Abarim Publications' online Biblical Hebrew Dictionary
The root אדן ('dn) isn't used as verb in the Bible and we don't know what it may have meant, although there might be an etymological or associative link with the verb דין (din), meaning to judge or govern. The two extant Biblical derivatives of our root אדן ('dn), however, overlap quite obviously to reveal their core meaning:
- The masculine noun אדן ('eden), meaning foundation, base or pedestal (not to be confused with the name עדן; Eden, which is a wholly different word).
- The masculine noun אדון or אדן ('adon) reflects authority in the sense of being the foundation for individuals or groups. It's the source of the divine name or term Adonai, commonly translated with 'Lord'.
The first noun, אדן ('eden) is used for the sockets or bases for the side panels of the tabernacle (Exodus 26:19) and the bases of its pillars (Exodus 38:10). The bride of the Song Of Solomon likens the legs of the groom to pillars set on pedestals of pure gold (Song of Solomon 5:15), and Ezekiel sees the altar in the New Temple standing on a wooden base (Ezekiel 41:22). Most strikingly is the usage of our word 'eden in Job 38:6, where it denotes the foundation of the earth and is used in parallel with the phrase אבן פנתה ('eben pinnatah), meaning corner stone. The corner stone returns in Psalm 118:22, where it metaphorizes the rejected but resurrected and glorified Christ (Matthew 21:42).
Whatever the linguistic roots of these words may be, in practical Biblical usage, the word 'eden conveys a sense of solidity and foundation. It ties things together (like Christ — Colossians 1:17) and it gives solid footing (like the Words of Christ — Matthew 7:24, also see our critical article on the name Peter).
The word 'adon refers to the authoritative foundation of social structures (groups, or individuals relative to society). It's commonly translated with 'lord' or 'Lord', and that doesn't wholly cut it. English translations usually also translate the name YHWH with 'Lord' (which is an even worse departure from the original), which here and there leads to congested sentences; the King James Version famously solved this problem by lamely translating Adonai with 'Lord' and YHWH with the capitalized 'LORD'. But the main objection to translate אדן ('adon) with 'lord' or 'Lord' is that our English word lord doesn't convey a sense of fundament, nor is it closely related to another, very common, word meaning foundation or junction.
Of lords and pedestals
Our English word 'lord' comes from the antique word hlafweard, which is literally 'loaf' + 'ward(en)', meaning 'the supply guy', or rather: 'he who has the say-so over where the provisions go' (see Matthew 24:45). Our word 'master' comes from the Latin magister, which in turn comes from the familiar 'mega', and thus literally means 'great one'. Our word 'sir' is short for 'sire', which in turn is short for 'senior' and means 'elder'.
In German, the superlative of the word for 'old' became 'Herr' and in Dutch the similar 'heer'. Servants and the likes were subsequently associated with being young; hence the word 'boy' for a slave of any age, the term 'junior officer' as indicative for someone with a relatively lower rank, and any cheerful salute involving 'boys!'.
As in Hebrew, in Dutch the term 'my-sir' (mijn heer contracted to meneer, the still very common word for gentleman, sir, boss, teacher and all that) achieved the status of autonomous term, which lead to curious but proper constructions like 'your my-lord' or 'the my-lord of him'. The German/Dutch speaking worlds have largely done away with social strata based on formal rank, but the Germanic lord-words remain in adjectives like herrlich and heerlijk, the German and Dutch words for delicious, literally meaning lordly, lord-like, or pertaining to a lord or being of the status of a lord.
In Hebrew, our word 'adon often occurs postfixed with the letter י (yod) and due to the multifarious functions of this postfix, the form אדני ('adonai) may be a possessive plural ('adonies of), or the singular 'adon of me ('my 'adon') or even an adjective meaning 'adonly or 'pertaining to an 'adon'. And in case any of these variations combine (in for instance 'my adonies', as in Genesis 19:2, where it means 'my lords' or simply 'sirs') the twin yods blend together and we're still presented with the base form אדני and only the context to guide us toward a proper interpretation. Also note that Hebrew sometimes makes use of majestic plural, or a plural form to indicate respect, so that אדני may be used to mean 'lords' instead of 'my lord', but used for a single individual: Lord, and not 'lords of' or 'my lord'.
The opposite of אדני ('adonai), or 'my lord' is עבדך ('ebedek), meaning 'your servant' or 'your devotee'; someone who abides the 'adon's bidding. This term seems to have no real equivalent in the modern world other than perhaps 'yours truly'.
Lords of the Bible
Since 'adon is the common Hebrew appellation for the people we would call 'sir' or 'mister', it occurs all over the Bible. The Pharaoh of Egypt is referred to as 'adon (Genesis 40:1), and so is king Saul of Israel (1 Samuel 16:16). But even lesser officers, such as Joseph (Genesis 42:10), general Joab (2 Samuel 11:11), the government of the Tekoites (Nehemiah 3:5), and even the prophet Elijah (1 Kings 18:7) are addressed with 'adon.
Polite and hospitably, Lot calls his angelic guests such (Genesis 19:2), and Hannah says it to high priest Eli (1 Samuel 1:15). A concubine's man is called her 'adon (Judges 19:26). Ruth calls her future husband Boaz 'adon (Ruth 2:13), and Sarah calls her husband Abraham as such (Genesis 18:12) and is therefore highly appreciated by Peter (1 Peter 3:6).
The Greek word used by Peter is κυριος (kurios), which is slightly different in meaning, as it denotes only authority and not the idea of literal fundament. The feminine variant κυρια (kuria) denotes a mistress. This word is used twice in the Bible, in 2 John 1:1 and 1:5, where John addresses an unnamed "lordess". Some speculate that this "lordess" is Mary, the mother of Jesus. A large majority of the Biblical occurrences of the word kurios denote either God or Christ.
Similarly, about half of the occurrences of the word אדון, is applied to God. In Genesis 18:3, Abraham addresses the three men (previously introduced as YHWH, see 18:1) with 'adoni (and nine verses later, Sarah speaks of her husband with the exact same word — 18:12).
Adonai is often used in conjunction with YHWH: אדני יהוה (Adonai YHWH — Genesis 15:2), or יהוה אדני (YHWH Adonai — Psalm 68:20). Moses even combines several divine names, including a form of Elohim, in his famous phrase האדן יהוה אלהי ישראל, meaning The Lord YHWH, the God of Israel.
Adon is also the word used in the following familiar phrases:
- אדני אדנים meaning Lord of lords (Deuteronomy 10:17).
- אלהי ואדני, meaning my Lord and my God (Psalm 35:23).
- יהוה אלהי הצבאות אדני, meaning YHWH the God of Hosts my Lord (Amos 5:16).