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Abarim Publications' Biblical Dictionary: The Hebrew word: חמר
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Abarim Publications' online Biblical Hebrew Dictionary

חמר

There are three separate roots of the form חמר (hmr), which conveys the same relation between tranquility, mud and the color red as does the cluster of words that contains אדם ('adam).

It appears to us here at Abarim Publications that to the Hebrews the color red denoted the rudiments or principal beginnings of civilization (and see our article on the Red Sea for a discussion on how the ancients saw the color red), whereas muddy substances metaphorized the transitional phase between ignorance (water) and understanding (dry land).

This same link between mud and red is suggested in the words יון (yawan), meaning mire and which is also the name Javan, which is Greece, and יין (yayan), meaning wine.


חמר I

The verb חמר (hamar I) is thought to express the exuberant boiling or fermenting of a liquid, but here at Abarim Publications we have our doubts about that. In Arabic this verb describes the slow and gradual process of fermentation of wine or rising of dough from leaven, and, as will become clear below, in Hebrew it too describes a peaceful or tranquil progression or going forth; like the slowly flowing of a viscous liquid.

Our verb is used of wine (Psalm 75:8, although some translators derive this instance from חמר III, see below) and waters (Psalm 46:4 and Habakkuk 3:15, although some derive the latter from חמר II).

Twice the distraught Jeremiah ascribes the quality of this verb to his innards (Lamentations 1:20 and 2:11), which generally prompts translators to interpret this verb with to boil feverishly, but here at Abarim Publications we figure that the stress made Jeremiah's bowels "go forth tranquilly;" he was having diarrhea.

This verb comes with the following derivatives:

  • The masculine noun חמר (hemer), which is thought to denote a kind of wine, but that's dubious. It occurs a mere two times in the Bible. In Deuteronomy 32:14 Moses sings, "[of the] blood of grapes you drank חמר (hemer)", which makes little sense when חמר (hemer) means wine. It probably denotes a mental state of tranquility brought about by the consumption of this grape-blood (and note that the word for blood is דם, dam, from the parallel אדם-cluster of words). In Isaiah 2:7 our word modifies the noun כרם (kerem), meaning vineyard, and clearly doesn't mean wine but rather a kind of pleasantness such as tranquility. As noted above: the regular word for wine is יין (yayin), which is strikingly similar to the noun יון (yawan), meaning mud or mire (hence the name Javan, the Hebrew word for Greece).
  • The masculine noun חמר (hemar), meaning bitumen or asphalt, a naturally surfacing (Genesis 14:10), reddish (see חמר III) viscous substance that was used as mortar in building projects (Genesis 11:3) and as sealant (Exodus 2:3). This material was liquid when heated and solid when cooled, and surfaced in calm, natural wells we now call seeps. Around the Dead Sea, these natural seeps were harvested probably on an industrial scale (Genesis 14:10).
  • The masculine noun חמר (homer), denoting clay that serves as cement (Genesis 11:3, Exodus 1:14), clay from which to make earthenware vessels (Jeremiah 18:4, Isaiah 45:9) or slushy mire to get stuck in (Job 30:19, Isaiah 10:6). Another word for clay or mud is אדמה (adama, hence the name Adam), which, as mentioned above, too is homonymous with a cluster of words that mean red (hence the name Edom).
  • The denominative verb חמר (hamar), meaning to smear with mud or asphalt (Exodus 2:3 only).
חמר II

The verb חמר (hamar II) means to heap up. It exists in cognate languages but isn't used as verb in the Bible with the possible exception of Habakkuk 3:15. Its extant derivatives are:

  • The masculine noun חמר (homer), meaning heap. It occurs only in Exodus 8:10 in the duplicated plural form חמרם חמרם, meaning heaps and heaps (of dead frogs).
  • The identical masculine noun חמר (homer), which is a large measure of volume (estimates range from 200 to 400 liters) used predominantly for cereals (Isaiah 5:10, Ezekiel 45:13, Hosea 3:2), which may explain the connection to the previous noun. One homer was equal to ten ephahs.
  • The masculine noun חמר (hamor), also meaning heap. This highly similar noun occurs only in Judges 15:16, where Samson utters the enigmatic words: "in the jawbone of an ass (חמור, see below) is a heap (חמר) of heaps (חמרתים)," using three times the root-form חמר (hmr).

It doesn't seem unreasonable to construe this root חמר (hamar II) too as describing a slow progression or a slow flowing. This root is concerned with a heaping up, while the previous one expresses building.

חמר III

The verb חמר (hamar III) is thought to mean to be red (it does so in Arabic) and is thought by some but not all scholars to occur in Psalm 75:8 and Job 16:16. It comes with two derivatives:

  • The masculine noun חמור (hamor) denotes the ass or donkey, and this is peculiar because donkeys of the Middle East are grey. See the note below.
  • The masculine noun יחמור (yahmur), which probably denotes a deer, and more specifically a roebuck, which indeed is somewhat reddish in color. This animal is mentioned twice in the Bible, and twice in a list of edible animals (Deuteronomy 14:5 and 1 Kings 4:23).

Commentators often wonder why the ass or donkey was named "red one" since in the Levant donkeys aren't red. The obvious answer is that donkeys weren't known as "red ones" but as "tranquil ones" after the first root.

Red was the color of tranquility or settlement, and something that was tranquil was called red despite its actual color (another example of this may be the Red Sea). Since soldiers would ride horses or camels, the donkey became something of a peace symbol and hence the King of Zion would come riding on a donkey (Zechariah 9:9, Matthew 21:5). But possibly because donkeys are easier to handle than horses and camels, the donkey was also the preferred mode of transportation of women and children (Zipporah: Exodus 4:20; Achsah: Judges 15:18; Abigail: 1 Samuel 25:20), or peaceful, non-military men (Ahithophel: 1 Samuel 17:23; Mephibosheth: 1 Samuel 19:26; Shimei: 1 Kings 2:40; the nameless prophet: 1 Kings 13:13).

Donkeys were also used as beasts of burden (Genesis 22:3, Isaiah 21:7) and as unit of wealth (like sheep, oxen, camels, etcetera; Genesis 12:16, Numbers 16:15, Joshua 6:21). In Genesis 49:14 Jacob calls his son Issachar a reclining donkey, which clearly means that Issachar is tranquil and easy going.

Another word for donkey is עיר ('ayir), which is spelled the same as, and pronounced slightly other than, עיר ('ir), meaning city. In other words: the domestication of the donkey marked the first stage of urban settling.


Associated Biblical names

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