Abarim Publications' online Biblical Hebrew Dictionary
מרר מרה מור
There are two roots of the form מרר (marar) in Hebrew of the Bible; one huge one, and one tiny one. Then there's one root of the form מרה (mara), and one מור (mwr) which are obviously related in form and meaning:
The verb מרר (marar I), means to be bitter (Job 27:2, Ruth 1:20). It should be noted with some stress, however, that for the Hebrew audience the idea of bitterness has as much to do with grief as with strength. A dish with a bitter taste is said to have a "strong" taste.
HAW Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament reports that the Ugaritic, Arabic and Aramaic cognates of this root mean to bless, strengthen or commend. And since these languages are most often very similar to Hebrew, any Hebrew audience would surely be aware of this secondary meaning. HAW lists four texts in which this verb may be more appropriately be translated with strength/strengthen than with bitterness/being bitter: Exodus 1:14, Judges 18:25, Ecclesiastes 7:26 and Ezekiel 3:14.
Although the verb occurs a mere fifteen times in the Bible, it comes with no less than twelve derivatives, all pretty much meaning the same thing:
- The adjective מר (mar), meaning bitter (Genesis 27:34, Exodus 15:23).
- The masculine nouns מר (mor) and מור (mor), mean myrrh (same word). See our feature article below on the characteristics and usages of this marvelous substance.
- The feminine noun מרה (morra), meaning bitterness (Proverbs 14:10). Note that this word and the next are of the same form as the root מרה (marah; see below).
- The feminine noun מרה (mora), also meaning bitterness (Genesis 26:35).
- The masculine noun מרור (maror), meaning bitter thing or bitter herb (Exodus 12:8, Numbers 9:11).
- The feminine equivalent מרורה (merora), meaning bitter thing, gall or poison (Job 13:26, 20:25).
- The feminine noun מררה (merera), meaning gall (Job 16:13 only).
- The adjective מרירי (meriri), meaning bitter (Deuteronomy 32:24).
- The feminine noun מרירות (merirut), meaning bitterness (Ezekiel 21:11).
- The masculine noun ממר (memer), meaning bitterness (Proverbs 17:25).
- The masculine noun ממרור (mamror), meaning bitterness (Job 9:18).
- The masculine noun תמרור (tamrur), meaning bitterness (Hosea 12:14, Jeremiah 6:26). Note that this noun is identical to the noun תמרור (tamrur), meaning marker or sign post, from the root תמר (tmr), meaning to be stiff or erect.
Myrrh, the oil of joy and weddings nights
The masculine nouns מר (mor) and מור (mor) denote a bitter and fragrant spice, which became known to us as myrrh (same word).
Myrrh was the main ingredient of the anointing oil with which Moses was to sprinkle the tabernacle, which made the tabernacle not only visually but also olfactory prominent in Israel's camp (Exodus 30:23). This oil was also used to anoint the various "anointed ones" in Israel's theocratic structure: priests, prophets and kings; those people who had no earthly superior. The familiar titles Messiah and Christ both mean Anointed.
Myrrh-oil became the "oil of joy" with which God anointed the righteous (Psalm 45:7), but mostly it became associated with the consummation of marriage. Esther bathed in myrrh for six months before she was presented to the king (Esther 1:2). Solomon sprinkled his bed with myrrh and invited his bride to drink their fill of love until the morning (Proverbs 7:17-18).
Not surprisingly, half of this word's Biblical usages occur in the Song of Solomon, obviously relating to what we now call copulins, and evenly obvious in a string of clearly sexual metaphors: The bride sighs that her beloved is to her like a pouch of myrrh that lay all night between her breasts (Song of Solomon 1:13), and when he appears she sees him like columns of smoke perfumed with myrrh and frankincense (3:6). The groom meditates on his bride and decides to go to the mountain of myrrh and the hill of frankincense (4:6), and exclaims that his bride is a locked garden contained spices and myrrh (4:14). The bride replies, "Make my garden breathe out fragrance; let its spices be wafted abroad!" (4:16, also see 5:1 and 5:5).
Note that the extra-Biblical name Marathon derives from the Greek word for fennel, which in turn may have to do with our root; see our article on the root שמר (shamar) for more. The battle of Marathon was of course one of the most decisive battle in human history, the outcome of which preserved Greek culture and strongly determined the form and shape of the gospel.
Also note that our noun spelled מור (mor) is spelled identical to the verb מור (mur), meaning to change (see below). Whether this means that to the Hebrews a change has to do with bitterness, or that bitterness leads to change isn't clear, but note that this junction is clearly played upon in the name Mary of Clopas (Clopas also means change but in the sense of exchange; John 19:25).
That myrrh plays an important role in the story of the Christ is made additionally obvious when Nicodemus brings an astounding 100 liters to Christ's burial (John 19:39; read our article on the name Nicodemus for a look at why he might have done this).
The root מרר (marar II) possibly came to Hebrew via Arabic, where it means to pass by or flow. In the Bible only one derivative of this assumed root occurs, and that only once: the masculine noun מר (mar), meaning drop (Isaiah 40:15). Note that this noun is identical to the adjective מר (mar), meaning bitter. Isaiah was such an accomplished poet that this symmetry may be assumed to be deliberate and portentous.
The root-verb מרה (mara) means to be contentious; rebellious against or disobedient towards, which is obviously a stance adjacent מרר (marar I), meaning to be bitter. Our verb מרה (mara) is used forty-five times in the Bible. The large majority of occurrences describe mankind's disobedience towards God (Psalm 78:8, Isaiah 50:5).
This verb's sole derivative is the masculine noun מרי (meri), meaning rebellion (Isaiah 30:9, Ezekiel 2:5).
The verb מור (mor) means to change, alter or exchange, and it obviously looks similar to the previous words (particularly the noun מור, mor, meaning myrrh). This is possibly an etymological coincidence, but it probably caused the popular mind to relate change (or at least change marked by this verb) to bitterness; either as cause or consequence. This suggests that the bitterness expressed by the verb מרר (marar) is not a mere static situation of certain intensity, but serves as an incitement to or consequence of change.
Our verb occurs about half a dozen times (Jeremiah 2:11, Ezekiel 48:14, Micah 2:4). Psalm 15:4 connects hurt to change. Psalm 46:2 connects fear to change. Leviticus 27:10 explains that if one exchanges a good sacrificial animal for a bad one, then both of them would become holy. Psalm 106:20 and Hosea 4:7 use this verb in a similar transition between good and bad, but reversed.
Our verb comes with one derivative, namely the feminine noun תמורה (temura), meaning exchange (Leviticus 27:10, Ruth 4:7, Job 28:17).