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Meaning and etymology of the Hebrew name Caleb

Caleb Caleb

The name Caleb occurs twice in the Bible, both applied to men from Judah. The lesser known Caleb is a son of Hezron, who was a son of Perez, who was a son of Judah and Tamar (2 Chronicles 1:18). This Caleb married Azubah and Jerioth (v18) and Ephrath who became the mother of Hur (v19). He also had a concubine named Ephah, who bore him Haran, Moza and Gazez. Somehow he even had the time to found Bethlehem (4:4).

The most famous Caleb is a son of Jephunneh and a chief of Judah who joins the contingent that Moses assembles to have the promised land spied out (Exodus 13:6). The other famous member of this group is Joshua, who later becomes Moses' successor (see verses 8 & 16).

The contingent consists of twelve members, ten of whom condemn the ensuing campaign. Joshua and Caleb remind Israel that God is on their side, but the Israelites are not convinced. Only after God intercedes, executes the ten fear mongers and states that none of the Israelites who are then alive, except Caleb and Joshua, will see the Promised Land, they move on (Exodus 13-14).

Caleb is awarded Hebron, longevity and a substantial posterity, which in time forms the Judahite sub-clan of the Calebites. Nabal, the man who foolishly opposed David, was a Calebite (1 Samuel 25:3). Caleb's daughter is called Achsah and she becomes the wife of Othniel, after he conquered Debir (Joshua 15:17).

The name Caleb is identical to the Hebrew word Caleb (keleb), meaning dog. It comes from the root Caleb (klb). What that root means is unknown and some scholars suggest that it was formed after the sound that a dog makes (the Hebrew equivalent of woof!).

It is curious that a Biblical hero is known by a name that is absolutely negative. Dogs in the Bible are always vile (Proverbs 26:11), aggressive (Jeremiah 15:3), worthless (1 Samuel 17:43), or worthy of distrust (Psalm 59:6).

A solution to this conundrum may be offered by certain popular theories concerning the origin of an archetypal story that occurs in many cultures, and of which the Osiris saga is an example. The Egyptians appear to have believed that their dead pharaoh's would incarnate as stars in the constellation of Orion.

In the Bible stars have multiple literary functions, one of them being the image of the seed of Abraham (Genesis 15:5, compare with Dan 12:3). Paul makes it overly clear that this seed of Abraham is Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:16), and the Body of Christ is comprised of the believers in Him (Colossians 1:24). In other words: the famous re-birth/ born-again principle of Christianity entails an incarnation into the Body of Christ.

When we then realize that the name Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua, and that the legendary Orion-figure is always accompanied by a dog (the star we call Sirius), the existence of Caleb in the Joshua cycle may be explained.

An additional note: in the New Testament as well as in the Old Testament dogs are always negative (see for instance Revelation 22:15). But in Matthew 15:26 (Mark 7:27), Jesus Himself likens the gentiles to dogs that feed off the crumbs dropped from the table by children who are Israel.

A word that both BDB Theological Dictionary and HAW Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament list under the root Caleb, but of which the connection to this root is 'dubious' (says BDB Theological Dictionary), is kelub (kelub), denoting a basket and a cage, specifically with contents (birds in Jeremiah 5:27; fruit in Amos 8:1,2).

Whatever the etymological origins of these words are, the result of them looking alike is quite revealing. Even though the Biblical tradition loathes dogs, the Israelites were not unfamiliar with their services or companionship. Job 30:1 speaks of shepherd dogs and in Matthew 15:27 dogs are reported to exist under the table from which people ate. Certainly, the Israelites knew that dogs could learn many a trick or skill, or even show compassion and affection for its master, and this in contrast to other animals that lived around the house.

If indeed the Hebrew root Caleb is onomatopoeic (= designed to imitate the sound it denotes), and kelub was imported from cognate languages, these transactions may have been lubricated by the notion that dogs may appear to be endowed with reason, like a basket that contains fruit or a cage that contains birds. On top of this, the word Caleb may be (mistakenly) seen as a combination of the particle ke (ke), meaning 'like' or 'as if,' and the noun leb (leb), meaning heart or understanding. That way the word Caleb (dog) means 'as if it has a heart' or 'as if it understands.'

The name Caleb means Dog.



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