Abarim Publications' online Biblical Hebrew Dictionary
עיר עור ערה ערר
There are one or two roots עיר ('yr), three of four roots עור ('wr), one root ערה ('rh), and two roots ערר ('rr), which forms are obviously contiguous and which meanings are surprisingly adjacent. Scholars identify three separate roots of the form עור ('wr) in which the letter ו (waw) serves as a vowel, and one in which the waw serves as a consonant. But both BDB Theological Dictionary and HAW Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament acknowledge that the latter may have evolved from one of the three others.
The feminine noun עיר ('ir), meaning city, is a curious word because, although it occurs across the Semitic language spectrum and all over the Bible, we don't know from which verb it stems. And that's awkward because cities often play a major role in symbolic structures. The New Jerusalem, for instance, is a city, but why is mankind's glorious final stage represented as a pre-fulfilment urban center?
Is a Biblical city mainly a cluster of dwellings, practical and safe? Or perhaps an ostensibly exposed expression of a high degree of cooperation? Is it a clear witness of mankind's rise from the animal plain, or does it testify of the individual's specialization versus the collective's increasing complexity, like a true multi-cellular organism?
We sadly don't know. But there are several possibilities, a few of which we will discuss below. And as you will see, the following cluster of roots is mostly concerned with open exposure. Jesus seems to tap into the idea of a city being known as an exposed entity when he says, "You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill can not be hidden" (Matthew 5:14).
The verb עיר ('yr II) isn't used in the Bible, but in cognate languages in means to go away, to go hither and thither, or escape through sprightliness. Those same cognate languages may contain the sole extant Biblical derivation of this verb, namely the masculine noun עיר ('ayir), meaning wild ass (Genesis 32:15, Judges 10:4). In Egyptian this word means goat, and in Arabic it may include the donkey and the gazelle. Other Biblical words for the wild ass are:
Note that in ancient times, a ruler would ride a mule or donkey as a sign of peace (as opposed to riding a war horse - also see Zechariah 9:9 and Matthew 21:2-11). And also note that Israel or Jerusalem is depicted in the Bible as a naked human female found in the wilderness (Ezekiel 16:5, see also Revelation 12:6).
The verb עור ('awar) means to be or make blind (although in the Bible it occurs only in the sense of making blind). It may not be immediately clear where this verb comes from. It may be denominative from the following adjective, or the adjective may come from the verb. But the whole cluster of words may actually have evolved from the noun עור ('or), meaning skin (see below), and essentially refer to a cataract. Our verb occurs a mere five times in the Bible (Exodus 23:8, 2 Kings 25:7, Jeremiah 39:7). Associated words are:
- The adjective עור ('iwwer), meaning blind, whether literally physically blind (Exodus 4:11, Deuteronomy 15:21) or figuratively (Isaiah 42:18). This word is part of the often used formula עור ופסח ('iwwer wapiseah), which is usually translated with "the blind and the lame" but literally denoting: a piece extra (a blinding cataract) and a piece short (a working foot). This formula ties into the famous injunction to not add to (יסף, yasap) or remove (גרע, gara') anything from the Word (Deuteronomy 4:2, Revelation 22:18-19) and also explains why the Pharisees with their commentaries upon commentaries were "blind" guides and not "lame" guides (Matthew 15:14). See for more details our article on the word פסח (piseah), meaning lame.
- The masculine noun עורון ('iwwaron), meaning blindness (Deuteronomy 28:28 and Zechariah 12:4 only).
- The feminine equivalent עורת ('awweret), also meaning blindness (Leviticus 22:22).
The verb עור ('ur I) means to rouse oneself (Judges 5:12, Psalm 57:9), arouse or awake (Zechariah 4:1, Song of Solomon 2:7) or incite (Zechariah 2:13, Job 8:6).
This verb's sole extant derivative is the masculine noun עיר ('ir), meaning excitement and which is as good as identical to the previous two words עיר ('ir), meaning city and wild ass. It occurs in Jeremiah 15:8, Hosea 11:9 and Psalm 73:20; all denoting negative excitement; i.e. terrors.
The verb עור ('ur II) means to be exposed or laid bare. Note that this verb is closely akin to the verbs ערה ('ara) and ערר ('arar II). The verb עור ('ur) is used only once, in Habakkuk 3:9, but its derivatives occur much more often:
- The masculine noun מעור (ma'or), meaning nakedness. This noun occurs only in plural and only in Habakkuk 2:15.
- The masculine noun or adjective עירם ('erom) or ערם ('erom), meaning naked (Genesis 3:7, Ezekiel 18:7), or nakedness (Deuteronomy 28:48, Ezekiel 16:7).
- The adjective ערום ('arom) or ערם ('arom), meaning naked (Genesis 2:25, Hosea 2:5).
- The masculine noun מערם (ma'arom), meaning naked one (2 Chronicles 28:15 only).
The root עור ('wr III) doesn't occur in the Bible and its meaning is unknown. Still, it doesn't stray far from the previous root. Its sole extant derivative is the masculine noun עור ('or), meaning skin. This word is used 44 times to indicate the skin of an animal (Genesis 3:21, Leviticus 13:51), and a telling 55 times the skin of a human (Exodus 34:29, Job 10:11, Micah 3:2).
The verb ערה ('ara) is closely related to the verbs עור ('ur II) and ערר ('arar).
It means to be naked or bare (Zephaniah 2:14, Habakkuk 3:13), and that often in the sense of depletion or a 'pouring out' (Genesis 24:20, Psalm 141:8, Isaiah 53:12). A decidedly positive use occurs in Isaiah 32:15, where the outpour of the Holy Spirit is promised. Of course, the final result of this outpouring is the formation of the spiritual city — עיר ('ir) — of New Jerusalem.
This verb's derivatives are:
- The feminine noun ערה ('ara), meaning a bare place (Isaiah 19:7 only and in plural).
- The feminine noun ערוה ('erwa), meaning nakedness, usually in the sense of shameful exposure (Genesis 9:22, Ezekiel 16:37), or shameful exposure or indecency of any kind (Deuteronomy 23:14, 24:1).
- The feminine noun עריה ('erya), meaning nakedness (Micah 1:11, Ezekiel 16:7).
- The masculine noun מערה (ma'ara) or מער (ma'ar), meaning a bare or exposed place (Judges 20:33, Nahum 3:5). Some scholars believe that this word is the source of the familiar (extra-Biblical) name Marathon.
- The masculine noun תער (ta'ar), denoting a thing that makes bare: a razor (Numbers 6:5), or a sheath of a sword (2 Samuel 20:8).
The root ערר ('rr) isn't used in the Bible and we don't know what it means. But its sole derivation, the feminine noun מערה (me'ara), is the Bible's common word for cave, the geological feature that was used as a home (Genesis 19:30), as a place of refuge (Joshua 10:16) or as a sepulcher (Genesis 23:19). What the literal meaning of this word מערה (me'ara) may be, its usages is not far removed from that of a city (עיר ('ir), see above). Caves may even have reminded the ancients of those things that exposed the heart of the earth, and thus made a natural connection to any of the three verbs of similar literary form that denote nakedness or uncoveredness: עור ('ur II), ערה ('ara) and ערר (arar II).
The verb ערר ('arar II) is closely akin to the verbs עור ('ur II) and ערה ('ara) and means to make bare or strip oneself (Isaiah 23:13 and 32:11 and Jeremiah 51:58 only). Its derivations are:
- The adjective ערירי ('ariri), meaning stripped, specifically being childless (Genesis 15:2, Leviticus 20:20-21 and Jeremiah 22:30 only).
- The adjective ערער ('ar'ar), meaning stripped in the sense of destitute (Psalm 102:17 only).
- The masculine noun ערוער ('aro'er), denoting some kind of tree or bush (Jeremiah 17:6 only). This plant is probably a type of shrub like the Juniper, which is characterized by its tiny scale-like leaves.