reflected the unbelief that was rampant in the town. Possibly because even heavenly powers can be obstructed by unbelief (Mat 13:58, explained by texts such as Rom 1:16 and Eph 2:8), God intervened and destroyed that generation. The point was made, and Elisha became one of the most powerful men Israel had ever seen.
The word qerah (baldness) returns as the name of Korah, who descended live into Sheol for demanding from Moses that he too could draft law. It's improbable that Korah's parents named him Baldie at birth. This name was probably pinned on him after his insurrection, which all the more argues our interpretation of the verbal element of hair.