Abarim Publications' online Biblical Hebrew Dictionary
The root אבר ('br) is a remarkable root that occurs all over the Semitic language spectrum. The root itself doesn't occur as verb in the Bible but in Assyrian it means to be strong or firm. There are obviously many words in Hebrew that have to do with strength, but this one denotes a specific kind of strength, namely that of a bird's pinions or flight-feathers.
It's not immediately clear how the ancients saw the feather (or why they named it a "strong one"), but it stands to reason that they recognized it as one of two epidermal growths with which a creature may be naturally covered, the other one being hair (and not counting exoskeletons). Perhaps the ancients saw hair as the "weak one" and the feather as the "strong one" because of their obvious structural qualities, but it should also be noted that the Hebrew word for hair, namely שער (s'r) is part of a cluster of words that all have to do with an intense emotional experience (and for a closer look at this, see our riveting article on Hair in the Bible). When a hairy creature experiences fear, it can only fight or run for its life; a feathered creature can just lift up and sail off.
The spiritual aspect of a bird's ability to rise up from the earth and fly towards heaven didn't escape the Hebrew poets; some angels are reported to have bird-like wings with which they fly (Isaiah 6:2), and even God himself has wings (Psalm 91:4). But since angels usually have a human appearance and humans are made in God's image, it stands to reason that humans have wings too. And that means that:
- The physical limbs of birds are merely bodily manifestations of a much more general quality, and
- The wings of God, angels and humans are non-physical wings which bring about the same thing as physical wings do for birds.
Now, what might that "same thing" be?
The ancients observed creation with much greater care than we do today, and they noted that flight is not necessarily the most defining function of a wing. In fact, the Hebrew word for wing is כנף (kanap), and the associated verb is כנף (kanep), which doesn't mean to fly but rather to hide or enclose. Isaiah's seraphim have six wings, but only two are used for flight and four are used for covering and protecting. Hence Isaiah speaks of YHWH protecting Jerusalem like a hen its chicks (Isaiah 31:5) and the Psalmist of seeking refuge under God's wings (Psalm 91:4). Winged creatures such as birds and insects were collectively known as עוף ('op), after the similar verb עוף ('op), but an associated noun עפעף ('ap'ap) means eyelid; the organ that covers and protects the eye.
In other words: wings are essentially instruments with which to hide or protect, and flight is a mere side effect of having wings. Things with wings are things that are designed to protect whatever can get under those wings, that is, whatever can get within that thing's range of defensive operation (like, say, a city's defense walls or a soldier's protective armor). That is why things with wings are naturally and per definition strong. Not because they might take off to the skies.
Our root's Biblical derivations are:
- The masculine noun אבר ('eber), meaning pinion(s), wings or the ability to do what you can do with wings. This noun occurs three times: In Psalm 55:6 David fearfully observes a plethora of horrors, and wishes someone would give him אבר like the dove (יונה, yona), so he could fly (עוף, 'op) and settle down (שכן, shakan) [in peace?]. The prophet Isaiah famously declared that those who wait for YHWH will ascend (עלה, 'ala) with אבר like eagles do (Isaiah 40:31). And Ezekiel received a riddle from Dabar YHWH, which obviously depicted the Babylonian empire as a great eagle with great wings (כנפים, kanapim), with long pinions (אבר) and full plumage (נוצה, nosa) and different colors (Ezekiel 17:3).
- The feminine equivalent אברה ('ebra), meaning the same and used four times: In Job 39:13 an ostrich flaps joyously with the אברה and plumage of love. In the difficult Psalm 68:13 "she who remains at home," after an apparent battle, lies down in a safety that has to do with dove's silver wings and gold אברה. Significantly, in Deuteronomy 32:11, the Lord is equated to an eagle who caught Jacob (= Israel) in its אברה, while hovering over him and caring for him and guarding him like the apple of its eye. Something similar, but without the simile, happens in Psalm 91:4, where one who trusts in the Lord may seek refuge under his wings and he will cover him with his אברה.
- The denominative verb אבר ('abar), which means: to use pinions/wings. It's used only once, in Job 39:26. Most translations assume that the Lord asks Job if it's by his understanding that the hawk soars, but obviously our verb is not limited to flight.
- The adjective אביר ('abbir), meaning strong (the way a feather is strong), and this is where our root becomes even more interesting:
The adjective אביר ('abbir) literally means feathery, which obviously means something else in English than in Hebrew. In Hebrew this word reflects the rigidity and resilience of a flight-feather as well as the protective qualities of the feather and its ability to spirit the bearer and possible guests to safety. This word frequently appears in military contexts (mighty-ones; Job 24:22, Jeremiah 46:15, Lamentations 1:15), and here at Abarim Publications we wonder whether it perhaps also served as generic term for a type of soldier, comparable to David's "mighty-men" (which is a different word, from גבר, geber).
Most strikingly, this word is also used as a personal name of God, namely Abir, meaning the Mighty One. The Masoretes insisted on a minute difference between the pronunciation of our adjective 'abbir and this Name 'abir, but this difference didn't exist until 1,500 years after this word was first written.
In plural, this word mostly appears to denote a collective military force, and note that in Hebrew a plural may also denote a degree of intensity instead of a literal multitudinousness. In Judges 5:22, the judge Deborah and general Barak sing about how they marched against the Canaanite general Sisera's army, and how the horses' (סוס, sus) thunderous hoofs dashed as his dashing אבירי. A similar connection between אבירי and cavalry is made in Jeremiah 8:16 and 47:3.
In Psalm 22:12, on the other hand, we read the familiar statement "Many bulls [plural of פר, par] have encircled me, the אבירי of Bashan have surrounded me". The bull-theme appears to be carried on to Psalm 50:13, where אבירים is used juxtaposed with עתוד ('attud), meaning he-goat. In Psalm 68:30, it appears along עגל ('egel), meaning male calf. In Isaiah 34:7 it appears again next to פר (par), meaning young bull.
All this strongly suggests that this particular group of words reflects a theological idea that also existed in Assyria and Babylon, which there was depicted as the famous winged bull named lamassu or sedu (and which in turn might be related to the name divine Shaddai).
The Hebrew scholars of the kingdom years weren't operating in a cultural vacuum, but lavishly borrowed stories, imagery and terminology from their colleague scholars of neighboring cultures. The same thing obviously happens today, when a Christian apologist might try to drive the gospel home while using time-bound terms such as evolution theory, search engine, server (or even: opportunity cost, target audience, swarm intelligence, and so on). The name Leviathan reflects another example of Yahwism being discussed in terms of Babylonian imagery. And the phrases King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Savior of the World and even Son of God came straight from Roman imperial theology and were hijacked by the apostle Paul to allow the citizens of the Roman world to discuss the mystery of the Messiah.
The reader should realize by now that ancient people had completely different feelings when they saw wings or bulls or a statue of a winged bull than do modern people. Whatever caused the various associations of the ancients, as far as we can tell, the Assyrian winged bull depicted a protecting spirit, a house-spirit, that which the Romans later called a genius or daemon. There were small ones for the regular household and big ones for cities, kingdoms and empires.
Obviously, when people tried to explain Yahwism in a world that was organized around the idea of this house-spirit, YHWH became the "house-spirit" of all creation. And since the Lord's "house-spiritual" covenant began with (the house of) Abraham, then passed onto the house of Jacob and then onto the house of Israel, and will eventually pass on to all the families of the earth, in the Bible he is at times referred to as Abir Israel (Isaiah 1:24) or Abir Jacob (Genesis 49:24, Psalm 132:2 and 132:5, Isaiah 49:26 and 60:16).