Abarim Publications' Biblical Dictionary: The Hebrew word: פלל

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Abarim Publications' online Biblical Hebrew Dictionary

פלל  פלה  פלא  אפל  נפל  פול

The curious cluster of words of the forms פלל (pll), פלה (plh), פלא (pl'), אפל ('pl), נפל (npl) and פול (pwl) are clearly related (certain conjugations and constructions may turn פלל (pll) into any of the other forms), and although their meanings and applications are sufficiently specialized to indicate separate verbs, they obviously correlate on a more basic level.


The verb פלל (palal) can usually be translated with to pray, but there are more verbs in Hebrew that mean to pray and palal appears to be a specialized form of it. In essence our verb appears to describe intervention or even an interposing, and a more proper translation would be to entreat or intercede. But the core activity expressed in this verb is to discern; to make a distinction between things or people, or to present a situation to someone who then does the discerning.

Our verb is used most often to describe intercessory prayer to YHWH on behalf of others (Numbers 21:7, 1 Kings 8:33, Ezra 10:1) or to YHWH for oneself (Isaiah 38:2), or to idols (Isaiah 44:17). But that our verb does not mean prayer in essence but rather a supplication that is often expressed in prayer is demonstrated by its secular uses. Isaiah tells of surrounding nations who come to Israel in supplication (Isaiah 45:14). Jerusalem "defends" the sins of her sister cities (Ezekiel 16:52). Israel (Jacob) says to Joseph that he never "expected (discerned)" to see his face (Genesis 48:11). Phinehas "interposed (discerned)" and stopped the plague at Baal-peor (by killing two offenders; Psalm 106:30).

This verb's derivatives are:

  • The feminine noun תפלה (tepilla), meaning prayer in pretty much the same sense as the verb (1 Kings 8:38, Isaiah 37:4, Psalm 17:1).
  • The masculine noun פליל (palil), denoting someone who assesses someone or a situation; a judge or umpire (Deuteronomy 32:31, Job 31:11).
  • The feminine noun פלילה (pelila), denoting the place at which a judge or umpire operates; a judge's office (Isaiah 16:3 only).
  • The adjective פלילי (pelili), meaning "for a judge" or "to be judged" (Job 31:28 only).
  • The feminine noun פליליה (peliliya), meaning verdict or the presentation of a decision (Isaiah 28:7 only)


The root verb פלה (pala) is obviously representing an action closely related to that of פלל (palal). It means to be distinct or separated. Israel is distinguished from the other peoples (Exodus 11:7, 33:16), and Israel's livestock is distinguished from that of Egypt (Exodus 9:1). The Psalmist finds himself distinctly made (Psalm 139:14; although most translators choose to read the verb פלא (pala') here), and the Lord sets apart a godly man for Himself (Psalm 4:4).

This verb's only derivative is the pronoun פלני (peloni), meaning a certain one; a certain person (Daniel 8:13, Ruth 4:1; "sit down here, certain person") or a certain place (Samuel 21:2, 1 Kings 6:8).


The root פלא (pala') appears to be a specification of the verb פלה (pala). As verb it only occurs as a denominative verb. Its derivations are:

  • The noun פלא (pele'), meaning wonder; extraordinary thing (Exodus 15:11, Psalm 119:129, Isaiah 29:14).
  • The verb פלא (pala'), meaning to be surpassing or extraordinary. It's used in the sense of to be difficult to do (Leviticus 27:2, 2 Samuel 13:2) or difficult to comprehend (Psalm 131:1, Job 10:16). It may express being wonderful (2 Samuel 1:26) or doing wonderful things (Exodus 3:20), or doing extraordinary things (Deuteronomy 28:59).
  • The adjective פלאי (pil'i), meaning wonderful or incomprehensible (Judges 13:18, Psalm 139:6).
  • The feminine noun מפלאה (mipla'a), meaning wondrous work (Job 37:16 only).


The root אפל ('pl) does not occur as verb in the Bible but in Arabic it means to disappear, depart or set (of the sun). The figurative meaning of darkness in Scriptures is slightly different from our modern image. Where in our popular culture darkness is (almost) a personification of evil, in the Old Testament this is not so. Darkness may impair vision and therefore cause accidents or loss of a way, or it may hide assailants and therefore represent a prelude to conflict. Darkness in the Hebrew cultural context represented potentiality, of either good or bad things. After all, all that was created came out of a darkness (Genesis 1:2) and God's covenant with Abraham also came out of darkness (Genesis 15:17). Note that our root אפל ('pl) is relatively rare — much more common are the verbs חשך (hashak) and קדר (qadar), both meaning to grow dark — and seems to be employed mostly to express contraposition. Two derivatives of this root are clearly agents of separation, which would bring our root somewhat in tune with the previous ones.

This root's Biblically extant derivations are:

  • The masculine noun אפל ('opel), meaning darkness and that usually in a negative sense. It's used for the darkness of the terror-filled night (Psalm 91:6), blindness (Isaiah 29:18) or general gloom (Job 23:17). It's also used to describe the darkness of a mine (Job 28:3) or the darkness under the cover of which the wicked may shoot arrows to the upright (Psalm 11:3).
  • The adjective אפל ('apel), meaning gloomy. It occurs only in Amos 5:20, where it is used to describe gloom as opposed to brightness during the day of YHWH.
  • The feminine noun אפלה ('apela), meaning darkness (Exodus 10:22, Deuteronomy 28:29, Zephaniah 1:15) or calamity (Isaiah 8:22, 58:10).
  • The adjective אפיל ('apil), surprisingly meaning late. It's used only in Exodus 9:32 to describe a delay of crops. BDB Theological Dictionary assumes that this word literally means darkened in the sense of concealed, but it rather falls in tune with first the idea of darkness as a potential source of unforeseen things, and secondarily this root-cluster's fundamental idea of separation.
  • The masculine noun מאפל (ma'apel), assumed to mean darkness. This word is used only in Joshua 24:7, where it describes a kind of barrier that the Lord placed between Israel and the Egyptian army just after the Exodus. This noun obviously reflects separation.
  • The feminine noun מאפליה (ma'pelya), which is commonly interpreted as deep or thick darkness. This word occurs only in Jeremiah 2:31, where the Lord asks whether He has been a wilderness to Israel, or a land of מאפליה (ma'pelya). Note that this noun appears to be created by extending the previous noun מאפל (ma'apel) with the appellation יה (yah), which is a common abbreviation of יהוה (YHWH or Yahweh).


The masculine noun פול (pol) means beans (2 Samuel 17:28, Ezra 4:9 only). It also appears in Arabic and Ethiopian but it's not clear where it came from. Perhaps it carries the underlying identity of all previous roots, that of separateness. It appears to be a word like our word quantum: a discrete quantity.


The root-verb נפל (napal) means to fall, fall into or fall down (Genesis 49:17, Exodus 21:33) or fall upon (of a wall: 1 Kings 20:30, of an army upon the enemy: Jeremiah 48:32).

One enters sleep by falling (Genesis 15:12), a fallen face is a displeased face (Genesis 4:5), and a fallen heart has sunk (1 Samuel 17:32). One may fall dead (Isaiah 37:7) but at birth one falls into life (Isaiah 26:19).

The plural form נפלים (napalim) literally means 'fallen ones' (Deuteronomy 22:4, Joshua 8:25, 1 Samuel 31:8) or 'settled ones' (Judges 7:12), and is spelled the same as the enigmatic ethnonym Nephilim (Genesis 6:4).

Our verb especially tends to denote either a violent death (Judges 5:27, Jeremiah 9:21), or the respectfully falling prostrate of someone in front of someone else (Genesis 50:18, Judges 19:26). Commentators generally appear to assume that particularly the latter usage connects this verb with the verb פלל (palal), meaning to pray or intercede, but here at Abarim Publications we seriously doubt that. In stead we're pretty sure that our verb נפל (napal) essentially describes to assume a state of stillness and surrender; the opposite of 'rising' into action; see below for a look at a brief history of theology.

Our verb comes with the following derivatives:

  • The masculine noun נפל (nepel), meaning abortion or untimely birth. This noun occurs only three times, in Ecclesiastes 6:3, Job 3:16 and Psalm 58.
  • The masculine noun מפל (mappal), meaning that what falls: refuse of wheat (Amos 8:6), or the drooping parts of an animal (Job 41:15).
  • The feminine noun מפלה (mappala), meaning ruin (Isaiah 17:1 only).
  • The nearly identical feminine noun מפלה (mappela), also meaning ruin (Isaiah 23:13 and 25:2 only). Both these nouns denote ruined cities.
  • The feminine noun מפלת (mapplet), denoting a ruined thing: a carcass (Judges 14:8), a ruin (Ezekiel 31:13), a falling (Ezekiel 32:10).

A brief history of theology

It may seem natural for people to look at God the way one would look at an earthly king or such a political pivot, but commentators need to remember that political stratification is a relatively young member of humanity's ways. In other words: folks were worshipping long, very long, before folks figured out that earthly kings want their subjects to wail and shiver with fear and forced respect. Formal mastery and complex government was invented a few millennia ago (we know this because ancient cities have no palaces) but theology has been around for as long as mankind has left traces. Theology can therefore not stem from reverence of higher ranks.

Theology also doesn't stem from people's fear of natural forces, as some critics would like us to believe. Forget the Discovery Channel's depiction of prehistoric man as fearful oafs huddled around smoky fires. Humans have always been a great deal smarter than, say, dolphins and chimpanzees, have always communicated much more intensely and have always been able to form teams that would operate as one, multi-headed beast that had very little to fear.

In short: humans have always been the lords of all creation and lived lives of leisure and merriment in lands of plenty. Archeologists have unearthed traces of symbolic systems (systems preceding written language) that stem from 100,000 years ago. The oldest remaining paintings are 50,000 years old (and imagine how many there must have been for some to survive until today) and complex musical instruments such as flutes are at least 30,000 years old. These things don't simply arise out of nowhere, and irrefragably point at a highly sophisticated cultural infrastructure in which joy was the word. In other words: if we would travel back in time, say, 50,000 years, we would find folks just like us, having fun, making things, telling stories and going about their daily business. We would feel if we merely travelled to another country in our own time.

Variety makes all the difference

Everything that would ever make up the entire universe came into existence all at once and in a singular state of homogeneity (Genesis 1:2). It then spent the rest of our universe's lifetime not getting bigger, as the myth dictates (the universe has no outside and can't get bigger — read our riveting Introduction to Quantum Mechanics for more details) but to diversify into widely varying materials and the objects these formed. Likewise life. Life didn't emerge in gradually self-assembling units and then became gradually more complicated, as modern mythology suggests, but somehow burst onto the scene as the result of a fully formed complexity. Most people fail to comprehend what a miracle DNA really is, but suffice it to say that the most complicated lifeless object relates to the simplest bacterium the way a candy wrapper relates to the Library of Congress. There is no gradual slope of evolution that connects the two. Contrary to popular belief, a bacterium is of the exact same level of complexity as a human being; all DNA-based life consists of the same hugely complicated 'technology', which has always been equally complex, and all it ever did was convert from the state of homogeneity in which it was created (the early biosphere consisted of countless similar life-forms like a huge library of just Shakespeare plays) to the state of bio-diversity that we know today (Genesis 1:28), and which was a requirement for the emergence of homo sapiens (just like the Messiah could only come when mankind was ready to receive Him; same natural principle — Isaiah 9:6, Luke 2:25-38).

The mind of homo sapiens as it arose from the biosphere (Genesis 7:18) is as much a miracle as life and the universe are. Despite the attempts of many, it can not possibly be explained as the result of a combination of trial and error and the undeniable tendency of genomes to spontaneously mutate, but what is becoming increasingly clear is that the mind we have today is not essentially different than what humanity has had all along. The only thing it ever did was to diversify (Genesis 11:8) from a state of initial homogeneity (Genesis 11:1). Long before folks called a spade a spade, folks used a proto-language that was to them what barking is to a dog (dogs from all over the world understand each other). We may logically deduct that this proto-language was based on archetypal and thus universally accepted sounds — when we present modern humans with a drawing of two abstract shapes, one long and slender and the other one wide and bulky, and ask them which one of the two is called 'frinkle' and which one 'omble', the overwhelming majority of people from all over the world will attach 'frinkle' to the thin shape and 'omble' to the bulky one; that's why languages from widely separated peoples show such remarkable consistencies — and consisted of a colossal library of sounds and gestures, far beyond the vocabulary of animals (it thus stands to reason that early man 'understood' animal languages and 'spoke' dog and such).

In the last few decades, archeologists have unearthed buildings and artifacts that defy conventional wisdom in regards to human 'evolution' for the simple reason that this wisdom isn't very wise. Long before convention obscured the obvious, mankind naturally comprehended the nature of reality (Matthew 18:2-10) and understood the material universe as comprehensively as the biosphere. Mankind has only recently begun to feel the need to create monuments, because mankind has only recently begun to forget what the deal is. The start of agriculture is commonly hailed as a milestone in human 'evolution' but agriculture in essence comes down to mankind's freshly awoken desire to enslave and modify (mutilate) the natural order of which man is part (Genesis 4:2-5). Today we are facing the worst crisis in humanity's existence, and if we are to survive it, we must restore natural biodiversity in our agriculture. But first we need to face up to the fact of who we are and where we came from. Right now it's still not too late to go home, but time is running out and although the welcome-home party will wait for ever, mankind might die while staring hungrily into a manger filled with pigs' slob (Luke 15:11-24).

To learn is to remember

Ask anyone what life's most characteristic drive is and pretty much all will say: survival. But survival is obviously not the highest point on mankind's agenda or else none of us would smoke, drink or go to war. In stead, the material universe was rigged to bring forth life (here at Abarim Publications we guess that DNA formed after Chladni-patterns arising from the interference of rotating black holes), life was rigged to bring forth consciousness and consciousness was rigged to bring forth joy.

The much coveted state of happiness is as much a miracle as life and the cosmos are, and although it's formally a mystery where it comes from or what it is, mankind has been searching for it ever since we lost it (Luke 15:8-9). Mankind's innate intelligence coupled with mankind's insatiable curiosity and the well-meant tendency to manipulate the perfect into a freak, mankind invented science: for the sheer fun of it. Man peopled the entire earth solely because man is a born tourist who travels for no other reason than to have fun. Even smack in the depths of the ice ages, humans were robust and much healthier than in the first periods of agriculture, when staples narrowed.

Humans have lived in cities long before they began to farm, and scholars have always wondered why. The answer, it slowly begins to seem, was in order to form academia, again for the sheer fun of it. Infectious killers such as flue, measles and pox came from domesticated animals and didn't exist in the pre-farm world. Animals such as cats, dogs and even oxen and pigs were pets (for fun) long before they were put to work. And when citizens finally took up large-scale farming, they could do so because they had derived genetically modified plants from inedible wild ones. Next time you eat a sandwich, stop for a moment to realize that making bread is far greater a technological achievement than inventing the printing press. And in addition: printing was simple and the desired result obvious, but how the ancients even began to have the idea to breed comestible staples from severely poisonous wild potatoes or stringy wisps of wild mais is as much a mystery as the how's and why's surrounding the Giza Plateau. But the obvious is true: our Neolithic ancestors weren't filthy beasts or superstitious morons, but folks who understood the biosphere to the point at which they knew that there were fries in venomous bulbs and popcorn in bitter grass, and knew how to get them out. They were intimately familiar with the nature of the cosmos, and incorporated vastly complex mathematics into their 'crude' Neolithic constructions.

All the books in the world

Fortunately, these Neolithic geniuses seem to have realized that mankind was getting demented, and would soon mistake their monuments of cognition for mere piles of stones, and set a course for the development of written language. Mankind's final blip of original brilliance resulted in its most sublime 'monument of cognition'; one that used fractals and self-similarities to sum up everything about everything (John 21:25), but also came in a convenient portable format. Soon, however, humanity in its baffling stupidity, began to mistake this final monument for a collection of mere folklore, called it The Holy Bible, and insisted that it mainly explained why kings had the right to enslave their 'subjects'. But the quest for (lost) knowledge went on undaunted.

The point of all this is that science-fun led to theology-fun: the formal expression of gratitude and appreciation of Whatever Fun Giver is behind the whole thing. Where mankind naturally tries to 'get high or die trying', the clever few among man's grey masses issued a call to 'get divine or die trying', which was much rather a call to return to what we once had, than a rallying cry to join some new religion or hip school of thought. What later, politics-driven churches tried to deny is that Hebrew theology had nothing to do with rigorous training into some man-made order, or blind allegiance to some oppressive institution. Hebrew theology is all about natural law, and a returning of mankind to its original harmonious state; a state of fun, joy and personal freedom-slash-responsibility.

The word Christ means 'autonomous person' or 'king of your own life', and Jesus Christ was the fulfilment of the covenant God made with Abraham. This covenant started out with a lot of laughing (Genesis 17:17, 18:12-15, and this not out of unbelief and mockery, as tradition dictates, but out of faith and joy: Romans 4:19-21, Hebrews 11:11, also see Jude 1:24, Matthew 2:10, Romans 5:11, Philippians 4:4 and so on) and the first son of this covenant was Isaac, whose name means He Shall Have Fun.

Also see our article on the Greek word πιστις, pistis, meaning "faith".

Associated Biblical names