Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

The Forgotten Meaning of Apar in Biblical Hebrew

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

The Forgotten Meaning of Apar in Biblical Hebrew

Article excerpt


It is generally agreed that apar, in ancient Hebrew, denotes dust and similar material. This consensus is supported by the examination of many occurrences of apar in the Bible as well as cognate terms in other Semitic languages. That is, words in Akkadian, Ugaritic, Arabic, Aramaic, and Syriac that resemble the Hebrew apar also express a reality closely related to dust. (1) The etymological proximity in Hebrew of apar and eper (2) and the association of eper with ashes and crumbled dust in Hebrew as well as in other Semitic and Hamitic languages confirm the assumption that dust is closely related to apar. (3)

In Hebrew, this basic meaning of apar extends to connotations of soil, earth of the grave, mortar used for plastering houses, debris of houses and cities, ashes, and even dirt. Figurative meanings such as abundance, scattered/dispersed, self-abasement, and humiliation are also easily integrated into the semantic field of apar as dust. (4) In a few dictionaries, however, the list of derived meanings of apar is expanded to include ore (5) in Job 28:2, 6. (6) Although deduced from the mining context of Job 28:1-11, this interpretation is rejected by most exegetes, translators, and scholars. (7)

This debate is of little importance as long as the use of apar as ore in the Bible is restricted to a pair of exotic occurrences in Job 28. However, if apar also denotes ore outside of the mining context of Job 28, the confusion between apar as ore and apar as dust may engender misinterpretations of the biblical text. The first reason is that ores were rare and sought-after materials extracted from the depths with great effort. This implies that apar-ore should be associated with preciousness and rarity instead of with the dirtiness, worthlessness, abasement, and humiliation of apar-dust. The second reason is the theological importance of ores and mineral treasures in the Bible. This reality is revealed in Deut. 8:9, where YHWH's gift of ores to the Israelites represents a fundamental dimension of his blessing: "A land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper."

In Isa. 45:3, too, the oracle to Cyrus evokes the gift of precious ores as a specific sign of blessing from YHWH: "I will give you the treasures of darkness and the concealed riches in secret places, that you may know that it is I, YHWH, the God of Israel, who call you by your name." This theological importance of precious stones and ores is confirmed by the twelve stones in the priest's breastplate (hosen), which were not simply added as precious ornaments but served as the symbols of the tribes of Israel (Exod. 28:15-21). (8) These considerations reveal that some important points in Israelite theology may have been dismissed by overlooking the ore-meaning of apar and its literal, figurative, and theological uses in the Bible.


"Iron from apar is taken out; and stone pours copper." (Job 28:2)
[phrase omitted]

Three interpretations of apar have been suggested in the context of dust:

1) apar as earth: This interpretation follows the Septuagint translation of apar as [gamma][eta] (= earth, soil, and, especially, arable land), and supports the translation of v. 2a as "Iron is taken from the soil." (9) Such a translation implies that iron ore is so common as to be conflated with earth as a whole. This interpretation is unlikely due to the extreme rarity of iron ore in Canaan.

2) apar as earth surrounding the ore: Some researchers suggest that here the term barzel denotes not iron but rather iron ore. If so, v. 2a would be translated as "Iron ore (barzel) is taken from the earth Capar)." (10) This interpretation preserves the rarity of the raw material extracted from the earth. The second hemiverse, however, explicitly mentions copper as metal poured from the stone (the ore). …

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