Abarim Publications' online Biblical Hebrew Dictionary
Linguists have identified three different roots צבה (saba) and one closely similar root צבא (saba'), but a Hebrew audience may not have distinguished between them all that whole-heartedly. Then there are two roots of the form צבב (sbb), which seem kindred in form but not by meaning:
The root-verb צבא (saba') is complicated. Dictionaries give its meaning as to wage war/ fight/ serve, but here at Abarim Publications we entirely disagree with that:
Our verb focuses on the unified behavior of any closely interlinked group, whether it's an army that moves as a single unit but with separate divisions (Numbers 31:7), or Levites serving in the tabernacle (Numbers 4:23) or women serving at the tabernacle's entrance (Exodus 38:8). Since in the Old Testament large, unified groups are usually armies, this verb mostly expresses military engagement. But to conclude that our verb is essentially military — and therefore that the servants of the tabernacle were engaged in spiritual warfare (as per HAW Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament) — is fantastic and wholly off the wall.
Our verb expresses a wholly integrated organization and all its activities: in the inevitable military sense, the whole of the military that consists of soldiers, cooks, engineers and what not. Our word 'military' is thought to have to do with the Sanskrit noun melah meaning 'assembly', which hits the nail on the head. A military engagement described by this verb covers not just the actual battle but rather the whole gamut of intelligence, planning and diplomacy; the whole engagement.
Our verb yields one all-telling derivative: the masculine noun צבא (saba'), which denotes the closely interlinked group mentioned above. And since in the Old Testament people mostly converged in order to wage war, our word most often denotes a military unit or the whole of the military (Judges 8:6, Exodus 7:4, 2 Samuel 8:16). In Numbers 31:14 occurs the more complete phrase צבא המלחמה, (saba' ha'milhama), literally: unit of the going to war.
Our verb means to engage, team up or join and our noun means organizational unit of any kind and obviously not exclusively military.
Many times our noun denotes (in the words of BDB Theological Dictionary) a "host (organized body) of angels" (1 Kings 22:19, Psalm 103:21, 148:2, Isaiah 24:21, Daniel 8:10). The misapplication of our root צבא (saba') may explain the curious and erroneous notion of warring hordes of angels; angels are not typically waging war in the conventional meaning of the word. Angels, even hosts of angels, convey messages and praise God (see Luke 2:13). The words used in Revelation 12:7 to describe the quintessential 'war in heaven' literally mean 'fight' and may very well have denoted a stern debate. Much against popular folklore, God doesn't fight satan because even in his rebellion, satan still must do what the Almighty orders him to do (which is to buzz off).
Our noun in plural forms the familiar word צבאות (seba'ot): hosts, as in YHWH Sabaoth, meaning the Lord Of Hosts. Again, this word does not denote God as the Lord of Warfare, but rather the God of organization and cooperation. Just prior to the battle of Jericho, Israel's great military leader Joshua was privileged to commune with the commander of the צבא (saba') of YHWH (Joshua 5:14). Many enthusiasts have taken this as proof that the Lord indeed sports an elite force of angelic green barrets, but this heavenly commander's enigmatic yet obvious evasion of Joshua's question which side he's on, demonstrates to others that he wasn't there to fight.
Our noun צבא (saba') is also used to collectively denote the visible celestial bodies (Deuteronomy 4:19, Jeremiah 8:2, Isaiah 34:4). And like angels, planets and stars don't wage war, but (we know since Kepler), they certainly engage each other in a greater, unified gravitational community.
Our word appears in Genesis 2:1 to encompass all of creation. If our word had meant armies, Genesis 2:1 would have read, "Thus the heavens and the earth were completed, and all their armies". It obviously doesn't. Genesis 2:1 expresses the fundamental way the universe is organized: as a wholly integrated system or many smaller systems that in turn consist of smaller systems, and so forth down to the level of organisms that comprise socio-groups within larger cultures within the biosphere and themselves consist of organs that consist of cells that consist of organelles that consist of molecules that consist of atoms that consist of subatomic particles.
In Job 10:17, Job laments the forces of righteousness 'confederating' against him, while in 7:1 and 14:14 he speaks of man's 'assemblage' that stops when he dies. This obviously resonates with David's famous observation that he was weaved together (from סכך, sakak) in his mother's womb (Psalm 139:13, also see Job 10:8-11). Likewise, the prophet Isaiah may not famously and rather oddly state that Jerusalem's 'warfare' had been accomplished, but rather her 'assembly', or rather that of the baby in her womb (Isaiah 40:2, see 40:3 and compare with Isaiah 9:6).
The Hebrew verb צבא (saba') means to ally; to combine and integrate. Its derived noun means alliance or integrated whole. See below under צבה (saba II) for an Aramaic homonym that means something slightly different.
The root-verb צבה (saba I) means to swell up and is used only in Numbers 5:27 (of the abdomen of an adulteress) and Isaiah 29:7 (where armies "swell" up against Ariel). Isaiah's usage reveals the obvious connection between the verb צבה (saba) I and צבא (saba') treated above. Our verb צבה (saba I) yields the feminine noun צבה (sabeh), meaning a swelling (Numbers 5:21).
The root צבה (saba II) is unused so we don't know what it means, or even that it ever existed. But scholars assume that it must have been used at some point because in the Bible occurs the important masculine noun צבי (sebi), meaning beauty or honor (Ezekiel 7:20, 2 Samuel 1:19, Isaiah 23:9).
Apparently, linguists figure that beauty and honor have nothing to do with swelling up, but here at Abarim Publications we're not so sure that the existence of this noun necessitates a separate root. A similar double meaning of being heavy and being honorable exists in the verb כבד (kabed — the command to honor thy father and mother literally calls to "give weight" to one's father and mother).
In the Aramaic (latest) parts of the Hebrew Bible, as well as in the Talmud, occurs the verb צבא (saba'), which is spelled the same as the Hebrew verb treated above but which probably stems from or is related to the Hebrew root צבה (saba II). This Aramaic verb means to wish (presumably from wishing something that's beautiful) but it may very well mean to surmise, gather or conclude and be related to the identical Hebrew. It occurs four times in Daniel 4, three times in Daniel 5:19, and once in 7:19. A derived noun, namely צבו (sebu), means 'desired thing' (or perhaps concocted thing) and occurs once, in Daniel 6:17.
The root צבה (saba III) is also unused, but it yields the following derivations:
- The masculine noun צבי (sebi), assumed to denote a gazelle (2 Samuel 2:18, Proverbs 6:5). This noun is obviously connected to the above in that a gazelle is a herd animal. Also note that this noun is spelled and pronounced exactly the same as the noun צבי (sebi) meaning beauty.
- The feminine noun צביה (sebiya), also meaning gazelle (Song 4:5 only).
The unused root צבב (sbb I) may have something to do with an Assyrian noun meaning cart. In the Bible only the derived masculine noun צב (sab) remains, which is supposed to denote some kind of transportation device, like a cart. It occurs only two times: Numbers 7:3 and Isaiah 66:20.
The unused root צבב (sbb II) may have something to do with an Arabic verb that means to cleave to the ground. An Arabic noun derived from that verb denotes some kind of large lizard. In the Bible only one derivative of this root remains: the masculine noun צב (sab), thought to mean lizard. This noun occurs only once, in Leviticus 11:29, in a list of unclean animals.