Abarim Publications' Biblical Dictionary: The Old Testament Hebrew word: ספף
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Abarim Publications' online Biblical Hebrew Dictionary

ספף  סוף  ספה  שפה  שוף  שפף

The forms ספף (spp), סוף (swp) and ספה (sph), and secondarily the (semi-)homophones שפה (sph), שוף (swp) and שפף (spp) all appear to describe various aspects of a primary Biblical principle, namely the division of one continuum into two continuums (one greater and one lesser) by means of a divider. The greater half will commonly begin to organize internally around a specific information-containing nucleus, while the other half doesn't. The divider is commonly equipped with luminaries (fires, stars, etcetera; note that the word להב, lahab, means flame and also denotes the blade of a sword; the quintessential instrument of division).

This principle is obviously most clearly described as the events of the second creation day, but shows up all over Scriptures, from the breach of the United Kingdom into Israel (the lesser) and Judah (the greater; the temple serves as the nucleus), onto the crucifixion of Christ (John 8:12) with the unbelieving murderer on His one side (the lesser, in the narrative playfully personified by the Sadducees) and the believing one on His other (the greater; his faith being the nucleus, and personified by the Pharisees). Other, less clear instances of the use or discussion of this principle are for instance Solomon's wise decree (1 Kings 3:24-27; the child is the nucleus), Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:20-25; Abraham is the nucleus) or Jesus' bringing of a sword (Matthew 10:34, Ezekiel 33:2).

In the world of high energy physics, this same principle occurs in the breach between matter (the greater) and anti-matter (the lesser), with the photon as the divider (read our introduction to quantum mechanics). The same thing happens in biology, with the living cell as the greater and the not-animated world as the lesser, and with DNA as the nucleus.

In the Hebrew stories, the divider is often closer associated with the greater than with the lesser, but one of the functions of the divider is to expel unwanted elements from the side of the greater and dump them into the side of the lesser, and marshal wanted elements from the side of the lesser and lead them to the side of the greater. Humanity obviously consists of two such separated continuums: the earthly (the lesser) and the kingdom of heaven (the greater), with as divider Jesus Christ (as one of His functions: John 14:6, 10:9; He also obviously serves as the nucleus: John 1:1, Colossians 1:17).


The root ספף (spp) isn't used as verb in the Bible so we don't know what it might have meant. The following derivations are used in the Bible:

  • The masculine noun סף (sap), meaning bowl or goblet (1 Kings 7:50, Jeremiah 52:19, Zechariah 12:2), and which is identical to the noun meaning threshold or sill (see next). This word is used to describe where the blood of the slain Passover lamb was collected: in a bowl or basin (as per most translations of Exodus 12:22; hence the legend of the Holy Grail - Matthew 26:2) but note that this blood was to be taken from the סף (sap) and applied to the two posts and the lintel of the door. In other words: it's by no means certain that the lamb's blood was collected in a bowl. The lamb was more probably slaughtered in the door frame causing its blood to first cover the door's threshold.
  • The exact same word סף (sap), this time meaning threshold or sill. Here at Abarim Publications we doubt that these are two separate words. We suspect that this one word primarily described the foundation or slightly elevated floor of a gate, which would form a porch-like pre-entrance to a building; goblins that were known by this same word were possibly bowls with flat feet or bases, like a modern wine glass. More plausible, however, is that they were named after their function, which we surmise, was to contain a fire that served as a beacon for those in the outer darkness, and as a point of convergence for guards. In the above described general structure, this סף (sap) serves as the divider between the house (the greater) and the outside world (the lesser). The סף (sap) was where the house began if one was about to walk in, and where it ended when one had just walked out; it denoted the ultimate extreme of the house's occupational area, or rather the area of transition between outside and inside; its "event horizon" if you will. Hence the Levite's ravished concubine had her hands on the סף before the actual door was opened (Judges 19:27). And Abijah, the son of Jeroboam, died when his mother entered the סף of the house at Tirzah (1 Kings 14:17), according to the words of the prophet Ahijah, who had told her that he would die when her feet entered the city (1 Kings 14:12). Shaking the סף was equal to shaking the whole building (Isaiah 6:4), and watchers of the סף safeguarded the whole building (שמר הסף (shemar hasap), usually translated with "gatekeeper"; 2 Kings 12:9, Esther 2:21, Jeremiah 35:4). According to Zechariah 12:2, Jerusalem will probably not be the "cup" of reeling, but rather a tornado-like whirlwind storm (see the word סופה, supa below).
  • The denominative verb ספף (sapap), meaning to stand at the threshold (Psalm 84:10 only).


The root-verb סוף (sup) means to come to an end, but note that this verb most often declines into the forms ספו and יספו (Psalm 73:19, Isaiah 66:17, Amos 3:15). In Zephaniah 1:2, the form אסף ('sp) occurs, which is identical to the verb אסף ('asap), meaning to gather or collect.

This verb's derivations are:

  • The masculine noun סוף (sop), meaning end (2 Chronicles 20:16, Ecclesiastes 3:11, Joel 2:20).
  • The feminine noun סופה (supa), meaning storm-wind (Proverbs 1:27, Isaiah 5:28, Amos 1:14). It's not clear how this noun relates to the root, but BDB Theological Dictionary suggests that it might literally denote something "that makes an end". Here at Abarim Publications we could image that this word perhaps describes a tornado, with a clear edge of where the whirling funnel starts (an image perhaps entertained in Zechariah 12:2).

Scholars have decided that the noun סוף (sup), which is a collective word denoting marsh plants such as reeds, is not etymologically related to the above root, but was imported from Egyptian; its source word being the Egyptian noun twfi. This word is used most famously in the construct ים־סוף yam-sup, or Sea of Reeds (often erroneously translated with Red Sea), and occurs a mere four times by itself: baby Moses' basket was placed among the reeds of the Nile (Exodus 2:3-5). Jonah observed that he was thrown in the deepest sea, while seaweeds wrapped around his head (Jonah 2:5). And Isaiah foretold the demise of Egypt; its streams would thin out and its stalks (קנה, qana) and reeds would rot way (Isaiah 19:6).

Perhaps scholars are correct and the Egyptian word twfi was incorporated into Hebrew as סוף (sup), which purely by accident came to look like it derived from the verb סוף (sup), meaning to come to an end. But perhaps this word was so readily incorporated into the Hebrew language because it obviously denoted the vegetation that marked the end of dry land and the "threshold" of bodies of water; the vegetated transitional area between dry land and water.

Here at Abarim Publications we like to believe that the phrase "reeds of Egypt" is a euphemism for Egypt's papyri and ultimately denotes Egypt's documented wisdom tradition. It's our contention that the story of the Exodus essentially tells the story of how Egyptian script (thousands of hieroglyphs that could only be understood by the royalty and the specialized priesthood) lost from Semitic script (with its simple alphabet, which made wisdom available to the common man, and which thus made all common men kings and priests — see our article on the name Christian).

The wisdom tradition encompassed all knowledge of any kind, and had mostly to do with practical matters such as agriculture and warfare, psychology and sociology. Semitic script was far more potent than Egyptian script because it was better at educating the masses. The invention of the alphabet quickly gave the Semitic peoples (the greater) an edge over Egypt (the lesser), and that caused the latter's famous demise.


The verb ספה (sapa) means to sweep or snatch away, which also fits the overbearing pattern of this word group. As if sweeping them out the door of the "house of man", the Lord sweeps away cities (Genesis 19:15), tents (Numbers 16:26), kings and peoples (1 Samuel 12:25). In Deuteronomy 32:23 occurs the form אספה, which is generally taken to be an expression of either the verb אסף ('asap), meaning to gather, or יסף (yasap) meaning to add or increase (see the name Joseph).


The feminine noun of unclear derivation שפה, which the medieval Masoretes pointed as שׂפה (sapa), fits right into our general pattern: it denotes the edge of things (the sea-shore: Genesis 22:17; river bank: Genesis 41:3, end of a wadi: Deuteronomy 2:36; rim of a vessel: 1 Kings 7:23; edge of an altar: Ezekiel 43:13; juncture of curtains: Exodus 26:4; edge of the ephod's breastplate; Exodus 28:26) and is also the common word for (human) lip (Leviticus 5:4, Isaiah 11:4, Malachi 2:6) and language (Genesis 11:1, Psalm 81:5, Ezekiel 3:5).

שפה I

The verb שפה I, which became pointed as שׁפה (shapa I), is thought to mean to sweep bare and would in that case neatly correspond with the verb ספה (sapa), meaning to sweep. However, the identical root שׁפה II has to do with the conspicuousness of a burning fire, and that general meaning seems to fit the derivations of שׁפה I just as well (if not better). And that in turn strongly suggests that there are not two separate roots but one, which means to shine conspicuously. The verb occurs only in Isaiah 13:2 (and possibly also in Job 33:21, but see the second derivation below), where it modifies the word for hill, atop which a conspicuous rallying banner was to be placed.

  • The feminine noun שפות (shepot), is thought to denote a kind of cream skimmed off the top of milk. It occurs only in 2 Samuel 17:29, in a list of gifts to David and his people, where it occurs in a construct with the noun בקר (baqar). This latter noun denotes a kind of cattle, an ox, and derives off the identical verb בקר (baqar), which means to split or divide and hence to discern or investigate. This indicates that the ox was known as a splitter (probably from its use as plow-puller), but it also strongly suggests that the שפות בקר that David received had little to do with a kind of cream and more with a kind of beacon.
  • The masculine noun שפי (shepi), is thought to mean barrenness (of bones: Job 33:21) or a barren height of a hill (Numbers 23:3, Isaiah 41:18, Jeremiah 3:21). But Job's bones can hardly be thought of as barren and rather as made visible due to a consuming fever. The hills that this noun describes aren't so much barren but rather hills that were excellently suited to broadcast visual or audible messages from: conspicuous hills.
שפה II

The assumed root שפה II, which also became pointed as שׁפה (shapa II) doesn't appear to be used as verb in the Bible. Its derivations, however, reveal enough symmetry with the previous verb to suspect that the two are one, and fundamentally reflect a glowing kind of conspicuousness.

  • The denominative verb שפת (shapat), which may have been formed from a noun that's not otherwise used, but which exists in cognate languages with the meaning of a kind of cook pot or cooking tripod (over a fire). The Hebrew verb means to set (as on a fire) and is used as such in 2 Kings 4:38 and Ezekiel 24:3. The Psalmist enigmatically observes that YHWH set him in the dust of death (Psalm 22:16) and Isaiah, evenly enigmatically, speaks of a setting of peace (Isaiah 26:12).
  • The masculine noun אשפת ('ashpot), which appears to denote an ash or rubble heap; the haunt of the poorest of the poor, those people who dwelled on the border between society and wilderness (1 Samuel 2:8, Nehemiah 2:13, Lamentations 4:5).
  • The masculine dual nouns שפתים (shepattayim; Psalm 68:13 only) and משפתים (mishpetayim; Genesis 49:14 and Judges 5:16 only). The contexts of these words suggests that they describe the fires of makeshift camps, predominantly those of shepherds abiding in the field keeping watch over their flocks, so to speak. Note that shepherds comprised the lowest social rung; shepherding occurred literally on the outer edge of civilization.

Note that a noun that is identical to the noun שפתים (shepattayim) as used in Psalm 68:13 occurs in Ezekiel 40:43. Scholars are at a loss as what to make of it and most modern translations speak of "double hooks". The JSP, however, reads "slabs" and the Young Translation has "boundaries". Here at Abarim Publications we're guessing that the word שפתים (shepattayim) describes the same items in Ezekiel 40:43 as it does in Psalm 68:13, namely luminaries that served as beacons on the outer edge of a protected zone (corresponding with the fires of huddled shepherds, and the stars in the firmament of the fourth creation day).


Also note the similarity between our two roots שפה (shapa) and the noun ישפה (yashpeh), meaning jasper, or rather a kind of translucent gem (Exodus 28:20, 39:13 and Ezekiel 28:13 only). This noun is a loan-word from Persian (probably yashupu which also became ιασπις in Greek, iaspis in Latin and thus jasper in English), but in Hebrew the spelling is the same as an active form of the verbs שפה (a form which would mean "it glows conspicuously").


The verb שוף, which became pointed as שׁוף (shup) is yet another enigmatic and much debated verb. It occurs in three separate scenes in the Bible. First we read how YHWH curses the Paradisiacal snake by stating that the woman's seed would do something to the snake's head, while the snake would do that same thing to the seed's heel. The common translation of the seed and the snake bruising each other doesn't cut it. Note that the word for snake (נחש, nahash) also means to divine or soothsay, and the word for heel (עקב, 'aqeb) is the source of the name Jacob, and Jacob became Israel.

Obviously, the snake's head was its apex, while the seed's heel was his nadir. The woman's seed is often explained to be Jesus Christ, and He says something similar about John the Baptist: John is the greatest born of a woman, but the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he (Matthew 11:11). In other words: the verb שוף marks the area of transition between the world of the snake and that of the seed; where the best of the snake meets the weakest of the seed (see for another example of this same principle 1 Corinthians 1:25). We will revisit the snake and the heel below.

In Job 9:17 Job complaints that YHWH does something to him with a tempest, and although this verse uses the word שׂערה (se'ara) for storm, it readily brings to mind the noun סופה (supa), meaning storm-wind (see above). Another occasion where a tempest did something to someone was the ascension of Elijah, where a chariot of fire divided Elijah and Elisha and the whirlwind took Elijah up to heaven (2 Kings 2:11). This event obviously follows the same general pattern.

Lastly, the Psalmist imagines that the darkness does something to him (Psalm 139:11), which obviously forces translators to rethink this verb (the "bruising" that may have worked previously obviously doesn't here). Here at Abarim Publications we guess that the "outer" darkness contrasts the "inner" light in much the same way as a lit house does a dark night. We surmise that the Psalmist feels thrown out of the comforts of civilization or else those of God's wisdom.


The root שפף (or שׁפף, shpp as the Masoretes pointed it) isn't used as verb in the Bible so we don't know what it may have meant, but that is must have played some kind of role in our general structure becomes evident by its sole derivative: the masculine noun שפיפן (shepipon), which denotes some kind of snake.

This word is used only in Genesis 49:17, where Jacob foretells that his son Dan (means Judge) will judge his people, and will be a snake (נחש, nahash) in the way (compare John 3:14 with John 14:6) and a שפיפן (shepipon) in the path, and would bite the horse's heels so that the rider falls backward; "for your salvation [that's the name Jesus] I wait, O YHWH".

This enigmatic saying obviously follows our general pattern, but it's by no means clear how Jacob's proverb would translate to modern English. As we point out in our article on the noun נחש (nahash), meaning snake, the snake symbolized the dire effects of incomplete knowledge, or a procedure that may have some effective elements but many nonsensical ones which do more harm than good. We're guessing that Dan's job would be to assess Israel's going forth and bite hard wherever follies or superstitions would threaten to lead Israel astray.

Associated Biblical names

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