Abarim Publications' online Biblical Hebrew Dictionary
שש שושן ישש שוש
There are quite a few words in Hebrew that feature a double ש (s), and many have nothing to do with the others. Still, a few of those signature double-ש (s) words can be convincingly connected. We start our journey with the word שושן (shushan), meaning lily:
The noun שושן (shushan), meaning lily, is related to Egyptian and Akkadian words with similar meanings (HAW Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament suggests: big flower, water lily). The winter residence of Persian kings was known by this name: Susa. Since this word was imported into the Hebrew language, etymologically it's a dead end. But maybe it was so readily incorporated in Hebrew because it seemed to make a lot of sense anyway. In fact, it seems to be grafted upon a marvelously intricate web of meaning that already existed:
In Hebrew, the word שושן (shushan) looks like it is a construct from a non-existing root שוש (shush). The nun, or waw-nun, often has the function of personifying or localizing the root (see for instance the names Sidon, Gershon, Hebron, Samson, etc.).
More than a thousand years after the Hebrew Bible in its present form was produced, the Masoretes began to distinguish between words spelled with the letter ש (s). Probably following their tradition (that obviously had evolved for a millennium, obviously away from the original interpretations), they began to mark ש (s)-words that now had a clean s-sound to them with שׂ (sin; dot to the left), and ש (s)-words that now had a sh-sound to them with שׁ (shin; dot to the right). All words we treat in this article came to be spelled with a שׁ (shin; those are sh-words). The word שׁושׁ (shush) does not exist, but the word שׂושׂ (sus) does:
The verb שוש (sus) also occurs as שיש (sis) in the Bible. It means to exult or rejoice. Most often this verb is used to describe Israel's rejoicing over either the Lord (Psalm 70:4), his Word (Psalm 119:162), or his salvation (Isaiah 61:10). The initial four times this verb is used, however, is to describe God's reaction to Israel and Israel's obedience to his Law (Deuteronomy 28:63, 30:9).
This verb's derivatives are:
- The masculine noun ששון (sason), meaning exultation, joy or rejoicing (Isaiah 12:3, Jeremiah 25:10).
- The masculine noun משוש (masos), also meaning joy or gladness (Psalm 48:2, Isaiah 8:6).
The word שׁושׁ (shush) does not exist in Hebrew but since in this non-existing word the waw serves as a vowel, and may be either dropped or replaced by a yod, we arrive at the words שיש (shysh) and שש (shsh; see for instance the heading of Psalm 45: על־ששנים (al shushanim), "on the lilies;" or Psalm 80: אל־ששנים עדות (al-shushanim 'dut), "the testimony of the lilies").
The word שש (shesh) denotes the number six. Since lilies have six leaves, some commentators derive the word שושן (shushan) from שש (shesh) or rather, as HAW Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament says, from the Akkadian equivalent shushua, meaning six. Whether by etymology or chance, the lily was known to the ancient world as a "sixie". (and displaying three lilies - Pope Simplicius, 468-483 and pope Paulus VI, 1963-1978 - doesn't seem particularly clever).
The form שש may also be the word שש (shesh) meaning alabaster, or a similar material. It occurs in Esther 1:6 where it is used in a pavement. In the Song of Solomon, this word occurs in close proximity to the word lily. In 5:13 the bride compares the lips of the bridegroom to lilies, and in 5:15 his legs to pillars of alabaster. It seems that this material calls to mind firmness and stability; something you can stand on. The alabaster of the ancients was a white, translucent material, mostly used to make perfume bottles. This bottle shows up in the gospels where the 'woman of sin' pours its contents over the feet of Jesus (Luke 7:38; although in Matthew 26:7 and Mark 14:3 she pours it over his head).
There are many species but a lily common to the Biblical region was the Lilium Candidum, or Madonna Lily; an alabaster white flower on a stem that may reach up to two meters in length, and which, most unusually for a lily, remains for much of the year.
The word שש (shesh) is derived of the word שיש (shayish), meaning alabaster as well. The word שיש (shayish) occurs in 1 Chronicles 29:2, where it is listed among the materials to be used in the Temple.
The Temple was a continuation of the Tabernacle, and the Tabernacle was equipped with curtains of fine Egyptian linen. The word for that - שש (shesh) - is identical to the words שש (shesh), alabaster and שש (shesh), six.
Another word that features the signature double shin is the word ישש (yashesh) from an unused and assumed similar root, meaning aged or decrepit (occurs only in 2 Chronicles 36:17) The variant ישיש (yashish) occurs four times, and solely in the book of Job (Job 12:12, 15:10, 29:8, 32:6) and it denotes men of age but with a connotation of honor and venerability. None of the sources that we commonly consult reports a connection between the words שש (shesh) and שיש (shayish) and ישש (yashesh) and ישיש (yashish) but to a Hebrew audience the relation is hard to miss:
Job 12:12 states that "wisdom is with aged men; with long life is understanding". King Solomon, who built the Temple and who also wrote the Song of Solomon, states that wisdom has built a house and has hewn out her seven pillars (Proverbs 9:1). He covertly refers to the lily-like lips of the Bridegroom in Proverbs 10:31, where he states that wisdom flows from the mouth of the righteous and what is acceptable from his lips.
In the Bible the number seven (the amount of pillars of wisdom - see our article on Elizabeth for a name formed from the number seven) often denotes the completion of a cycle, most famously that of the creation. Subsequently, the number six often functions in the Bible as the mark of the final productive stage of that cycle. On the sixth creation day all that has been made was completed, with man as grand finale and as final act 'before seven.' When the flood came, Noah was six hundred years old (Genesis 7:6); Jesus' transfiguration occurred "after six days" (Matthew 17:1); his first miracle had to do with six water jars (John 2:6), and he dined with Lazarus, Mary and Martha six days before Passover (John 12:1 - the same scene in which Mary anointed Jesus' feet).
In Daniel 7:9 God is pictured as the Ancient of Days, dressed in white linen and seated upon a blazing throne. This throne reappears in Revelation 20:11 where it is reported to be white.