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Egyptian words in the Pentateuch - ark and river


The word 'ark' appears in three contexts in the Old Testament:
  1. In connection with Noah
  2. Describing the casket Moses was placed in by his mother
  3. For the focus of the covenantal worship of Israel in the desert and the first temple
The first two of these uses the same Hebrew word, while the last uses an entirely different one.

Hebrew Word Transliteration Strong's Meaning
h'bET têbâh 08392 A box or ark, with no clear derivation and typically taken as of foreign origin
!Ar'a ’ârôwn 00727 An ark, chest or coffin, as used for gathering things together, from the verb ’ârah, to pluck or gather

The first of these is used nearly 30 times in Genesis (all in connection with Noah), and twice in Exodus, both times in connection with Moses. The second is used over 200 times in the remainder of the Old Testament, almost entirely in the historical narrative books. Other than one usage in Genesis 50 (for Joseph's coffin), use of this word starts in Exodus 25 for the ark of the covenant.

The link with Egyptian is specific to the first Hebrew word, têbâh, and is found in the Egyptian DbAt, jBAT, meaning a box, coffin or sarcophagus and found from Middle Kingdom times onwards in Egyptian records. The same word persisted through Coptic and survives in a similar form in modern Arabic.


There are three main words for 'river' in the Old Testament, used to quite differing extents in the various books. In addition to the main words, there are a few with very limited usage, for example peleg is used 10 times in the wisdom and prophetic books.
r"h"n, nâhâr, Strong's 05104
This is used about 120 times, 18 of which are in the Pentateuch and 25 times in the other narrative books. The Aramaic form, nehar, occurs a further 14 times in Ezra and once in Daniel. It is derived from the verb nâhar, meaning to sparkle, flow, or be cheerful.
rOa.y, ye’ôr, Strong's 02975
This is used 64 times, of which 33 are in the Pentateuch and only once elsewhere in the narrative books (2 Kings XX:XX).
l:x:n, nachal, Strong's 05158
This is used about 140 times, frequently to mean a valley rather than the river running through it. 30 of the uses are in the Pentateuch, predominantly in Numbers and Deuteronomy. There are no occurrences in Exodus and just 3 in Genesis (in the accounts of Isaac and Jacob).
The second of these, ye’ôr, is linked to and probably derived from the Egyptian word for the Nile, ITrw, ItRW. The central T was present in early records, but disappears from the 18th dynasty onwards. Its absence is also mirrored in the Akkadian for Nile, ia’uru.

When uses of ye’ôr, are investigated in more detail, the overall picture becomes even more clear. During the Sojourn period from Joseph's entry (Genesis 41) to the departure from Egypt (Exodus 17), only the word ye’ôr, is found. nâhâr is used earlier in Genesis, and later in Exodus, but not during these crucial chapters. Half of the total occurrences of ye’ôr, are in the Pentateuch (predominantly in Exodus), with much smaller proportions for the other words.

Outside the narrative books, ye’ôr, is only found in the prophetic books. Isaiah uses it 4 times, Ezekiel 9, Daniel 4, and Nahum and Zecharaiah once each. In these uses it has an Egyptian connotation, except for Daniel where there is no clear geographical context for the word at all. For example, Isaiah uses it as part of a comparison between Phoenicia and Egypt, and Ezekiel during a prophecy against Egypt.

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