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Egyptian words in the Pentateuch - bulrush/papyrus and linen


The word gôme’ (a,mOG) is used for bulrushes or papyrus plants in Ex.2:3. However, the word is used only rarely in the Old Testament and not restricted to the Pentateuch. As well as this use in Exodus, it occurs once in Job and twice in Isaiah. Also translated 'rush' but used generically of any rush or the marshy pools in which they grow, is ’agnôwn, (nwOg\a), used twice in Job and three times in Isaiah. Thus the only use in the Pentateuch of either word is the single occurrence in the account of Moses' birth of gôme’.

gôme’ comes from the Egyptian qmA, QMA, which has found in Egyptian writings from the Ramesside era to Third Intermediate Period. Occurrences at progressively earlier times have been found over the years, so the early (Ramesside) date here may well be moved earlier with increasing investigation.


There are several Hebrew words translated as 'linen'. They are as follows:

Hebrew Word Transliteration Strong's Meaning
vEv or yiv.v shêsh or sheshîy 08336 Bleached stuff, hence white linen (occasionally marble)
d:B bad 00906 Flaxen thread or yarn, hence a linen garment
h,T.viP pîsh'teh 06593 Carded thread, hence linen
zEn.j:[:v sha‘at'nêz 08162 "linsey-woolsey", cloth of linen and wool carded together
h,w.qim mîq'veh 04723 Something waited for, so sometimes linen but frequently other items
cWB bûwts 00948 To bleach, hence to be white, hence cotton or linen
!W[Ea ’ˆtûwn 00330 To bind together, hence twisted yarn or tapestry, hence linen
!yid's çâdîyn 05466 To envelope, hence a wrapper or skirt, hence sometimes linen

Now, the first of these, shêsh, is directly related to the Egyptian word s-sh-r, sSr, SCR. The final r only appears in early writings, and was being dropped as early as the Middle Kingdom. The other Hebrew words do not show this similarity. The Sumerian for linen is gad, and the Akkadian kitû (kitinnû for flax), so that this word is not a shared Semitic one. (This word eventually descended into the Greek chitôn). mîq'veh is only translated as 'linen' about half of its uses, with a variety of other possibilities offered in translation depending on context. Likewise, çâdîyn may appears either as 'linen' or as the resulting garment, such as 'skirt'. sha‘at'nêz is used in the Torah (once each in Leviticus and Deuteronomy) in a technical way to refer to cloth of mixed fibres, and appears only here and not elsewhere.

The distribution of these words through the Old Testament is not uniform, but follows the following table. The various blocks of books are as follows:

  1. The Pentateuch
  2. Joshua, Judges, Ruth
  3. 1 Samuel - 1 Kings
  4. 2 Kings - Nehemiah
  5. The Wisdom books
  6. The Prophetic books

Word A B C D E F Total
shêsh 34 - - 1 2 3 40
bad 10 - 3 1 - 9 23
pîsh'teh 5 2 - - 1 8 16
sha‘at'nêz 2 - - - - - 2
mîq'veh 3 - 2 4 - 3 12
bûwts - - - 8 - - 8
tûwn - - - - 1 - 1
çâdîyn - 2 - - 1 1 4

It will be seen that the words are used to quite varying degrees - shêsh is considerable the most common, with bad, pîsh'teh, mîq'veh and bûwts next and the other three used very infrequently. It is also clear that shêsh is predominantly used in the Pentateuch as opposed to other parts of the Old Testament. Because of the lesser frequencies of the other words, the patterns of these are harder to see. However, careful study shows that pîsh'teh is used disproportionately in the Prophetic books, whereas mîq'veh and bûwts (especially bûwts) are used predominantly in the later historical books. The uses of shêsh in the later books are interesting. Those in Esther and the Wisdom books do not relate to linen as such, but are picking up on the concept of being bleached white, and hence may be translated as 'marble' or even 'silk'. Two of the uses by Ezekiel refer back to events around the Exodus, and the final one is specifically describing 'linen from Egypt' (Ezek. 27:7).

It may be seen, then, that not only is shêsh directly related to the Egyptian sSr, SCR, but also that its use is overwhelmingly within the Pentateuch.

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