🔼The name Arabia: Summary
- From the root ערב ('arab), to criss-cross or traverse.
🔼The name Arabia in the Bible
It's not clear whether the name Arabia actually exists in the Bible, or that it is in fact a proper noun ערב ('arab) with a regular narrative meaning rather than an appellative one. It occurs five or six times in the translated Bibles but it's by no means certain whether the Hebrew authors referred to an actual nation or rather to a general area. In the time of the Hebrew authors there was no Arabia the way we know it; the Arabian Peninsula was home to a wide variety of nations and kingdoms.
In Isaiah 21, the reference to ערב ('arab) occurs as part of a series of oracles:
- Isaiah 21:1-10: The oracle concerning the wilderness of the sea (not a name, as far as we know).
- Isaiah 21:11-12: The oracle concerning Edom (that's a name).
- Isaiah 21:13-17: The oracle concerning ערב ('arab).
- Isaiah 22:1-25: The oracle concerning the valley of vision (also not a known geographical name, although it is the same as the personal name Gehazi).
- Isaiah 23:1-18: The oracle concerning Tyre (that's a name too).
The ethnonym ערבי ('arabi) occurs slightly more often, and appears to denote the not-otherwise-specified individual inhabitants of the area known as ערב ('arab; Isaiah 13:20, Jeremiah 3:2, 2 Chronicles 21:16, Nehemiah 2:19). The collective ethnonym ערב ('arab) denotes these people at large (Jeremiah 25:24, Ezekiel 27:21).
Note that 2 Chronicles 9:14 speaks of "all the kings of Arabia", which demonstrates that Arabia was not considered one single kingdom by the time of writing (although that is by itself not unusual; Moab and Ammon also had multiple kings). Possibly more significant, however, is that the ethnonym ערבי ('arabi) consists of the same letters as עברי ('ibri), which is Hebrew.
🔼Arabia and Israel
It's often overlooked that the early history of Israel is much more connected to Arabia than to Egypt, and Arabia should be considered a contributing source — or at least a catalyst — to early Israelite theology as much as Babylon would become to later Jewish theology. When Moses fled from Egypt, he ended up in Midian in Arabia and married his first wife Zipporah there (Exodus 2:16-21). Her father Jethro (also known as Reuel) became instrumental in the formation of Israel's organizational structure (Exodus 18:14-27) and it stands to reason that Israel would have been unreceptive to the Law if it hadn't been properly organized first (Exodus 20). After leaving Egypt and prior to the invasion of Canaan, Israel spent forty years wandering around Arabia.
By the time king Solomon, all the kings of the Arabs paid tribute to Israel (1 Kings 10:15). About a century later, the Arabs, in league with the Philistines, attacked Judah under king Jehoram and plundered the king's house (2 Chronicles 21:16-17). About a century after that, king Uzziah defeated the Arabs (2 Chronicles 26:7).
According to Paul, Mount Sinai was located in Arabia (Αραβια), which Paul compares to Hagar, the mother of Ishmael (Galatians 4:25). Paul also visited Arabia, but it's not clear when, or why he mentions Damascus (the capital of Syria) in one breath with Arabia (Galatians 1:17). It's been speculated that Paul, then still Saul, left for Arabia right after he was smuggled out of Damascus and before he arrived in Jerusalem (between Acts 9:25 and 9:26) but that remains conjecture and doesn't answer the question of why this wasn't explicitly mentioned, or why Paul would want to go from Syria to Arabia in order to escape the Jews.
It may very well be that even in New Testament times the pseudo-name Arabia could still be used proverbially. "Going to Arabia," might have been a colloquial expression, perhaps meaning to move around without a particular headquarter ( even comparable with "settling in the Land of Nod") or "to converse a lot with a lot of people" before settling on one particular opinion or perspective (see also our article on the Greek verb λαλεω, laleo, to chat). The list of peoples who were present at the first Christian Pentecost closes with Cretans and Arabs (Acts 2:11). These "Arabs" may indeed have been people from anywhere in the Arabian Peninsula, but they might also have been drifters from Not Otherwise Specified.
Since the Arabic and Hebrew languages are closely related, scholars who study difficult or rare Hebrew words often turn to Arabic cognates. Classical Arabic stems from the languages that were spoken in central and northern parts of the Arabic Peninsula. It was the language in which the Quran was written, and consequently became one of the most prominent scholarly languages of the middle ages. Modern Arabic derives from the Classical Arabic of the Quran.
🔼Etymology of the name Arabia
The name Arabia comes from the cluster of roots of the form ערב ('arab), and most fundamentally conveys a criss-crossing motion:
The root ערב ('arab) means to criss-cross or to traverse and covers multiple separate word groups. Noun ערב ('ereb) refers to the woof (the thing that zips over-and-under the warp when weaving). Noun ערב ('ereb) denotes a foreign group that intersects a native population and likewise noun ערב ('arob) denotes a swarm of invading insects.
Verb ערב ('arab II) means to take, give or exchange on pledge. Nouns ערבה ('arubba), ערבן ('erabon) and תערבה (ta'aruba) mean pledge. Noun מערב (ma'arab) refers to merchandise; articles of exchange.
Verb ערב ('arab III) means to be pleasing in the sense of rewarding or satisfying. Adjective ערב ('areb) means pleasing in that same sense.
Verb ערב ('rb IV) is probably the same as the first one and would most literally mean to be a nomad. Noun ערב ('arab) refers to the region now known as Arabia (i.e. "Nomadia"). The noun ערב ('arab) would literally mean nomad as does the ethnonym ערבי ('arabi), Arab or Arabian.
Verb ערב ('rb V) appears to describe the journey of the sun across the sky. Noun ערב ('ereb) means sunset or evening, and the derived verb ערב ('arab) means to become evening and secondarily, to become dark, black or gloomy. Noun מערב (ma'arab) means west or westward.
What verb ערב ('rb VI) may have meant isn't clear. Noun ערב ('oreb) means raven, i.e. a proverbial dark bird or else one that criss-crosses the land. Ravens are additionally associated with hearing; doves are with sight. Likewise the noun ערבה ('araba) means poplar possibly named after the patterns of its bark.
The name Arabia literally means Nomadia, and in Biblical times this epithet probably covered any area in which people — ערבי ('arabi; nomads) — were habitually on the move. Here at Abarim Publications we surmise that the name Arabia also belonged to the phenomenon of large-scale international information exchange; a kind of proto-internet that was governed by the tales of caravan men, or the slow but grand unification of the world's wisdom traditions by means of informal exchange of stories and legends, and this as a side-effect of international trade.