The Forgotten Meaning of apar in Biblical Hebrew.

Author:Amzallag, Nissim


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). The parallel between the two strongly suggests, therefore, that barzel here designates iron as metal.

3) apar as dust: (11) Iron cannot be produced simply by introducing dust into a furnace. This means that interpreting apar as dust here implies that it designates the iron ore that is finely ground before being smelted. In such a case, apar designates ore in a dusty state, and not simply dust, in any of its acknowledged derivatives.

This examination reveals that the two possible interpretations of apar as dust/earth assume that it is used here to designate ore. This approach is tenable, however, only in the absence of any genuine meaning of apar as ore. Otherwise, this latter solution should obviously be preferred. The reason is the explicit mention, in v. 2a, of iron being "taken" ([phrase omitted]) from apar, which naturally suggests that this term denotes the raw material from which iron is produced, that is, iron ore. This view is confirmed by the parallelism between hemiverses that promotes a homology between the production of iron (2a) and of copper (2b). In 2b, yasuq evokes the smelting process from which copper is produced from ore (the qal form of swq denoting pouring or casting). Accordingly, the simplest interpretation of apar in v. 2a is to assume that, exactly like stone in 2b, it designates the ore from which iron is smelted.

"Its stones are the place of saphire [...] and it has aprot of gold." (Job 28:6) [phrase omitted] Here the term apar (plur. 'aprot) is encountered in the context of mining in the depths (vv. 4-5) toward the subsurface of the mountains (v. 9). This literary context, together with the extraction of precious gems from the depths as evoked in the first hemiverse, obviously invites us to interpret 'aprot zahab as ores of gold. (12) Even the plural form of apar fits the multiplicity of ores from which gold was extracted in antiquity. (13) Nevertheless, almost all translators, exegetes, and scholars interpret apar in Job 28:6 as dust or a derivative thereof. Five such propositions are examined here:

1) Dust: This meaning is already suggested by the Septuagint, which here translates apar as [phrase omitted], a term denoting the upper layer of dust of the soil. (14) This interpretation is challenged, however, by the evidence that 'aprot zahab are mentioned here in the context of deep excavations.

2) Dirt: Some translators and exegetes here interpret apar as dirt. Thus they assume that the poet evokes the presence of gold within a material of low value. (15) This is precisely the characteristic of ores, being composed of minerals of low value that contain a precious substance.

3) Crushed stone: It has been suggested that the verse refers to the release of gold by a stone that contains precious gems (sapir) after the stone is crushed. This leads to the translation of v. 6 as "A place where its stones are saphire; their dust contains gold." (16) This interpretation should be rejected, however, because the finding of gold in stone is not conditioned by the presence of any gem, regardless of whatever the word sapir may denote.

4) Shining particles: It was suggested that the expression aprot zahab refers to the fine particles of iron pyrite that are identifiable in the ores of some gems, which glitter like gold. (17) This interpretation assumes, improbably, that the author of Job 28 dismissed the difference between pyrite and gold.

5) Gold dust: (18) Gold was collected in antiquity as a powder mechanically separated from finely crushed stone. (19) Accordingly, apar may here implicitly evoke the dust from which gold was extracted.

This overview shows that three of the proposed interpretations (1,3, and 4) are unlikely. The two others (2 and 5) imply that dust is introduced here in the sense of ore. Here again, such an indirect appellation is relevant only in the case that apar cannot literally denote ore.

"To dwell in the clefts of valleys; holes of apar and rocks" (Job 30:6) [phrase omitted] This verse is part of the speech in which Job complains about being mocked even by outcasts suffering from famine (vv. 3-4) and repudiation (v. 5). In verse 6, Job notes their miserable conditions by observing that they dwell in clefts of valleys, small shelters in rocks, and hore apar. This expression is not translated in the Septuagint, possibly reflecting uncertainty. Modern scholars have suggested three interpretations, all derived from the dust context of meaning of apar.

1) Holes of dust: (20) This type of shelter does not exist in nature and can hardly be excavated intentionally for a dwelling because a hole of dust is a very temporary structure. If so, such an interpretation should be discarded.

2) Holes in the ground: Extending the meaning of dust to earth facilitates the interpretation of hore apar as caves. (21) Indeed, hor (var hur) evokes in the Bible holes and caves in which people may protect and hide themselves (1 Sam. 14:11; Isa. 42:22) exactly as animals do (Isa. 11:8; Nah. 2:13). In all these cases, however, the hole is never mentioned in association with dust. Such mention is even missing when a snake burrow, which truly is a hole in the ground, is evoked in Isa. 11:8. This makes this interpretation unlikely.

3) Cisterns and wells: Some authors suggest that the expression hore 'apar denotes cisterns. (22) It is true that cisterns were frequently plastered, a feature compatible with the meaning of apar as plaster. However, cisterns and wells are never called holes of apar in the Bible, and the use of such an expression to designate them cannot be justified by literary considerations in structure, rhythm, or alliterations of this verse. Furthermore, to treat them as habitations, the author had to specify that these cisterns were empty of water, as he did not in this verse. Thus, this interpretation also remains problematic.

In the ore context, the expression hore apar designates holes from which ore is extracted. It is in this manner that Job refers to outcasts who shelter themselves in the...

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