Abarim Publications' online Biblical Hebrew Dictionary
שית שאה שתה שוא שוה
Biblical Hebrew contains these five root-forms: שית (syt), שאה (s'h), שתה (sth), שוא (sw'), and שוה (swh), which are related in form and on occasion also in meaning. Then there is the noun שה (sh), which is of unknown origin, but which possibly comes from one of these roots:
The verb שית (shyt) occurs eighty-five times in the Bible, but in such a wide compass that a single translation into English is hardly possibly. It appears to reflect a kind of process that creates a focal point in which something or some quality may be conceived, received or inferred. Thus it may mean to give (Genesis 4:25, Psalm 12:5, 21:6), or it may mean to put (Genesis 46:4, Ruth 4:16). It may mean to set or station (Genesis 30:40, 2 Samuel 19:29), or to endow someone with an office (Isaiah 5:6, Hosea 2:5).
This verb's derivatives are:
- The masculine noun שית (shyt), denoting a garment but one upon which a profession rests: occupational garb, such as that of a robber (Psalm 73:6) or a prostitute (Proverbs 7:10). This word occurs only in these two occasions.
- The masculine noun שת (shat), denoting a national foundation; whatever the nation is set on. This noun occurs only in Isaiah 19:10 and Psalm 11:3.
- The masculine noun שית (shayit), which is a collective word denoting some kind of thorn bushes. BDB Theological Dictionary admits that the relation between this noun and the root שית (shyt) is dubious, and reports that some theorists figure that this noun doesn't come from שית (shyt) but from שאה (sha'a, see below). This mysterious word occurs seven times, all in Isaiah (Isaiah 7:23, 9:17, 27:4).
The rarely used noun שי (shay) is officially of mysterious origin, but it's commonly translated as "gift" and that puts it in proximity of our verb שית (shyt). The terminal letter ת serves in Hebrew to signify a number of grammatical functions, and a hypothesis that proposes that our verb שית (shyt) grew out of a more fundamental word שי (shay) would not be without promise.
The noun שי (shay) is used a mere three times, which indicates that it doesn't simply mean gift (or else it would be used more), but something rather specific. And it does. Our noun consistently describes gifts brought to the House of YHWH by neighboring peoples and their kings (Psalm 68:29, 76:11 and Isaiah 18:7). This noun ties into the principle also described in texts such as 1 Kings 10:24-25 and Revelation 21:24 and specifically denotes the contributions to the global wisdom tradition made by people that are not part of the Jewish tradition (also see Luke 4:25-27).
Note that this noun שי (shay), devotional gift, is spelled the same as the variant of שה (seh), meaning sheep or goat. The difference between these two was not recorded until the age of the Masoretes, who made their contributions to the texts 1,500 years after they were written.
The verb שאה (sha'a I) denotes a loud crash, din or some action that leads to ruin (2 Kings 19:25, Isaiah 6:1). BDB Theological Dictionary reports that this verb is perhaps related to the root שוא (shw' II; see below). Its derivatives are:
- The feminine noun שאוה (sha'awa), denoting a devastating storm. This noun occurs only once, in Proverbs 1:27.
- The feminine noun שאיה (she'iya), meaning ruin. This noun occurs in Isaiah 24:12 only.
- The masculine noun שאון (sha'on), describes either the roaring sound of wild waters (Isaiah 17:12) or else armies converging (Amos 2:2).
- The feminine noun שאת (she't), probably meaning ruin or devastation (Lamentations 3:47 only).
Note that without the Masoretic symbols, the latter noun is spelled the same as the noun שאת (se'et), meaning dignity, swelling, outburst or rising-up, from the root נשׂא (nasa'), meaning to move up and away. Both HAW Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament and BDB Theological Dictionary declare the meaning of this word "doubtful". It may simply be a feminine equivalent of the masculine שאון (sha'on), written in an old pre-Biblical spelling, but some linguists propose it's derived not from root שאה (sha'a) but from root שוא (shw'; see below).
The masculine noun שאון (sha'on) occurs in Jeremiah 48:45 in the phrase בני שאון (benay sha'on), meaning something like "sons of the battle din". But Numbers 24:17, what seems a parallel text, reads בני שת (beny shet). Some linguists take this שת (shet) to be a contracted form of שוא (shwt) and read something like "sons of noise," whereas others declare these texts not parallel but endowed with a broken symmetry, and interpret שת (shet) as a personal name: "sons of Sheth". Then, of course, these sons of Seth may also be named after the noun שת (shat), which denotes a national foundation (see above, under the root שית, shyt), or even after שת (shet), meaning buttocks (see under שתה II below).
In a grand poetic sense, we here at Abarim Publications suppose that no definitive solution should be pursued: all possibilities are equally true.
The verb שאה (sha'a II) is used only once and is therefore rightly mysterious. It occurs in Genesis 24:21, where Rebekah finds Abraham's servant doing something towards her, and doing it in silence. It is assumed that our verb means to gaze, and BDB Theological Dictionary adds that it is "apparently" a form of the verb שעה (sha'a), meaning to gaze. The objection is that gazing is generally done in silence, and adding this seems redundant.
The alternative, obviously, would be that this text uses שאה (sha'a I) and that the servant, upon meeting the girl, waits for clarity about her identity, and while watching her water his camels, strenuously contains his inner roar. Here at Abarim Publications we continuously contain our inner roar, so we see no objection to this reading. And it neatly matches story and characters as well, and does away with the redundancy.
The verb שתה (shata I) is the Bible's common verb for to drink. It's used in all expected ways, and sometimes in figurative senses that aren't difficult to comprehend (Genesis 9:21, Deuteronomy 11:11, 1 Samuel 30:16). The derivatives of this root are:
- The masculine noun שתי (sheti), meaning a drinking. This noun occurs only in Ecclesiastes 10:17.
- The feminine equivalent שתיה (shetiya) also meaning a drinking. This noun occurs only in Esther 1:8.
- The masculine noun משתה (mishteh), meaning a banquet feast (1 Samuel 25:36, Isaiah 5:12) or drink (Ezra 3:7).
According to BDB Theological Dictionary, the assumed root שתה (shth II) is the parent root of the verb שית (shyt) treated above. But it also yields the masculine noun שת (shet), meaning foundation of the body, or rather buttocks. It occurs a mere two times in the Bible, in 2 Samuel 10:4 and Isaiah 20:4. Note that this noun is spelled and pronounced the same as the name S(h)eth, discussed above; see שאה (sha'a).
The assumed root שתה (shth III) yields one noun, the masculine noun שתי (sheti), meaning warp (the set of threads drawn lengthwise in a loom). This noun occurs only in Leviticus 13:48.
The assumed root שוא (shw' I) isn't used in the Bible as verb and yields only one derivative: the important masculine noun שוא (shaw'), meaning emptiness or worthlessness (Psalm 60:11, Proverbs 30:8, Job 11:11). "It designates anything that is unsubstantial, unreal, worthless, either materially or morally" (HAW Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament). Preceded by the particle ל (le), it means in vain or to no avail, as used in the familiar command: you shall not use the Name of the Lord in vain (Exodus 20:7).
The assumed root שוא (shw' II) carries a meaning that isn't all that far removed from שוא (shw'), or שאה (sha'a) for that matter (see above). It's not used as verb in the Bible but three or four derivations are extant:
- The masculine noun שוא (shw'), probably meaning ravage. It's used only once, in Psalm 35:17.
- The feminine noun שואה (sho'a) or שאה (sho'a), meaning devastation or ruin. This word is used to describe a ruin that's been brought about, such as the ruins of Babylon (Isaiah 47:11), or it may denote natural desolation such as that of a desert (Job 30:3).
- The feminine noun משואה (mesho'a) or משאה (mesho'a), meaning ruin or desolation as well (Job 30:3, Zephaniah 1:15). Note the similarities between this noun and the nouns משאה (massa'a), meaning clouds, and משאה (mashsha'a), meaning a loan, from the root cluster נשא נשה (nsh' - nshh; follow the link to root נשׂא (nasa') above for more details).
- The feminine noun תשאה (teshu'a), which denotes a sound, probably loud and bringing to mind destruction (Isaiah 22:2, Job 36:29).
The verb שוה (shawa I) has to do with comparing one thing to another (BDB Theological Dictionary states that this verb probably originally meant to be smooth or even; hence agree with). Our verb may be translated with to agree with or be like (Proverbs 3:15, Isaiah 40:25, Lamentations 2:13). This verb yields one derivative, the masculine noun שוה (shaweh), meaning level plain, although some translations treat this word as the name Shaveh (Genesis 14:5 only).
The verb שוה (shawa II) means to set or place (Psalm 16:8, 2 Samuel 22:34, Hosea 10:1). This verb is obviously kindred to the verb שית (shyt), treated above. Commentators stress that the two verbs שוה (shawa) should be distinguished, but one can't help wondering why. It's often unclear which one of the two we're dealing with, as contexts allow for interpretations both ways. BDB Theological Dictionary proposes that the two main ideas were at least once one, and developed from an original "to set or place" to "to set together" and hence "to compare".
But the difficulty that modern translators face due to the similarity of these words should really be viewed as yet another color on the pallet of the original poets. We may be desperately seeking one true translation, but it may very well be that the authors chose their words deliberately because they swing multiple ways.
The noun שה (seh), meaning a sheep or goat is of unknown origin but spelled like it came straight off the verb שוה (shawa; literally "look-alike") or else is a variant spelling of שת (shat/shet; literally: "foundation" or "basic element"). When the Masoretes added their marks to the text (more than a millennium after it was written), they chose to spell all the above roots with a שׁ (shin), whereas our noun שה became שׂה (seh). Twice this noun is spelled as שי (sey), namely in Deuteronomy 22:1 and 1 Samuel 14:34, which is identical in spelling as the slightly differently pronounced noun שי (shay), gift (see above).
Our noun שה (seh) denotes one of a flock (small herd of sheep or goats: צאן, so'n) but in the anonymous and administrative sense of "head" or "unit" (Genesis 30:32, Exodus 22:1, 1 Samuel 22:19). Even though this word does not denote a flock-unit of a particular age, this is the word used in pivotal contexts such as the Pesah flock-unit (Exodus 12:3-5, which is additionally called a בן־שנה, ben shana; a yearling) and Isaiah 53:7: "...like a seh for slaughter he was led; like a ewe (רחל, rahel) before its shearers he was mute".