Abarim Publications' online Biblical Hebrew Dictionary
Scholars have identified four separate roots of the form ענה ('nh), but there is some compelling overlap in the meanings of these roots. So much even that one may wonder whether any Hebrew audience realized there were indeed four different roots at work:
The verb ענה ('ana I) means to answer or respond or even to testify. Obviously, a verb like this occurs all over the Bible - HAW Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament counts 617 instances.
This verb yields a few very curious derivatives which have to do with time (a point in time or a period) and which baffle the various sources:
- The mostly feminine but sometimes masculine noun עת ('et), is the Bible's usual word for time. It obviously occurs all over the Bible.
- The adverb of time עתה ('atta) means now (Genesis 32:5, Exodus 18:11).
- The adjective עתי ('itti), means timely or ready (Leviticus 16:21).
- The ubiquitous preposition or conjunction יען (ya'an), meaning on account of, or because (and note that this word is spelled the same as יען, ya'en, meaning ostrich, see below).
The Hebrews obviously had quite an unusual view on either answering or time, or both. But it should be remembered that the Hebrews didn't have a linear view of time as we have. Their perception of time was mostly cyclic. They had no calendars like we have them, but rather hours, days and months that corresponded to various phases in the agricultural year. It appears that the most fundamental meaning of this verb has to do with association or correspondence:
- The masculine noun מענה (ma'aneh) means an answer. Note that this noun is spelled the same as מענה (ma'ana), meaning a field (see below), and the noun מענה (me'ona), denoting the den or lair of wild animals, from the root עון ('wn).
- The feminine noun ענה ('ona), meaning cohabitation (Exodus 21:10).
The verb ענה ('ana II) means to be busy or occupied with something. It only occurs in Ecclesiastes 1:13 and 3:10. Linguists insist that this root is separate from ana I but obviously ana II also leans towards a fundamental meaning of association. Its derivations are:
- The masculine noun ענין ('inyan), meaning occupation or task (Ecclesiastes only: 1:13, 2:23 . . . ).
- The feminine noun מענה (ma'ana), literally meaning a place for a task, which in practice comes down to a field (Psalm 129:3, 1 Samuel 14:14).
The verb ענה ('ana III) means to afflict, oppress or humble. HAW reports a fundamental meaning of to force or to try to force into submission. This verb yields a rich crop of derivations as well, all having to do with humility or oppression:
- The masculine noun ענו ('anaw), meaning the poor, afflicted, needy (Proverbs 14:21, Psalm 10:16).
- The feminine noun ענוה ('anawa), meaning humility (Psalm 45:4, 18:35).
- The feminine noun ענות ('enut), meaning affliction (Psalm 22:24 only).
- The adjective עני ('ani) meaning poor, afflicted (Deuteronomy 15:11, Isaiah 3:14).
- The masculine noun עני ('oni), meaning affliction or poverty (Exodus 3:7, 1 Chronicles 22:14).
- The feminine noun תענית (ta'anit), meaning humiliation (by fasting; Ezra 9:5 only).
The verb ענה ('ana IV) means to sing (Exodus 15:21, Jeremiah 51:14). HAW insists that this root should be distinguished from ana I but the distinction is so vague that translators sometimes don't know which verb to chose. HAW mentions Hosea 2:21-22 where the joyful context seems to warrant a meaning of God and the heavens and the earth "singing" to each other rather than "answer" to each other.
The root יען (y'n) may not have existed in Hebrew but its existence is called upon in order to explain the masculine noun יען (ya'en) and its feminine equivalent יענה (ya'ana), which denote the male and female of some kind of animal. This animal is by many assumed to be an ostrich but here at Abarim Publications we doubt that seriously (we'll get to that).
But was this animal known by words of their own root, or were they perhaps drawn from the above? Note that our masculine noun is spelled the same as the preposition יען (ya'an), meaning on account of, or because (see above) and our feminine noun is spelled the same as the third person singular form of any of the verbs ענה (see for instance Genesis 41:16, "he answered", or Numbers 35:30, "he testified"). Our animal may simply be known as a "he answers/ busies/ oppresses/ sings" or reflective as an "answerer/ busy-body / oppressed one / singer".
But our words may also be entirely without root in Hebrew simply because they were imported from another language. The masculine noun is used only once, in plural, in Lamentations 4:3, where Jeremiah observes that even jackals (תן, tan) nurse their young but the daughter of his people has become cruel like ענים in the wilderness. The feminine version, however, occurs solely preceded by the definite article (ה) and in combination with the word בת (bat), meaning daughter, to create the phrase בת היענה (bat heya'na), which immediately brings to mind the Latin word hyaena, as used by Pliny, and the Greek equivalent υαινα (haina) as used by Herodotus, both meaning hyena.
This Greek word υαινα (haina) in turn comes from the noun υσ (hus), meaning hog or wild swine (2 Peter 2:22) and is in fact a feminine derivation of it, which would explain the Hebrew distinction "daughter of". In the Bible this creature is nearly always mentioned along the jackal (lament like the jackals and mourn like the bat heya'na; Micah 1:8), as representatives of the creatures which proverbially inhabit desolated ruins and wildernesses (Job 30:29, Isaiah 13:21, 34:13, 43:20, Jeremiah 50:39).
The only times when this creature is not mentioned along the jackal and desert creatures is in Leviticus 11:16 and Deuteronomy 14:15, where it is listed among the unclean birds. It's possible that the phrase bat heya'na solely denoted some kind of vulture (there are sixteen Old World species alive today and an untold number of extinct ones), but the descriptions outside the Torah are too fitting to hyena's to disregard.
Here at Abarim Publications we guess that the phrase bat heya'na indeed denoted the hyena, but that it was also applied to a kind of bird (say, a hypothetical "hyena-vulture"). This is not an unreasonable suggestion. Both the Greek and the Latin words for hyena came from the word for swine (making our bird a "swine-bird"), which were proverbially known for their stupidity and destructiveness (hence a "destroyer-bird"), and both the Greek and the Latin word also denoted a kind of fish (a "hyena-fish" or a "sow-fish" or a "molester-fish").