Abarim Publications' online Biblical Hebrew Dictionary
The root דבר (dabar) is complicated. It occurs about 2,500 times in the Bible and is most commonly translated with "to speak". Yet it rather means to formalize, i.e. to transcend the realms of subconscious intuition, the mental equivalent of muscle memory and the subliminal governance of experience, and to consciously describe what is going on with very precise words that everybody can understand and take to heart without having to accumulate years of experience and mental muscle memory. This verb is obviously a very big deal. It sums up the essence of human awareness, nominal reasoning and Information Technology; it allows years, decades, centuries and millennia of human experience to be compressed into data (concrete units of information), and to rise above the mind that produced it and settle into a mind that hasn't.
Our word דבר (dabar) specifically refers to the careful definition of anything that allows that item / situation / feeling to be discussed or even remotely experienced by people that have no intrinsic relation to it (but see Genesis 2:20, then 2:23, Judges 13:18, Isaiah 43:1 and so on). HAW Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament reports that the King James Bible uses more than 110 different English words and expressions to translate this one Hebrew word דבר (dabar).
Theology is not the study of God for the very simple reason that God cannot be observed (Exodus 33:20). The word "theology" is as unfortunate a word as "psychology," which is also not the study of the psyche also because the psyche has no properties that can be measured (the human psyche has no size, weight, taste, smell). That means that psychology can only study the effects of whatever the psyche might be, and those are summed up by the behavior of people. That's why psychology is the study of human behavior; the study of what people do (whatever a "person" might be). Theology, likewise, is the study of the behavior of God; the study of what God does (whatever "God" might be). That is why Paul could write that "since the creation of the world his invisible attributes, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made."
Theology is the Study of Everything. Unlike popular myth, the unity of the original singularity was never compromised and the universe is still One. Scientists call this oneness "symmetry" and speak of a Theory Of Everything that would describe the ultimate symmetry of the whole of reality. The ancients called it the Word of YHWH. The only difference is that science believes that the Theory Of Everything is essentially an abstraction, whereas the ancients believed that the Word is a living being. Here at Abarim Publications we respect both positions, but we bet that science and ancients will one day meet in the understanding that while DNA, like the Theory Of Everything, is essentially a bunch of data that allows a bunch of algorithms to execute, it's still the informational foundation of a very living being.
Space does not exist without stars in it, and a star does not exist without the space around it (we know this since Einstein). Likewise DNA does not exist without a body around it or an organic body without DNA in it. It's a chicken-and-egg situation; there's no "first" to this. The body is built after the DNA just as much as the DNA is built after the body (and its experiences, actually), and both grew from our simplest ancestor into the celebrated biosphere of today. Likewise the Word (i.e. the formal definition of reality) came to pass with the first few names and nouns grunted by primitive man (Genesis 2:19), the subsequent realization that knowledge of reality can be systematically pursued (Genesis 4:26), and the first understanding of the great benefits of this formal knowledge (Genesis 15:1).
Note that when the Word of the Lord first engaged mankind and came to Abram, he did so in a vision — מחזה (mahazeh) from the verb חזה (haza), meaning to look or see — indicating that Abram was seeing the Word of God. Indeed, no one has ever seen God, but only begotten son, who is in the Father's bosom, has made him known (John 1:18).
Obviously, in the first century AD, people reported that the Word had become flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, which essentially means that certain collectives of combined human minds had begun to form a sort of mental DNA — a bunch of brains linked together to form schools of thought, like a bunch of atoms linked together to form double helixes — around which the mental equivalent of an organic body began to form (compare Genesis 2:7 to 13:16, Galatians 3:7 and Acts 2:2). Of course, the Romans did their best to murder it, which is why the world now has imperial religions (Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Protestantism), which are all the same and all based on Roman pagan ideals. Fortunately for everybody except the Romans, the Word cannot be killed, and the dark Roman night is coming to an end in our lifetime.
Our verb dabar is distinguished from the verb אמר ('amar), meaning to say or talk, in that 'amar brings the focus on what is spoken, but dabar brings the focus on the actual speaking. Hence the verb 'amar always comes with what was said (e.g.: and then he said, "fine morning, isn't it?"), while dabar may occur without content (e.g.: and, after clearing his throat, he spoke).
Still, in the flow of the narrative, our verb דבר (dabar) can generally be translated as to speak, declare, warn, threaten, command, promise, sing, and so on. This verb's primary noun, namely דבר (dabar) is commonly translated with "word", but rather describes a full message, a whole declaration, a whole warning, a whole threat, a whole command or a whole song. And since the verb essentially describes how a careful definition gives clear boundaries to any thing in order for that thing to exist as an autonomous thing, our noun דבר (dabar) may sometimes be translated simply as thing.
Our verb describes the making of autonomous entities in the howling continuity of human experience. It chops off fuzzy edges and reduces any number of related phenomena to one single confining definition. This difficult but most fundamental mechanism of the human ration which this verb embodies is demonstrated marvelously in Psalm 18:47b, which reads "...and subdues people under me ...". But the parallel text of 2 Samuel 22:48 uses the verb ירד (yarad), to bring down.
The derivations of our verb are:
- The masculine noun דבר (dabar), meaning a word, a message, a thing (as explained above). Our noun denotes a thing that was made to come about. It can be a single word (which is the name of a thing), but it can also be a whole sentence, a commandment (the famous Ten Commandments are literally Ten Words), an 'act' such as the acts of King David (1 Chronicles 29:29; the things that David made to come about), and it can be a whole library and ultimately the whole of everything that can be formally said about anything, that is the Word of YHWH. The plural (דברים, dabarim) may mean 'words' (Genesis 11:1) as well as 'things' (Genesis 15:1) or 'matters' (Exodus 18:19). Together with the particle על ('al), meaning on or upon, our noun forms the phrase על־דבר; upon the thing, or on account of, or simply: because. Together with כל (kol, meaning all) it becomes 'everything'. With certain negations (such as לא (lo'), meaning not or no) our word expresses 'nothing'. Together with יום (yom), meaning day, our word forms the phrase דבר־יום; 'thing of the day' or 'daily chore'. In conjunction with YHWH, the word dabar denotes both the whole of all things that exist in the universe, as well as the formal knowledge of all these things in the mind of any person (because yes, your Sunday School teacher was right: Jesus lives in us and makes a whole new world in us).
- The masculine noun דבר (deber), meaning pestilence. This very common word is used nearly always in the sense of punishment sent by God as a result of sin (1 Kings 8:37, Psalm 91:3, Jeremiah 14:12), and although this word seems at odds with this otherwise very happy root, it must be understood that any sort of progress goes hand in hand with a breaking apart — from chewing food to radio activity to disproving a beloved theorem. No human can ever escape the rudiments of his character which were formed in his first few years of life. If people wouldn't die, their incomplete or damaged world views would never be transcended. Now parents pass their legacies on to their children while their follies are erased by their deaths. Even our word science comes from the Greek word σχιζω (schizo), which means to split or divide.
- The masculine noun דבר (dober), meaning pasture. Shepherding occurs all over the Bible but this specialized noun is used a mere two times. It denotes a feeding ground for lambs (Isaiah 5:17) and a flock of sheep (Micah 2:12) but its relation to the root is not immediately clear. It may denote someone's verbal claim to that particular plot, or else perhaps a pasture that had a well-defined fence around it (which was rare in antiquity). Either way, it's obviously a metaphor for a holy book, like the Torah or the Iliad or something like that, upon which a secluded community peacefully grazes.
- The feminine plural noun דברות (dobrot), apparently meaning floats or rafts. This curious word occurs only once, in 1 Kings 5:9, where king Hiram explains king Solomon how Lebanese timber was going to get to Jerusalem in order to form the main structure of the temple of YHWH. This whole temple-building story, of course, is about how the consonantal Phoenician alphabet was suited with vowel notation by the Hebrews. This created the alphabet as we know it, because of which any regular person could learn how to read or write, which resulted in a huge explosion of mental diversity, arts and thus science.
- The feminine noun דברה (dibra), meaning "cause" (Job 5:8), "order [of Melchizedek]" (Psalm 110:4), "anything" (Ecclesiastes 7:14), "for the purpose of" (Daniel 2:30), "in order that " (Daniel 4:17). In Ecclesiastes 3:18 and 8:2 our word results in an obstructing redundancy in English and is generally omitted. But Ecclesiastes 3:18 reads something like, "I said in my heart concerning the matter of the sons of man".
- The feminine noun דבורה (deborah) which describes the bee. Some commentators imagine that the bee was called "a speaker" because of its buzzing. But that cannot be true for two reasons. First of all, the bee is not the only animal that makes sound. And secondly, because the bee doesn't speak with its buzzing. Here at Abarim Publications we guess that the bee was named by means of the dabar-root because it produces honey. Honey was the chief sweetener in the olden days, and although God's words are sweater than honey (Psalm 119:103), Ezekiel reports that the scroll full of lamentations that God gave him tasted after it. The miraculous Manna tasted like honey-wafers; manna also showed the glory of the Lord (Exodus 16:7) and Jesus compared himself to it (John 6:31-35). The promised land was a land of milk and honey (and Paul compares early learning to milk). Ergo, the bee brings forth the honey which in turn has a lot to do with the Word of God. See our article on the name Deborah for more on this.
- The masculine noun דביר (debir), which, when it doesn't refer to the town Debir, is reserved as an alternative name of the Holy of Holies in Solomon temple. Because of the connection to dabar, this word was translated as 'oracle' by the King James and others. Younger translations imagine that our root has something to do with being in the back (in cognate languages exist synonyms that may mean "to follow") and translate this word rather lamely with "back room." Obviously, since the Holy of Holies was specifically built to be a vault to keep the Ark in, and in the Ark were kept the two tablets with the Ten Words, a better translation of our noun would be 'place of the Word.'
- The masculine noun מדבר (midbar), meaning mouth, or so it's supposed. Prefixed with the מ (mem), our word literally means "place or agent of wording." The more regular word for mouth (nearly 500 occurrences) is פה (peh) but our noun appears in Song of Solomon 4:3 in conjunction with the word for lips. Possibly the Groom isn't merely complimenting the Bride's physical features, but rather her mouth as source of her speech, whereas her speech is the exact mirror of her deepest character.
- The identical masculine noun מדבר (midbar), meaning wilderness. It's actually the same word as the previous and literally means "place or agent of wording," in the sense that "wording" means "coming into being." A midbar is an ecosystem where entities exists in a larger system, just like words exists in speech. It does not denote a specific kind of terrain and is certainly not reserved for deserts; it may very well denote lush stretches that are good for grazing (Psalm 65:12, Jeremiah 23:10). Job 38:26 speaks of a ארץ ('eres; land) without איש ('ish; people) and a מדבר (midbar; wilderness) without אדם (adam; men). Just like a land is not typically without people, so is a midbar not typically without men. This is why the midbar may even hold towns and peoples (Isaiah 42:11, Joshua 15:61). The key to all this is formalization. A wilderness is the opposite of a refined culture, with its specific jargon and well-defined social codes. When Israel left Egypt and commenced the forty year trek through the midbar, Israel abandoned all the advantages of a formal culture and started all over with the basic rudiments of being human, to slowly build up a social identity of its own. Most cities, with their luxuries and leisure, get in the way of someone who truly seeks the skinny of existence. That's why anybody serious abandons all established wisdoms and spends a stint in the wilderness first (Abraham, Moses, David, Elijah, John, Jesus).