Abarim Publications' online Biblical Hebrew Dictionary
Several Semitic languages including Biblical Hebrew know two or three different roots of the form צבע (sb'). At first glance their meanings don't seem to have a lot to do with each other, but a creative audience might have figured otherwise:
The unused and assumed root צבע (sb' I) probably meant to dye or dip. It yields:
- The masculine noun צבע (seba'), denoting dyed stuffs. It occurs only once, in plural, in Judges 5:30.
- The adjective צבוע (sabua'), probably meaning colored or variegated. This word occurs only once as well, in Jeremiah 12:9, where it describes a bird of prey with a distinctive coloration.
The unused and assumed root צבע (sb' II) is probably comparable to an Arabic root that has to do with being pointy. In Biblical Hebrew only one derivative is extant, the feminine noun אצבע ('esba'), meaning finger as body part (Psalm 144:1, Proverbs 7:3, Isaiah 58:9), as unit of length (Jeremiah 52:21) and as instrument of handiwork or work artfully produced (Psalm 8:3, Exodus 8:19, 31:18). It may even mean toe (literally: foot-finger - 2 Samuel 21:20).
In Exodus 29:12 and Leviticus 4:6 the high priest is told to dip his finger in blood and dab or stroke the altar or sprinkle the veil with it. This usage brings this root and the previous one close together. Perhaps the two originated in a time when dye was applied to objects with fingers, and coloration of animals was named after this process.
BDB Theological Dictionary reports that the unused and assumed root צבע (sb' III) may have to do with an Arabic verb that means to limp, which, for some reason came to be applied to the hyena. Why a hyena would be known for a limp is unclear, and even more unclear is why the speckled and striped hyena wouldn't be known by צבע (sb' I).
Biblical Hebrew uses the word אי ( 'i) for hyena, and no derivations of this assumed root צבע (sb' III) have survived in the Biblical narrative, apart from two names (Zeboim and Zibeon). It may very well be that these two names are foreign to Hebrew (Zibeon was a Hivite, after all) and that they were commonly associated with either of the two other roots צבע (sb').