Abarim Publications' online Biblical Hebrew Dictionary
The forms שרה (srh) and שרר (srr) are part of an enormous cluster of words, some of which are obviously related. The core idea that is expressed in these words has to do with the storage of wealth of any sort (whether financial wealth or information), which exists by merit of an otherwise fluidic economy.
In any such economy, liquidity is as important as storage of wealth, and an economy's ability to securely store wealth is as crucial to its leverage as its liquidity. Books, for instance, are stores of data, and are as important to any wisdom tradition as people debating. Banks, likewise, are as important to a society as its market place. Our root שרר (shrr) describes the rigidity that results from the absorption and retention of liquid. In plants this is called turgor, and in sociology we speak of the centralization of power (see our article on the noun δουλος, doulos for more on this).
Note that the difference between שׂ (sin; dot to the left, probably pronounced similar to our letter s) and שׁ (shin; dot to the right, probably pronounced as sh) is an interpretation made by the Masoretes more than a thousand years after the text of the Bible was written. The Biblical authors used only the letter ש (s; no dot; pronunciation probably somewhere in between s and sh):
The basic meaning of the root שרר (srr) is unclear but a similar verb in Assyrian, sararu means to rise in splendor (of the sun, for instance). BDB Theological Dictionary, however, deems to connection dubious. The Bible reflects this root in two closely related nouns and a denominative verb:
- The masculine noun שר (sar), meaning chief or ruler. This common noun mostly denotes a social structure's sub-chief, like a clan head (Numbers 21:18) or regional ruler (Judges 9:30). In a few occasions the שר (sar) is an angelic captain (Joshua 5:14, Daniel 10:13).
- The feminine equivalent שרה (sara), denoting a princess or noble lady (Judges 5:29, Isaiah 49:23).
- The denominative verb שרר (sarar), meaning to be or act as a שר (sar), or in short: to rule or exercise dominion (Isaiah 32:1, Esther 1:22).
The root שרר (srr) appears to be related to words in cognate languages that have to do with firmness and hardness and even to be substantial and truthful. Perhaps it's a coincidence but these qualities are obviously those of a righteous ruler. The usages of this root in the Bible reveal this root's secondary charge of centrality, also a characteristic of a king or ruler:
- The masculine noun שר (shor) meaning umbilical cord (Proverbs 3:8, Ezekiel 16:4).
- The feminine noun שרה (shera), meaning bracelet (Genesis 24:22, Isaiah 3:19).
- The masculine noun שריר (sharir), apparently denoting a sinew or muscle (Job 40:16 only).
- The feminine noun שרירות (sherirut) or שררות (sherirut), meaning firmness in a negative sense: stubbornness. This noun is used always in a context with the noun לב (leb), meaning heart, the central-most organ and the Biblical seat of the mind.
The meaning of the verb שרה (sara I) is uncertain and explained in many ways, chiefly because it is limited to contexts which discuss the struggle of Jacob with the Angel of YHWH (Genesis 32:29 and Hosea 12:4 only), insinuating that where our language uses the common verb 'struggle,' the Hebrew uses a word that is specifically reserved for a certain action: the action of struggling with God.
BDB Theological Dictionary reports for שרה (sara) the Arabic cognate of to persist, persevere and interprets our verb as such. HAW Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament believes our verb to mean to contend or have power.
Perhaps a Hebrew audience would have viewed this enigmatic verb as having to do with the previous roots (containing words that have to do with royalty), possibly concluding that Jacob didn't simply stand up to a celestial bully, but rather that the angel saw in Jacob a worthy national ruler. The struggle of Jacob with the angel was not so much a bout between two hulks, but rather an international power struggle that resulted in an earth-heaven federation.
Linguists insist that the form שרה (srh) must be split into two separate roots, but why is not very clear. In the Bible the assumed root שרה (srh) is only reflected in the masculine noun משרה (misra), which only occurs in the famous Messianic passage of Isaiah 9:6: " . . . and the government will be upon his shoulders". This is obviously not very far removed from the roots שרר (srr).
The following cluster of roots that are all spelled שׁרה (shrh) appear to reflect attributes of the royal office:
The verb שרה (shara I) means to fill and release. It's used two times in the Bible. In Job 37:3, YHWH fills and releases the heavens with thunder and lightning, in a passionate report that celebrates the Lord as the ruler of the earth. In Jeremiah 15:11, the Lord is portrayed as a military leader who promises to release Jeremiah from the enemy.
The verb שרה (shrh II) doesn't occur in the Bible but its sole derivative, namely the feminine noun משרה (mishra), denotes the juice of grapes. This noun occurs only once, in Numbers 6:3, where the juice of grapes is distinguished from fresh grapes or dried grapes.
The root שרה (shrh III) also doesn't occur in the Bible. Its sole derivative is the feminine noun שריה (shirya), which denotes some kind of weapon, most likely a ballistic one; perhaps a lance or javelin. It occurs only once, in Job 41:26.
Root שרה (shrh IV) is also not used, and only one derivative remains: the masculine noun שריון (shiryon) or שרין (shiryan), meaning body armor (1 Samuel 17:5, 1 Kings 22:34).