Abarim Publications' online Biblical Hebrew Dictionary
ירש רוש ראש
The two roots רוש (rush), meaning to be owned due to poverty or low status, and ירש (yarash), meaning to take possession of, are etymologically related.
The former yields the noun ראש (re'sh), meaning poverty, which is spelled identically to the important root ראש (ro'sh), which expresses primality; being first in time or rank.
Although being disenfranchised is the obvious opposite of being the head, the same curious contradiction became in New Testament times embodied in Jesus Christ (also see our article on κυριος, kurios, meaning enfranchised; the word for "lord.").
The shape-shifting verb רוש (rush), ריש (rish), ראש (re'sh) or simply רש (rash) means to be disenfranchised; to have lost liberty and civil rights, usually due to poverty or conquest. Psalm 34:10 speaks of disenfranchised young lions, and Proverbs 22:7 observes that the rich rule the disenfranchised. When king Saul invited David to marry princess Michal, David reminded Saul of his previous offer of marriage to princess Merab, who was ultimately given to Adriel the Meholathite, by referring to himself as disenfranchised (1 Samuel 18:23).
The derived noun ריש (rish) or ראש (ri'sh) reflects the state of being disenfranchised (2 Samuel 12:2, Proverbs 6:11). This noun is usually translated simply with "poverty" but it clearly contains the subtle nuance of a state of bondage and want in contrast to a previous state of freedom and plenty. This not only demonstrates Israel's pervasive social concerns, but also the understanding that the rich and the poor are not separated by quality but by circumstance (Job 34:19, Proverbs 22:2, Ecclesiastes 9:11) — an intellectual achievement that even eludes many moderns:
Virginia Woolf famously went onto the breach for women's right, but also frequently testified that those of the serving class, including her own servants, were simply incapable of ever appreciating the delicate reflections of the elite. This may now seem an absurd position, but it also formed the well-accepted base for the celebrated musical My Fair Lady, as well as the term nouveau riche, which denotes someone with enough cash but insufficient refinery to ever be truly adopted into high society (but then, "it's the riche that counts," said Jim Williams).
The obviously related verb ירש (yarash) appears to reflect the opposite of the verb רוש (rush). It means to enfranchise; to empower or endow with possessions. But because coming into possession often means that someone else is going out of it, our verb may also be used to describe the bringing about of the situation described by the verb רוש (rush), meaning to disenfranchise.
In the Bible our verb is used in two main ways. In civil matters it denotes the transfer of land or goods due to an inheritance (Genesis 15:3) or even the right of purchases due to inheritance (Jeremiah 32:8). And in military cases (the majority of usages) it means to conquer or gain control over an area (Genesis 15:7, Joshua 18:13) or people (Deuteronomy 2:12, Amos 9:12).
On rare occasions this verb is used to indicate the enslavement of persons (Leviticus 25:46) or to impoverish or dispossess them (Judges 14:15).
This verb comes with the following derivatives:
- The feminine noun ירשה (yerasha), meaning a possession (Numbers 24:18 only).
- The feminine noun ירשה (yerushsha), also meaning possession or inheritance (2 Chronicles 20:11, Psalm 61:5).
- The feminine noun רשת (reshet), denoting a net or some other device to catch game with (Proverbs 1:17, Hosea 5:1).
- The masculine noun מורש (morash), meaning a possession (Obadiah 1:17, Job 17:11).
- The feminine equivalent מורשה (morasha), also meaning possession (Exodus 6:8, Ezekiel 25:4).
- BDB Theological Dictionary lists the masculine noun תירוש (tirosh), also spelled תירש (tirosh), meaning wine or new wine, under this root, but (according to HAW Theological Wordbook), 'recent' studies suggest that this word is borrowed from another language and has no real etymological relation with the root ירש (yarash). This word tirosh denotes a fresh produce of grapes; a juice with a very low alcohol content that might be turned into real wine over time (Micah 6:15). A Hebrew audience without the benefit of above mentioned recent studies might have understood this word to denote something that wholly seized the consumer. HAW makes the additional note that tirosh is nowhere in the Bible associated with drunkenness. It should also be realized that wine is often used as symbol for divine attributes, from God's wrath (Psalm 75:8) to his mercies (Isaiah 55:1).
The root ראש (ro'sh) occurs all over the Semitic language spectrum and expresses primality: chief, head, top, etcetera.
It's perfectly possible that this word for primality became spelled identical to the word for being disenfranchised purely by accident and coincidence, but accident and coincidence are rare in Biblical Scripture and the resulting association does not depend on the origin of the similarity.
Secondly, the very primality of Christ — both in causality (John 1:1-3, Colossians 1:15-17) as in his royal rank (Colossians 1:18, Matthew 2:2) — is demonstrated in powerlessness and surrender to earthly authorities. The final result, of course, is a world in which no one has dominion over anyone else (Matthew 23:10, 1 Corinthians 15:24), which appears to have been God's initial intent for mankind.
We'll have a longer look at primality below, but for now note that Hebrew nouns are always derived from verbs, but of the parent noun ראש (ro'sh) no source verb is known. That is, of course, unless this important group of words is indeed directly derived from the verb רוש (rush).
The parent noun ראש (ro'sh, plural ראשים, roshim) comes with the following additional derivations:
- The feminine noun ראשה (ri'sha), apparently meaning a proverbially good time in the past (Ezekiel 36:11 only).
- The feminine noun ראשה (ri'sha), apparently denoting the apex of the temple of Zerubbabel, which was so full of grace that it turned a high mountain into a plain (obviously an image pertaining to the end of tyranny, which is what Christ came to do — Luke 4:18).
- The adjective ראשון (ri'shon), which is a very common adjective with the same compass as the parent noun. But mostly it's used in the sense of former or previous (Genesis 25:25, Numbers 21:26, 2 Samuel 21:9), or first (Deuteronomy 16:4, 1 Samuel 14:14, Job 15:17).
- The adjective ראשני (ri'shoni), meaning first (Jeremiah 25:1 only).
- The masculine noun ראש (ro'sh, which is identical to the parent noun) or רוש (rosh) denotes either a kind of bitter and poisonous herb (Deuteronomy 29:17, Lamentations 3:19, Psalm 69:21 and thus Matthew 27:34), or the venom of serpents (Deuteronomy 32:33, Job 20:16). It's not clear how the relation with the parent noun works, but perhaps the herb was endowed with a crown of little bright star-like flowers, and the venom was named after the herb and for its bitterness. But that's just a guess.
The skinny on primality
The masculine noun ראש (ro'sh) is used in several nuances, and note that many have in some form or other been ascribed to Christ:
- Our word often describes the physical head of a person (Genesis 40:16, Judges 5:30), or that of an animal (Genesis 3:15, 2 Samuel 3:8), or even of a statue (1 Samuel 5:4).
- Then it's often used for the top-end part of an item that has no distinct head: a mountain (Genesis 8:5) or hill (Exodus 17:9) or rock (Numbers 23:9) or crag (2 Chronicles 25:12); a tower (Genesis 11:4), ladder (Genesis 28:12), a bed (Genesis 47:31), the tabernacle (Exodus 26:24), the high priest's robe (Exodus 28:32), stronghold (Judges 6:26), tree (2 Samuel 5:24), a pillar (1 Kings 7:16), staves (1 Kings 8:8), throne (1 Kings 10:19), a scepter (Esther 5:2), ears of grain (Job 24:24), the conspicuously styled stone at the top of the corner of an important building (Psalm 118:22, hence Matthew 21:42), a mast (Proverbs 23:34), bough (Isaiah 17:6), lampstand (Zechariah 4:2).
- Our word also often refers to the first or rather the most important or leading member of a series: of men, either a chief or ruler (Exodus 18:25, Judges 10:18), or simply the first in line or sequence (1 Chronicles 12:9). Of cities (Joshua 11:10), of nations (Jeremiah 31:7), of priests (2 Kings 25:18), of a family (Exodus 6:14), of months (Exodus 12:2) of river heads (Genesis 2:10).
- It may denote the start of a period (Judges 7:19, Proverbs 8:23, Isaiah 40:21), but not as simply synonymous to 'beginning' but rather to 'header'.
- It may denote the 'top-notch' or best or preferred of a large collection (Exodus 30:23, Ezekiel 27:22).
- It may denote a primary division, such as a military unit consisting of multiple troops (Judges 7:16).
- It may denote a total sum, an amounting to of multiple values of multiple items, probably closely parallel to our word 'head count' (Exodus 30:12, Leviticus 6:5, Psalm 139:17).
There is an important difference between the Hebrew sense of primality or chiefdom and that of us moderns. After two millennia of Roman influence, we moderns believe that mankind is mostly vile and stupid and needs to be ruled by a benevolent tyrant lest the population descents into chaos and folks begin to eat each other. The Hebrew take on things is that human beings are reflections of the divine, and don't need to resort to violence if they understand creation and are free to explain things.
But obviously, even the Hebrews figured that some management is needed, but they saw law and government as emerging naturally from the people, like a kind of focal point of all individuals' concerns and needs. Human government should be like DNA, which doesn't enslave the organism from some far away fortress but sits in every cell and counts on every cell to interpret it both relative to its own workings and that of the adjacent cells. That's how the same DNA creates organs and widely differing cells all in perfect obedience to the same, unanimously accepted genetic code.
Our word ראש (ro'sh) does not simply denote primality, but rather essentiality: primality in service of some much larger continuum, often with a whole lot of other heads, which are of equal primality. Just like a person's head is not the tyrannical boss of the body but part of it, so is the ראש (ro'sh) part of whatever continuum it is the head of. And most usages of our word indeed denote the kind of heads that usually come in a signature multitude: from human heads to heads of grain to mountain tops.
In Job 22:12 occurs the difficult statement: "See the ראש (ro'sh) of the stars for they are high (or of high esteem)", which doesn't only reflect the difficult idea of primality of stars but rather their signature multitudinousness. It's that same combination of primality and multitudinousness that makes the material universe tick (see our celebrated Introduction to Quantum Mechanics), that makes life possible, which is expressed in God's promise to Abraham (Genesis 15:5), Daniel's understanding of righteousness (Daniel 12:3), and finally of course in the very working principle of the Body of Christ (1 Peter 2:5).
From our noun ראש (ro'sh) derives the important feminine noun ראשית (re'shit), which is often erroneously thought to describe some patriarchal beginning of a later phenomenon, or the first occurrence of a later common event.
This noun ראשית (re'shit) looks like a plural but behaves like a singular, and that probably illustrates its core principle: it describes the focal point of a greater effort, not simply the best few individual items of a larger batch. Our word describes the amounting pinnacle rather than the first feeble step: the essence of what it represents. It quite literally means 'heads' but refers to the unified result of many heads operating together.
The ראשית (re'shit) of Nimrod's empire (whatever that was) was Babel, which probably does not mean that Babel was the first in time but rather the most prominent embodiment of the operating principle of Nimrod's empire. Likewise the word of YHWH probably did not come to Jeremiah on the kings' days of ascent, but rather at the heights of their respective administration (Jeremiah 26:1, 27:1, 28:1, etcetera).
Our word may denote the essence or cumulative apex of sin (Micah 1:13), strife (Proverbs 17:14), wisdom (Psalm 111:10) or knowledge (Proverbs 4:7) — in all these cases the ראשית (re'shit) represents not the first event but rather the cumulative total of whatever it's tied to; a sample that reflects the essence of the whole. Likewise Reuben was not where Jacob's manliness started in a temporal sense, but rather he who represented the whole and essence of his father's might (see the Greek word πρωτοτοκος, prototokos, meaning first-born). Likewise Balaam did not deem Amalek the earliest of nations but rather the region's economic poster child (Numbers 24:20). And the prophet Amos speaks of folks anointing themselves not just with the best but rather with a selection of the whole spectrum of oils and ointments available (Amos 6:6).
Our word is also frequently used to describe which part of the harvest belongs to the Lord (Exodus 23:19, Deuteronomy 26:2, Leviticus 23:10). Most translations speak of First Fruits, which suggests that we can buy off God with the first few flaccid strawberries, but our word really refers to the whole of the harvest represented by a token sample. That's how Ezekiel could speak of the "first of the ראשית" (Ezekiel 44:30) and Hosea of the Lord finding Israel like a very young (from בכר, bakar) but wildly fructuous (ראשית) fig tree.
Paul spoke of us having the "first fruits of the Spirit," which doesn't mean the first trickle but the entire essential whole of it. Likewise is Jesus of Nazareth not the first reborn in a temporal sense, because that would exclude all believers prior to the Golgotha event, but rather the essence of the cumulative total of all believers (1 Corinthians 15:23, Colossians 1:15).
Most spectacularly, our noun ראשית (re'shit) is used as first word of the Scriptures, not to indicate a point in time (it doesn't mean: "in the beginning" because time begins in the universe, not the other way around — time is a product of the universe, not vice versa, and in the Bible time begins on day four: see Genesis 1:14) but rather as representation of the fundamental operating principle of creation. This principle was not described by science until the early 1900's, namely that everything, even forces, consists of little bits called quanta. The first line of the Bible has nothing to with the universe beginning in time but with the universe being quantified.
It's the working together of quanta that gives us bigger things, such as yourself. Note that you are an indivisible entity (an atom, in the proper sense of the word) that contradictorily consists of little quanta. The collective effort of those material quanta create the mental quantum you call your individuality, which is something that none of your constitutional quanta separately could have thought of. The Body of Christ works the same way.