Abarim Publications' online Biblical Hebrew Dictionary
The root דבר (dabar), its many derivations and the many meaning of each derivation, occur over 2,500 times in the Old Testament. HAW Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament reports that the King James Bible uses more than 110 different English words and expressions to translate this one Hebrew word דבר (dabar).
Our root basically has to do with the vocal conveyance of a whole message (unlike the verb אמר (amar), which means to say or talk), or refers to 'matters' or 'things to be discussed'.
Besides its enormous significance in the phrase Word of God, the root is used to indicate the "order" of Melchizedek, the "inner sanctuary" of the Holy of Holies, the Ten "Commandments" and to supply two out of five books of Moses with their titles: the original title of Numbers is וידבר (Wayyadabar - And He spoke) but is also known as במדבר (Bemidbar - In the wilderness). The original title of Deuteronomy is הדברים (Hadabarim - The Words). In Judges 5:12 the judge Deborah (דברה) is urged to 'word' (d.b.r.y) a song.
Scholars generally have the root דבר (dabar) break apart into two distinct groups of meanings:
A: a group of words that pertain to speech and specifically intelligent discourse.
B: a group that pertains to being behind or coming later or as a consequence.
But such a division is not required when we recognize that speech and reason are highly personal and strongly defining attributes which are obtained long after the person begins to exist, so actually (A) is a sub-group of (B) and the two aren't groups at all. Still, the distinction persists in its English reflection and may help us to reach some understanding of the height and depth of this marvelous word.
We'll have a look at the derivations of the root דבר (dabar) and mark each with an (A) or (B), depending on which group of meanings the word belongs to. We stress again that no such distinction exists in Hebrew; to the Hebrews all words that follow are closely related in essence, and all variations of the same theme.
Abarim Publication postulates that this theme, of which speech and reason is also an expression, in its most fundamental sense is fruitfulness, fruitage; the bringing forth of things, or the bringing about of things. In fact, since the Hebrew language is not as lavish in its use of the verb 'to be' as English, we see a large overlap of both the verb and the noun dabar with the idea of the being or coming about of predominantly conceptual entities; things, anything that can be named, and tapping into the creation theme, anything that God spoke (or could have spoken) into being:
The verb דבר (dabar) (A). As a verb, this word generally denotes the producing of whatever the same word means as noun, hence: to speak, declare, warn, threaten, command, promise, sing . . . etc. The noun always denotes a message or at least a verbal unit that came from contemplative thought, or (according to HAW Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament ) "most matters pertaining to moral and ideal values".
The verb dabar should be distinguished from אמר (amar), to say or talk, or rather the activity that brings about strings of these: אמר (omer) 'word,' such as those found in dictionaries. The verb amar brings the focus on what is spoken, but dabar brings the focus on the actual speaking. The verb amar always comes with what was said (i.e.: and then he said, "fine morning, ain't it?"), while dabar may occur without content (i.e.: and, after clearing his throat, he spoke.)
The verb dabar occurs in Psalm 18:47b: "And subdues people under me [NAS]," but in the 2 Samuel 22:48 parallel the verb ירד (yarad, bring down; see Jordan) is used. Finally it should be noted that 400 out of 1100 occurrences of the verb dabar are in the formula 'and God said/promised/commanded/etc.'
The masculine noun דבר (dabar) (A). As a noun, this word denotes a unit that was made to come about. It can be a single word, but it can also be a whole sentence or statement like the Ten Words (a.k.a. the Ten Commandments) which by sheer fact of their decree brought about people who didn't steal and murder etc (read our article on Romans 7).
Dabar can be an 'act' such as the acts of King David (1 Chronicles 29:29; we suggest: the things that David 'made to come about'), and it can be a whole literary corpus (a book as a physical object or a general account is called ספר (seper) such as the book of Samuel the Seer who recorded the acts of David, or Chronicles, which was originally titled: דברי הימים (dabary heyomim), "Events of the Days / Times".
Dabar may be as general as to mean 'thing'. The proper plural (דברים, dabarim, or the pseudo-genitive plural דברי, meaning 'dabarim of') may mean 'words' (Genesis 11:1) as well as 'things' (Genesis 15:1) or 'matters' (Exodus 18:19).
Together with על ('al), meaning on or upon, our noun forms the phrase על־דבר; upon the thing, or on account of, or simply: because. Together with כל (kol, meaning all) it becomes 'everything' and note how this also relates to Deuteronomy 8:3 and Matthew 4:4, "Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word [that is: everything] that comes from the mouth (Hebrew: midbar, see next) of the Lord".
With certain negations (such as לא (lo'), meaning not or no) our word expresses 'nothing'. Together with על ('al), meaning on or upon, our word forms the term על־דבר, literally upon the thing, or rather: 'on account of', or 'because'. Together with יום (yom), meaning day, our word forms the phrase דבר־יום; 'thing of the day' or 'daily chore'.
In conjunction with YHWH, the word dabar denotes either any word spoken by God, or a specific Person of the Godhead who is talking. In the inaugurate usage (Genesis 15:1), the Word of the Lord comes to Abram in a vision — מחזה (mahazeh) from the verb חזה (haza), meaning to look or see — indicating that he was seeing the Word of God. When the Word of the Lord actually addresses Abram to say His first recorded words ever, namely, לא־תירא (lo-teyare; don't be afraid), the verb אמר ('amar, meaning to say) is used. In the New Testament the Word of the Lord is recognized as Jesus Christ, who came down from heaven to bring about the will of God (John 6:38). And there's that theme again.
The masculine noun דבר (deber) (B), meaning pestilence, or perhaps most literally: something awful. This very common word is used nearly always in the sense of punishment sent by God as a result of sin. Deber denotes any kind of pestilence that results in death.
The masculine noun דבר (dober) (B), meaning pasture/ fold. A mere two times does דבר (dober) mean pasture: Micah 2:12 and Isaiah 5:17, both as feeding ground for lambs (Isaiah) and a flock of sheep (Micah). Possibly the idea of a pasture is related to that of the midbar (see next), but maybe the two prophets placed the sheep utopical in their 'element,' (lambs grazing in their thing) a concept so difficult to translate that later, translated texts speak of pasture (because that's how Scripture Theorists figure that the same word dbr means something else this time). Contemporary generations may want to translate these instances of דבר (dober) with groove. Perhaps not.
The feminine plural noun דברות (dobrot) (B), meaning floats. Once the dbr root shows up as something that's made out of logs in order to transport them over water, like a floating raft (1 Kings 5:9). Most likely these floaters were towed by regular vessels.
The feminine noun דברה (dibra) (A and B depending on context), meaning cause, reason, order, matter. Dibra occurs seven times: Job 5:8: NAS, NIV: cause; Psalm 110:4: NAS, NIV: order [of Melchizedek], NEB: succession [of Melchizedek]; Ecclesiastes 7:14: NAS, NIV: anything; Daniel 2:30: NAS: for the purpose of; NIV: so that may; Daniel 4:17: NAS: in order that; NIV: so that may.
Dibra in Ecclesiastes 3:18 and 8:2 results in an obstructing redundancy in English and is generally omitted. But 3:18 reads something like, "I said in my heart concerning the matter of the sons of man". Surely most translators seek to reflect some sphere of archaism, or else (since dabar = logos) the most apt translation of the phrase "the matter of the sons of man" would be: anthropology.
The feminine noun דבורה (deborah) (via B to A), meaning bee (its curious plural דברים or דבורים looks like a common masculine plural; Deuteronomy 1:44, Psalm 118:12, Judges 14:8). Some commentators imagine that the bee was called "a speaker" because of its buzzing. But that can not be true for two reasons. First of all, the bee is not the only animal that makes sound. And secondly, because the bee doesn't speak with its buzzing.
We suggest that the bee was named by means of the dbr root because it produces honey. Honey was the chief sweetener in the olden days, and although God's words are sweater than honey (Psalm 119:103), Ezekiel reports that the scroll full of lamentations that God gave him tasted after it. Manna tasted like honey-wafers; manna also showed the glory of the Lord (Exodus 16:7) and Jesus compares himself to it (John 6:31-35). The promised land was a land of milk and honey (and Paul compares early learning to milk).
Ergo, the bee brings forth the honey which in turn has a lot to do with the Word of God. See our article on the name Deborah.
The masculine noun דביר (debir) (From A to B to A), meaning hindmost chamber (BDB Theological Dictionary), inner sanctuary (NAS, NIV), oracle (KJV). This word, when it doesn't mean the town Debir, is reserved as an alternative name of the Holy of Holies in Solomon's temple and, because of the connection to dabar, was translated 'oracle' by the King James and others. Younger translations tend to lean towards group B and seek meaning in the location of the Holy of Holies; in the back. Most notably is its usage in Psalm 28:2, " . . . onto the debir of your holiness".
Abarim Publications likes to suggest that since in the Holy of Holies the Ark was kept, and in the Ark the Law, which in turn is intimately related to the Word of God, a better translation of the word debir is 'place of the Word.'
The masculine noun מדבר (midbar) (A and B), meaning mouth. Just once the dbr root denotes mouth (your mouth is lovely - Song of Solomon 4:3), we may assume as source of speech. An apt translation would be 'your yap' if that hadn't had the negative connotation. Better is: 'You say nice things.'
The other, more regular word for mouth (nearly 500 occurrences) is פה (peh). Since the words of God are often reported to come out of His mouth, it should be obvious at once that the Hebrews did not see the mouth as part of what we call a face (God doesn't have one) but rather as origin or well of words going one way and receptacle of food going the other.
In its article on פה (peh), HAW Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament even states, "The mouth is the external manifestation of one's character and disposition".
The masculine noun מדבר (midbar) (A? B?). This noun is identical to the previous noun. Usually it's translated with 'wilderness' but that doesn't seem to do justice.
Midbar is the only word from the dbr stock that doesn't immediately obviously fall into one of the two categories. But still it must be noted that where our English word 'wilderness' brings to mind something wild; something untamed, uncultivated, or unregulated, the word midbar brings to mind the word dabar; word, entity, thing. Like words 'live' in the mouth, so do things live in a midbar. A midbar is an ecosystem where entities exists in a larger system, just like words exists in speech.
The word midbar does not denote a specific kind of terrain, and even the subdivision that some scholars list does not satisfy. Sometimes the word denotes lush stretches that are good for grazing (Psalm 65:12, Jeremiah 23:10) but sometimes a midbar is deserted and empty. Job 38:26 speaks of a ארץ ('eres; land) without איש ('ish; people) and a מדבר (midbar; wilderness) without אדם (adam; men), and just like a land is not typically without people, so is a midbar also not typically without men. Sometimes the midbar even holds towns and peoples (Isaiah 42:11, Joshua 15:61).
Twice, however, the word is used metaphorically and typically negative: Hosea 2:5 and Jeremiah 2:31, possibly validated by its ultimate association to wildernesses such as the deserts of Negev and Sinai.