🔼The name Negev: Summary
- Dry, Parched
- Undulating, Rolling Hills
- From and unused verb נגב (negeb), to be dry.
- From the verb נגב (negeb), rolling or waving, from the verb גבב (gabab), to be concave or convex.
🔼The name Negev in the Bible
The name Negev is the modern version of the original name Negeb (the Hebrew letter ב, beth, was once probably pronounced as a B but now as a V; that's why today some people are called Avraham instead of the classic Abraham), but it's not clear when the word נגב (negeb) became a name.
The word נגב (negeb) appears to have several meanings and the chances are excellent that we modern readers of the Bible are simply clueless about the whole compass of this word, and thus the name Negev. In Old Testament times, a country in the political sense would be known by border markers (or border towns) at its extremes and a ruler of sorts at its most pronounced city. A "region" would be known by some distinctly different feature, like mountains or a decidedly different climate. It's a bit of a mystery to which region the name or word נגב (negeb) was applied, and why. The area originally known as the נגב (negeb) appears to have been located somewhere in between Egypt and Canaan but the exact borders are quite unclear (Genesis 13:1-3)
Older versions of the Bible (KJV, Young, Darby, JSP) consistently translate our word with "the south" or "South Land" but modern translations (NAS, NIV) treat this word as a proper name when it seems appropriate. This obviously requires the translator to be insightful enough to know what the author meant to say, which isn't always easy. And the result is an unwanted association with the present day Negev region which is arguably not the same as the area named Negeb back then. And then, to modern readers the word negev is foreign and specific but to a Hebrew audience, it was an ordinary word that meant ordinary things and was used to describe many things other than what we call the Negev.
Here at Abarim Publications we're notoriously unhip, and we prefer to not transliterate the word נגב as the proper name Negeb or Negeb but to translate it as south, South or the South Land.
In Genesis 12:9 our word נגב occurs for the first time in the narrative, and right away it's preceded by the definite article: הנגב, meaning The South, which indicates that our word נגב became used as an identifier for a certain region. And although that region is now pretty much an arid desert, in Biblical times it was forested (Ezekiel 20:46-47) and appears to have contained a considerable human population (Jeremiah 17:26, Zechariah 7:7), spread out over several cities (Jeremiah 13:19, 32:44, 33:13, Obadiah 1:19-20), namely Kadesh, Bered, Arad and Shur and perhaps also Zephath and Gerar, of which Abimelech was king (Genesis 20:2).
Abraham and his family lived in The South, near Beer-lahai-roi, where Hagar had seen the angel (Genesis 16:14) and when Isaac was old enough to marry, Eliezer brought Rebekah to her new home in The South (Genesis 24:62).
By the time of the Exodus, the Amalekites were living in The South (Numbers 13:29) and during the conquest there were Canaanites there (Numbers 21:1). But YHWH delivered up the Canaanites and Israel destroyed the cities of The South and called the whole place Hormah (Numbers 21:3, Judges 1:17).
Just before Moses died, the Lord showed him the Promised Land, including The South, from atop mount Pisgah (Deuteronomy 34:3, or Abarim; Numbers 27:12). Joshua succeeded Moses as leader of Israel and tore through The South and killed every living thing he found in it (Joshua 10:40, 11:16).
Caleb promised his daughter Achsah to whoever would capture Kiriath-sepher (also known as Debir), and that became Othniel son of Kenaz. So Othniel captured Kiriath-sepher and kept it and also received Achsah who made him ask Caleb for a field. Achsah, remarkably, concluded that she (not Othniel) now had been given The South and also asked for some springs from Caleb and received them (Joshua 15:19). After Joshua's death, there appeared to still be some fightable Canaanites living in The South (Judges 1:9).
The South is also mentioned in the curious story of Jonathan's three arrows. In 1 Samuel 20:41 it reads that after Jonathan had shot his arrows and instructed his boy to "hurry, be quick, do not stay," David arose from The South and he and Jonathan said their emotional goodbyes. It's a mystery why the men couldn't have met right away in the first place, and it's pretty clear that there's much more to this story than traditional exegesis lets on.
The final time The South is mentioned in the narrative is in 2 Chronicles 28:18, where we read that while the Assyrians were expanding their empire at the cots of various other nations, the Edomites attacked Judah from the east and the Philistines attacked The South from the west.
🔼Etymology of the name Negev
The word נגב appears to be part of a cluster of roots that mostly mean hollow, convex or elevated:
The verb גבב (gabab) doesn't occur in the Bible but it appears to have meant to be concave or convex; to be bulbous or hollow. Noun גב (gab) denotes anything that is bulbous (hills, buttocks).
The verb גוב (gub) means to dig. Noun גב (geb) means pit or ditch. This verb appears to be associated with the verb יגב (yagab), meaning to till (what a farmer does). Noun יגב (yaqeb) probably refers to the field where the farmer tills.
Noun גבא (gebe') appears to describe a hollow in which water collects and is commonly translated with cistern, pool or marsh.
Verb גבה (gaba) means to collect. Nouns גב (geb), גוב (gob), גבי (gobay) and גובי (gobay) refer to locusts. Possibly a whole other verb גבה (gabah) means to be high, exalted or lofty, although this verb could actually describe a person who collected a heap, or who plunders a society like a swarm of locusts. In the Talmud the word for tax collector was derived from this verb. Adjective גבה (gaboah) means high or haughty. Noun גבה (gobah) means height or haughtiness. And noun גבהות (gabhut) means haughtiness.
Verb גבע (gabay) appears to mean the same as גבב (gabab), to be concave or convex. The very common noun גבעה (gib'a) means hill.
The unused verb גבן (gaban) probably meant to be curved, contracted or coagulated. Adjective גבן (giben) means humpbacked. Noun גבינה (gebina) means curd or cheese. Noun גבנן (gabnon) means peak or rounded summit.
A certain grammatical construction that creates a sort of continuous tense of the verb גבב (gabab) is formed from prefixing a נ (nun) and making the double ב (beth) a single one. The result, a verb נגב (nagab) would mean to undulate, to wave, to have shifting dunes. That verb doesn't exist, but a mysterious noun נגב (negeb) does. This noun would thus denote a region with rolling hills, and came to be synonymous with "south".
For a meaning of the name Negev, NOBSE Study Bible Name List reads Dry, Parched, "denotes southern Palestine". Alfred Jones (Dictionary of Old Testament Proper Names) works off the older translations and doesn't recognize Negev as a proper name. BDB Theological Dictionary declares that נגב derives from an unused verb נגב meaning to be dry or parched and was initially a designation of the country south of Judah. After that this word came to mean south or southern.