Abarim Publications' online Biblical Hebrew Dictionary
קבה קבב נקב יקב עקב
In the Hebrew language exists a cluster of words that are formed around the pervasive form קב (qb), which appears to reflect a down- or inward notion, creating a hollow that contains or should contain something precious or related to growth. Its dominance is remarkable, and can be expected to have been consciously utilized by the authors of the Scriptures.
If there ever was a verb in Hebrew of the form קבה (qbh), it isn't used in the Bible. In cognate languages it may mean to collect or contain water (Syriac), or have dropsy (Ethiopian). Related nouns may mean stomach (Arabian) or cistern (Syriac). The only trace of this root in Biblical Hebrew is the feminine noun קבה (qeba), denoting an animal's stomach (Deuteronomy 18:3) or a woman's belly (Numbers 25:8).
The root יבק (yqb) occurs in Arabic with the meaning of to be sunk or depressed. A related noun means hollow or cavity. In Hebrew exists only the noun יקב (yeqeb), meaning wine-vat, which BDB Theological Dictionary defines as "a trough or hollow excavated (Isaiah 5:2) in the rock for receiving the juice trodden out in the גת (gat) [= winepress]".
Scholars identify two separate roots of the identical form קבב (qbb). Perhaps these two differing strands of meaning were experienced as absolutely distinct (such as our words trunk and trunk) but perhaps their similarity was understood to explain the fundamental meaning of either. Users of the English language would readily connect the verb to truncate to the noun trunk (=tree stump) and very few would understand this verb to mean turning something into an elephant's nose. But since the Hebrew roots קבב (qbb) are part of the larger קב (qb)-complex, both forms may, at least by association, point towards a degree of hollowing:
The root קבב (qbb I) isn't used as a verb in the Bible, but its derived nouns occur with similar meanings all over the Semitic spectrum:
- The masculine noun קב (qab), which is a unit of (dry) volume. It's used only in 2 Kings 6:25, when during the siege of Samaria a famine erupted that compelled people to sell one קב (qab) of dove's dung for five shekels of silver.
- The feminine noun קבה (qubba), denoting a large vaulted tent. This noun is used only in Numbers 25:8, where Phinehas staves off the plague by goring the Israelite man and his Midianite woman in their tent. Note that the noun קבה (qeba), meaning belly, is spelled the same as the noun קבה (qubba), meaning tent. This imagery appears to resonate with the temple's "abomination that causes desolation" of Daniel 8:13.
The verb קבב (qabab) means to curse, and it occurs fifteen times in the Bible. Because it's used solely by or towards gentiles, some scholars assume that it's a word imported from other languages. But where BDB always generously submits cognate usages, this verb appears to have no cognate counterparts. Our verb features predominantly in the conversations between Balak and Balaam, which occurred just prior to the plague that was checked by Phinehas (Numbers 22-24). HAW Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament states, "At times it is difficult to tell whether the text represents qbb II or nqb II (the lexicons and grammars disagree)".
It's not clear how many different roots of the form נקב (naqab) there are in Biblical Hebrew; older lexicons count two but modern ones count one. It's even possible to identify three distinct groups of meanings carried by the form נקב (nqb). As HAW observes in its article on קבב (qabab II), it's not always easy to figure out whether the verb קבב (qabab) or נקב (naqab) is used, because in certain very common grammatical constructions, the latter of two identical consonants is dropped and a נ (nun) is prefixed. In other words, when the verb קבב (qabab) is used in a certain way, it takes on the form of נקב (naqab).
The verb נקב (naqab I) is used in ways that generally baffle commentators. It occurs in other languages with the meaning of to pierce or perforate, but spawns nouns that mean leader or chief, and it's not clear how the nouns relate to the verb. In Hebrew something similar occurs:
Our verb may mean to pierce of bore. In 2 Kings 18:21 and Isaiah 36:6 a staff pierces a man's hand, in Habakkuk 3:14, the Lord uses the spears of the evil one to gore the head of his troops, and in the Book of Job the Lord asks if Job can pierce the nose of Behemoth with a barb (Job 40:24), or the jaw of Leviathan with a hook (Job 41:2). The priest Jehoiada turned a chest into an offer box by drilling a hole in its lid (2 Kings 12:9), and the prophet Haggai observed workers deplete their wage as if they kept it in bags with holes (Haggai 1:6).
But our verb is also used to mean designate or pick (out), hence corresponding to the Arabic noun that means chief. Laban told Jacob to "pick" (name) his wage (Genesis 30:28) and Amos speaks of "picked" (choice or distinguished) men (Amos 6:1). The mouth of the Lord will call Israel by its newly "designated" name (Isaiah 62:2) and in about five places in the Bible, men are "selected" by name (Numbers 1:17, 1 Chronicles 12:32).
HAW wonders, "Does the verb "pierce" mean, secondarily, appoint, designate, name by the way of the physical notion of ticking or marking an individual as distinctive, or is the select individual the one who 'scrutinizes' and thereby distinguishes himself? The former explanation seems the more satisfactory".
It seems that our verb originally related any kind of indentation, resulting in a physical small mark of distinction to holes in an offering chest. From there it evolved to mean to select (without actually creating a physical mark) comparable to our verb to pick out, which became equivalent with to choose (not requiring an actual displacement of the thing selected), or pick up, which may mean to learn of acquire without actually moving something physically.
It seems important, however, to relate naming or selecting in the Bible to this act of marking, since the Bible often speaks of marks in a way that seems curious to us (Genesis 4:15, Revelation 13:16). See also the mark-making verb אוה ('awa), which is identical to a verb that means to desire or covet.
It also seems relevant to realize that where in our experience, our personal name could be regarded as something that was added to us, in the Bible a name is something that creates a hole in a continuum of which the named entity was until then a part.
This complicated verb yields the following derivatives:
- The masculine noun נקב (neqeb), probably denoting some kind of hollow to fit a gem. It occurs only once, in Ezekiel's lament over the king of Tyre (Ezekiel 28:13)
- The noun נקבה (neqeba), which means female. This word is the counterpart of the masculine noun זכר (zakar), meaning male, and is used for both human females (Genesis 1:27, Jeremiah 31:22) and the females of animals (Genesis 6:19, Leviticus 3:1). Lexicons generally shy away from explaining why the word for female comes from a root that has to do with holes; HAW declares that the female is "denoted by neqeba for descriptive reasons". Here at Abarim Publications we are not shy in any way, and are certainly always willing to discuss the wonders of female anatomy, but we simply don't agree with the idea that to the Hebrews a female was in effect a walking hole. We don't think that females were named after their vulvas but rather after their function in the continuum of a herd or a people. Only females can break the continuum by producing children. Bloodshed could occur by piercing the continuum at the wrong position (a hand), or when a female failed to conceive. The piercing of the Christ (who would become the feminine, child-bearing Body of Christ) should be understood in that same context (Isaiah 53:5).
- The feminine noun מקבת (maqqebet), meaning hammer (Judges 4:21, Isaiah 44:12). This word could be understood as the root idea prefixed by the particle מ (mem), which would form "place of making holes" or "thing to make holes with".
- The identical feminine noun מקבת (maqqebet), meaning hole or excavation (Isaiah 51:1 only). Lexicons consider this and the previous noun as distinct, but they're really the same: "place of making holes" or "thing to make holes with".
The verb נקב (naqab II) means to curse and it's used only in Leviticus 24:16. It so obviously relates to the secondary meaning of the verb נקב (naqab I) that it seems quite unnecessary to evoke a whole separate root for it.
Leviticus 24:10-23 deals with an improper use of the name of the Lord. It states that any man who belittles (קלל qalal) the name of the Lord shall bear his sin, and he who curses (נקב, naqab) the name of the Lord shall be executed by stoning. All this was ordained in the wake of the incident in which the son of Shelomith cursed — קבב (qabab II) — the Name and belittled — קלל (qalal) — in general (Leviticus 24:11).
From the context and what we know about our verbs, it seems that the son of Shelomith made light of the Name and thus personality of the Lord, and consequently disturbed the regard of the Name of the rest of the people.
Other verbs that contain קב (qb):
- The root עבק ('bq) yields words that have to do with being low, behind or last (follow the link for the details).
- If we would "supplant" the letter ע ('ayin) of the verb עקב ('bq) and stick it to the end, we get the verb קבע (qabba'), which probably means something like to oppress or even to rob. It's used only in Proverbs 22:23 and Malachi 3:8.
- The feminine noun קבעת (qubba'at) is probably imported and not formally related to the previous verb. But it means cup (Isaiah 51:17 only).
- The masculine noun קובע (qoba') is also probably imported. It means helmet (1 Samuel 17:38, Ezekiel 23:24).
- The verb קבץ (qabas) means to gather or assemble.
- The verb קבר (qabar), meaning to bury. The noun קבר (qeber) means grave.
- The root אבק ('abaq) that has to do with dust and rolling around in dust.
- The verb רקב (raqeb), meaning to rot.