Abarim Publications' online Biblical Hebrew Dictionary
There are two separate roots עפר ('pr), which both occur in cognate languages. None of the consulted sources reports a clear relation between the two, but that doesn't mean there isn't any. Here at Abarim Publications we surmise that this root describes the condition that occurs just after a liquid has congealed into a solid.
Most substances, and particularly metals, remain easily malleable when they have just congealed, and that's what this root means: to be malleable or clay or mud-like (mud marks the border between water and dry land). In the reverse direction, our verb describes what happens when a solid loses its consistency: it falls apart and turns to dust.
The root עפר ('pr) isn't used in the Bible and its meaning is unclear. Its derivations are:
- The masculine noun עפר ('apar), usually translated with dust, but that's far too narrow. This noun may mean loose earth (2 Samuel 16:13), the surface of the earth (Isaiah 2:19), the material from which organic bodies are formed (Genesis 2:7), anything powdery (Deuteronomy 9:21), debris or ruins (1 Kings 20:10), mortar (Leviticus 14:41), metal ore or dust (Job 28:2).
As figure of speech, this word is used to indicate abundance (Genesis 13:16), worthlessness (Job 22:24), dispersal (2 Kings 13:7), humility or humiliation (Genesis 18:27, Isaiah 47:1).
- The verb עפר ('apar), which was formed from the preceding noun and literally means to dust. It occurs only once in the Bible, in 2 Samuel 16:13, where Shimei lavishly curses king David and keeps pelting stones and dry earth at him. Obviously, the Hebrew verb to dust (=put dust somewhere) is the opposite of the English one (= remove dust from somewhere). Also note that this verb doesn't only mean to put dust or dirt somewhere, but also carries the distinct connotation of humiliating the target; making the target small.
The root עפר ('pr) is also not used in the Bible, but in cognate languages it denotes the young of certain animals - perhaps through their abundance or else because they're small - and that makes the rift between the two roots עפר ('pr) really quite narrow. This root comes with one true derivation and one imposter:
- The masculine noun עפר ('oper), meaning young stag, young male deer. This noun occurs only in the Song of Solomon (2:9, 2:17, 8:14).
- The masculine noun עפרת ('operet) looks like it has to do with our root but is most probably a word imported from another language. It denotes some kind of metal, probably lead (Numbers 31:22, Zechariah 5:7).