Hapax Legomena: Ten Biblical Examples
A hapax legomenon (or hapax, for short; pl. hapax legomena) is a word that appears only once in a corpus of literature. Derived from the Greek ἅπαξ λεγόμενον, meaning “once said” or “once spoken,” the term was created by the Homeric scholars in Alexandria during the Hellenistic Age as they studied the Iliad and the Odyssey.
Most likely under the influence of the Greek scholastic tradition that continued into the early Middle Ages, the quest to identify, explain, and define hapax legomena reached Hebrew scholars by the 10th century C.E. Saʿadya Gaon (882‒942) wrote the first book devoted to unique words in the Bible: כתאב אל־סבעין לפט׳ה Kitab al-Sabʿin Lafẓah (rendered into Hebrew as פתרון שבעים מלים, The Book of Seventy Words).
The medievalists created a series of terms for such unique words:
אין לו אח, “it has no brother”;
אין לו רע, “it has no companion”;
אין לו דמיון, “it has no likeness”; and so on.
The work of studying these unique words has continued in the modern era, beginning with the early article by the remarkable Abraham S. Yahuda (1877–1951), the first person to hold an academic chair in Jewish Studies in the modern university.
Only Rare in the Corpus?
We cannot know whether any specific biblical hapax was a common term in ancient Hebrew that just happens to appear only once in the corpus, or whether it was actually a rare word used for some literary or stylistic purpose. The pathfinding research of Frederick Greenspahn, however, indicates that in general, hapax legomena were indeed rare words in the lexicon, so that the latter option is more likely the case.
The Orality of Ancient Literature, including the Bible
Today, almost all reading is done silently. The reader picks up a book, and proceeds to process the words via the eyes. In antiquity, however, one person held the written text and presented the composition aloud to an audience of listeners, assembled, say, around the campfire (in a pastoral setting) or in the town piazza (in a more urban setting). As such, the reading process was from the mouth (oral) to the ear (aural).
In such settings, the sounds of the words were as important as the meaning of the words and as the content of the literary work. Hapax legomena and other rare words frequently were used, in both prose and poetry, for stylistic reasons—driven mainly by the need to produce alliteration—to capture the listener with the very sounds that comprise the verse.
The following are ten examples:
1. גּפֶֹר gopɛr and כֹּפֶר kofɛr
Before the Flood, YHWH gives Noah detailed instructions for how to build the ark:
בראשׁית ו:יד עֲשֵׂה לְךָ תֵּבַת עֲצֵי גֹפֶר קִנִּים תַּעֲשֶׂה אֶת הַתֵּבָה וְכָפַרְתָּ אֹתָהּ מִבַּיִת וּמִחוּץ בַּכֹּפֶר.
Gen 6:14 Make for yourself an ark of gopher-wood; (from) reeds you shall make the ark; and you shall cover it inside and outside with pitch-cover.
The words גּפֶֹר gopɛr and כֹּפֶר kofɛr are both hapax legomena. The former is typically translated as “gopher-wood”—but merely as a convention, since gopher trees are not to be found in the botanical record. The term almost certainly refers to a type of cypress, based on:
- The similarity between the Hebrew form גּפֶֹר and the Greek word κυπάρισσος kyparissos, whence Latin cupressus and eventually English cypress; and
- The use of cypress wood in ancient shipbuilding, since long planks could be made from the tall tree, and its wood is relatively impervious to rot from moisture.
The standard word for “cypress” in the Bible is בְּרוֹשׁ bəroš, which appears twenty times (e.g., Ezek 27:5).
The last word in the verse, kofɛr, means “pitch.” Hebrew also has other potential options within the semantic domain of “pitch,” namely, חֵמָר ḥemar, “loam,” and זֶפֶת zɛpɛt, “bitumen” (e.g., Gen 11:3; Exod 2:3).
Instead of using more common terms, the author reached deep into the Hebrew lexicon to select words with the consonants ג.פ.ר g‑p‑r and כ.פ.ר k‑p‑r to alliterate with each other. The only distinction between the two consonantal sets is the voiced velar stop /g/ in the former and the voiceless velar stop /k/ in the latter.
2. מְטַחֲוֵי məṭaḥawe and חֵמֶת ḥemɛt
After Isaac’s birth, Abraham sends away Hagar and Ishmael:
בראשׁית כא:יד וַיַּשְׁכֵּם אַבְרָהָם בַּבֹּקֶר וַיִּקַּח לֶחֶם וְחֵמַת מַיִם וַיִּתֵּן אֶל הָגָר שָׂם עַל שִׁכְמָהּ וְאֶת הַיֶּלֶד וַיְשַׁלְּחֶהָ וַתֵּלֶךְ וַתֵּתַע בְּמִדְבַּר בְּאֵר שָׁבַע. כא:טו וַיִּכְלוּ הַמַּיִם מִן הַחֵמֶת וַתַּשְׁלֵךְ אֶת הַיֶּלֶד תַּחַת אַחַד הַשִּׂיחִם. כא:טז וַתֵּלֶךְ וַתֵּשֶׁב לָהּ מִנֶּגֶד הַרְחֵק כִּמְטַחֲוֵי קֶשֶׁת כִּי אָמְרָה אַל אֶרְאֶה בְּמוֹת הַיָּלֶד וַתֵּשֶׁב מִנֶּגֶד וַתִּשָּׂא אֶת קֹלָהּ וַתֵּבְךְּ.
Gen 21:14 And Abraham arose-early in the morning, and he took bread and a bottle-skin of water, and he gave (them) to Hagar, put (them) on her shoulder―and the child―and he sent her forth; and she went, and she wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba. 21:15 And the water from the bottle-skin was finished; and she cast the child under one of the bushes. 21:16 And she went and she sat herself opposite (him), at a distance of a bowshot, for she said, “Let me not see the death of the child”; and she sat opposite, and she lifted her voice, and she cried.
The word מְטַחֲוֵי məṭaḥawe, “shooters of,” is a hapax. חֵמֶת ḥemɛt (construct form חֵמַת ḥemat) “bottle-skin” is classified as a quasi-hapax because even though the noun appears three times, they are all in the same narrative (in verses 14, 15, 19). The two forms were chosen because they incorporate similar sounds. Moreover, additional words aid in the aural effect:
- תַּחַת taḥat, “under,” and אַחַד ʾaḥad, “one” (v. 15), both have /ḥ/ + /dental/; and
- לֶחֶם lɛḥɛm, “bread” (v. 14), and שִׂיחִם śiḥim, “bushes” (v. 15), both have /ḥ/ + /m/.
3. מִשְׁתָּאֵה mištaʾɛ
When Abraham’s servant seeks a wife for Isaac, he meets Rebekah at the well:
בראשׁית כד:כ וַתְּמַהֵר וַתְּעַר כַּדָּהּ אֶל הַשֹּׁקֶת וַתָּרָץ עוֹד אֶל הַבְּאֵר לִשְׁאֹב וַתִּשְׁאַב לְכָל גְּמַלָּיו. כד:כא וְהָאִישׁ מִשְׁתָּאֵה לָהּ מַחֲרִישׁ לָדַעַת הַהִצְלִיחַ יְ־הוָה דַּרְכּוֹ אִם לֹא.
Gen 24:20 And she hurried, and she emptied her jug into the trough, and she ran again to the well to draw(-water); and she drew(-water) for all his camels. 24:21 And the man is gazing at her, being-silent, to know whether or not YHWH had made his way successful.
The word מִשְׁתָּאֵה mištaʾɛ, “gazing,” from the verbal root שׁ.א.ה/י, occurs only here in the Bible, and it is surrounded by a host of alliterative words. The root שׁ.ת.ה/י š-t-h, “drink,” occurs three times (vv. 18, 19, 22), and the root שׁ.א.ב š-ʾ-b, “draw water,” occurs twice (vv. 19, 20). The form וַתִּשְׁאַב wattišʾab, “and she drew (water)” (v. 20), which alliterates most closely with מִשְׁתָּאֵה mištaʾɛ, “gazing” (v. 21), with only three words intervening—and one of those words is the common noun אִישׁ ʾiš, “man”—further enhances the auditory effect.
4. הַקֻּבָּה haq-qubba
At Baal Peor, Phineas sees an Israelite man consorting with a Midianite woman, and he executes both of them:
במדבר כה:ח וַיָּבֹא אַחַר אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל הַקֻּבָּה וַיִּדְקֹר אֶת שְׁנֵיהֶם אֵת אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאֶת הָאִשָּׁה אֶל קֳבָתָהּ וַתֵּעָצַר הַמַּגֵּפָה מֵעַל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Num 25:8 And he [i.e., Pinḥas] came after the Israelite man unto the tent-chamber, and he pierced the two of them, the Israelite man, and the woman in her abdomen; and the plague upon the children of Israel stopped.
הַקֻּבָּה haq-qubba, “the tent-chamber,” is a hapax: the normal word, is אֹהֶלʾohɛl, “tent,” though most likely qubba refers to the innermost part of a tent, hence my gloss “the tent-chamber.” The word קֳבָתָהּ qobatah, “her abdomen,” appears only here and in Deuteronomy 18:3, in a slightly different form, הַקֵּבָה haq-qeba. The sound play is obvious.
Assisting the aural effect here is the word הַמַּגֵּפָה ham-maggepa, “the plague,” whose voiced velar /g/ sound corresponds to the voiceless emphatic velar /q/ of the other two words, and whose labials /m/ and /p/ echo the sound of the labial /b/ of the other two words.
5. הַפַּרְשְׁדֹנָה hap-paršədona and הַמִּסְדְּרוֹנָה ham-misdərona
To end Moabite oppression of the Israelites, Ehud kills Eglon, the king of Moab:
שׁפטים ג:כב וַיָּבֹא גַם הַנִּצָּב אַחַר הַלַּהַב וַיִּסְגֹּר הַחֵלֶב בְּעַד הַלַּהַב כִּי לֹא שָׁלַף הַחֶרֶב מִבִּטְנוֹ וַיֵּצֵא הַפַּרְשְׁדֹנָה. ג:כג וַיֵּצֵא אֵהוּד הַמִּסְדְּרוֹנָה וַיִּסְגֹּר דַּלְתוֹת הָעַלִיָּה בַּעֲדוֹ וְנָעָל.
Judg 3:22 And also the hilt entered after the blade, and the fat closed around the blade, because he did not withdraw the sword from his stomach; and the feces went-out. 3:23 And Ehud went-out via the side-porch, and he closed the doors of the upper-chamber behind him, and he locked.
In a brilliant display of plumbing the depths of the Hebrew lexis, the author of the Ehud pericope places two hapax legomena within a cluster of four words, bridging two sentences: הַפַּרְשְׁדֹנָה hap-paršədona, “the feces,” and הַמִּסְדְּרוֹנָה ham-misdərona, “via the side-porch” (or some such architectural term). The match of consonants is quite remarkable:
- Both contain /r/ and /d/, in addition to sharing the suffix -on (or more specifically -ona); and
- The two sets of sibilants /š/ and /s/ and labials /p/ and /m/ correspond.
6. וְיִצְפֹּר wə-yiṣpor
Concerned that the Israelites will take credit for winning a battle against the Midianites, YHWH tells Gideon to reduce the number of soldiers in his army:
שׁפטים ז:ג וְעַתָּה קְרָא נָא בְּאָזְנֵי הָעָם לֵאמֹר מִי יָרֵא וְחָרֵד יָשֹׁב וְיִצְפֹּר מֵהַר הַגִּלְעָד וַיָּשָׁב מִן הָעָם עֶשְׂרִים וּשְׁנַיִם אֶלֶף וַעֲשֶׂרֶת אֲלָפִים נִשְׁאָרוּ. ז:ד וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֶל גִּדְעוֹן עוֹד הָעָם רָב הוֹרֵד אוֹתָם אֶל הַמַּיִם וְאֶצְרְפֶנּוּ לְךָ שָׁם....
Judg 7:3 “And now, call, please, in the ears of the people, saying, ‘Whoever is fearful and trembling, he should return and he should leap from Mount Gilead’”; and twenty-two thousand from among the people returned, and ten thousand remained. 7:4 And YHWH said to Gideon, “Still the people are too many, take them down to the water, so that I may refine them for you there....”
No one quite knows what the hapax וְיִצְפֹּר wə-yiṣpor, from the root צ.פ.ר ṣ-p-r, connotes. The verb “leap” is a serviceable gloss, for the context calls for a verb of motion, something to be paired with “return,” as the individual descends from the mountain. The next verse includes a like-sounding word in the key verb וְאֶצְרְפֶנּוּ wəʾɛṣrəpɛnnu, “so that I may refine him” (referring to the masculine singular noun הָעָם ha-ʿam, “the people”), from the root צ.ר.ף ṣ-r-p, “refine.” The two verbal roots are anagrams of each other.
7. לַהֲקַת lahaqat
King Saul’s attempt to apprehend David fails:
שׁמואל א יט:כ וַיִּשְׁלַח שָׁאוּל מַלְאָכִים לָקַחַת אֶת דָּוִד וַיַּרְא אֶת לַהֲקַת הַנְּבִיאִים נִבְּאִים וּשְׁמוּאֵל עֹמֵד נִצָּב עֲלֵיהֶם וַתְּהִי עַל מַלְאֲכֵי שָׁאוּל רוּחַ אֱלֹהִים וַיִּתְנַבְּאוּ גַּם הֵמָּה.
1 Sam 19:20 And Saul sent messengers to take David, and he saw a cadre of prophets prophesying, and Samuel was standing positioned over them; and over the messengers of Saul was the spirit of God, and they too prophesied.
The noun לַהֲקַת lahaqat, “cadre of,” occurs in close proximity to לָקַחַת laqaḥat, “to take,” with מַלְאָכִים malʾakim, “messengers,” and מַלְאֲכֵי malʾake, “messengers of,” augmenting the acoustic effect. Each of these words has /l/ + velar consonant (either /q/ or /k/) + consonant produced even deeper in the throat (either /h/, /ḥ/, or /ʾ/); the first two key words, moreover, share the final /t/ sound.
8. כְּלוּלֹתָיִךְ kəlulotayik
Jeremiah portrays the love between God and the people of Israel as that of a youthful wedding couple:
ירמיה ב:ב הָלֹךְ וְקָרָאתָ בְאָזְנֵי יְרוּשָׁלִַם לֵאמֹר כֹּה אָמַר יְ־הוָה זָכַרְתִּי לָךְ חֶסֶד נְעוּרַיִךְ אַהֲבַת כְּלוּלֹתָיִךְ לֶכְתֵּךְ אַחֲרַי בַּמִּדְבָּר בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא זְרוּעָה.
Jer 2:2 Go and proclaim in the ears of Jerusalem, saying: Thus says YHWH: “I remember you, the fealty of your youth, the love of your bridal; Your going after me in the wilderness, in a land not sown.”
The prophet has selected כְּלוּלֹתָיִךְ kəlulotayik, “your bridal,” to create an auditory effect with the following word, לֶכְתֵּךְ lɛktek “your going,” from the common verb ה.ל.ך h-l-k, “to go.” The consonants of the former, /k/–/l/–/l/–/t/–/k/, recur in the latter, which contains the string /l/–/k/–/t/–/k/.
9. תּוֹלָלֵינוּ tolalenu
In an exilic poem for Jerusalem, an anonymous psalmist laments:
תהלים קלז:ב עַל עֲרָבִים בְּתוֹכָהּ תָּלִינוּ כִּנֹּרוֹתֵינוּ. קלז:ג כִּי שָׁם שְׁאֵלוּנוּ שׁוֹבֵינוּ דִּבְרֵי שִׁיר וְתוֹלָלֵינוּ שִׂמְחָה שִׁירוּ לָנוּ מִשִּׁיר צִיּוֹן.
Ps 137:2 On the willows in her [sc. Babylon’s] midst, we hung our lyres. 137:3 For there our captors asked us for words of song, and our draggers (for) joy: “Sing for us a song of Zion.”
The exact meaning of תּוֹלָלֵינוּ tolalenu, “our draggers,” has eluded scholars. The proper solution was proffered by Alfred Guillaume, who called attention to the fact that the root ת.ל.ל t-l-l means “bind and drag away” in Arabic (4th form). Additional support is forthcoming from Jibbali (a Semitic language spoken in Oman), where the verb t-l-l means “drag behind.”
A more common word for “drag” exists in Hebrew, the root ס.ח.ב s-ḥ-b (attested 5x in the Bible), but תּוֹלָלֵינוּ tolalenu, “our draggers,” was chosen because it echos the sounds of the verb תָּלִינוּ talinu, “we hung,” in the previous verse.
10. לֺעַ loaʿ
Proverbial sayings in most of the world’s languages often use soundplay (rhyme, assonance, alliteration, etc.). Consider, for example, such English examples as “forgive and forget” and “practice makes perfect.” The following example illustrates the point well:
משׁלי כג:ב וְשַׂמְתָּ שַׂכִּין בְּלֹעֶךָ אִם בַּעַל נֶפֶשׁ אָתָּה.
Prov 23:2 And you shall put a knife in your gullet, if you are a “lord of appetite.”
The word לֹעַ loaʿ, “gullet,” appears in place of its more common synonym, גָּרוֹן garon, “throat” (attested 8x in the Bible). The prefixing of the preposition בְּ- bə-, “in,” produces the string of consonants /b/–/l/–/ʿ/. The common Hebrew noun בַּעַל baʿal, “lord, master,” is used two words later as the first component in the idiom בַּעַל נֶפֶשׁ baʿal nɛpɛš, “lord of appetite,” that is, someone with a healthy appetite—with the three consonants /b/–/ʿ/–/l/ in anagrammatic fashion.
These ten examples of hapax legomena employed specifically for the purposes of alliteration reflect a broader phenomenon in the Bible. The next time you are reading the Bible, and you encounter a less-than-familiar word, look around (or better: listen about), and most likely you will come across like-sounding words in close proximity. Such is the pleasure of the text, both in the Bible and in literature generally.
Sound Play in English Literature
A few well-known examples from English compositions of how the sounds of words contribute to the literary effect of the composition illustrate the phenomenon discussed here. Shakespeare, realizing that his plays would be produced on the stage, with actors speaking the words and with audience members hearing them, used alliteration frequently.
The bard created, for example, such delightful collocations as “we band of brothers” (Henry V, Act IV, Scene 3), spoken by the title character in the famous St. Crispin’s Day speech; or the expression “the vapor of our valor” (Henry V, Act IV, Scene 2), used by the Constable of France, commanding the French troops at the Battle of Agincourt. In the latter phrase, “vapor” is substituted for the more common “breath,” in order to produce the sought-after alliteration. Note how the latter word is more commonly used by Shakespeare, including, not surprisingly, for purposes of alliteration in phrases such as “The King shall drink to Hamlet’s better breath” (Hamlet, Act V, Scene 2), spoken by Claudius; “Ah balmy breath” (Othello, Act V, Scene 2), uttered by Othello to Desdemona; and most famously “with bated breath” (Merchant of Venice, Act I, Scene 3).
For another excellent illustration from Shakespeare, consider this line: “Here I disclaim all my paternal care, / Propinquity and property of blood” (King Lear, Act I, Scene 1). This line represents the only use of “propinquity” in all of Shakespeare. The word was relatively rare in the early 17th century—with the playwright’s employment of this vocable between “paternal” and “property” providing the appropriate focus.
Similarly, recall Fluellen’s description of the Duke of Exeter as “as magnanimous as Agamemnon” (Henry V, Act III, Scene 6). There are many other heroic and magnanimous figures from the ancient past, all or most of whom would have been well known to Shakespeare’s audiences (in this case either through the Homeric corpus or through Aeschylus’s tragedy), but only Agamemnon fits the bill alliterationis causa.
And not just Shakespeare, of course, but later British and American writers. Consider, for example, the final stanza of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Sing Me a Song of a Lad that is Gone,” which employs the phrase “billow and breeze” to evoke the experience of sailing from the Scottish mainland to Skye—not “wind and squall” or “gust and wind” or any other possible combination, but rather the alliterative “billow and breeze.”
And not just poets and playwrights, but also prose writers adept at the English language have employed alliteration to enhance their literary creations. For example, Henry David Thoreau, in his classic work Walden, declares: “I am no more lonely than the loon in the pond that laughs so loud, or than Walden Pond itself”—with the /l/-sounds evoking the sound of the lapping of the water at Walden Pond’s edge, which the current writer and his wife Melissa have observed and enjoyed on multiple occasions.
So Shakespeare, so Stevenson, so Thoreau, so many great ancient Israelite literati. To repeat: the sounds of the text are as crucial to the production and presentation as are its content and context.
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Prof. Gary Rendsburg serves as the Blanche and Irving Laurie Professor of Jewish History in the Department of Jewish Studies at Rutgers University. His Ph.D. and M.A. are from N.Y.U. Rendsburg is the author of seven books and about 190 articles; his most recent book is How the Bible Is Written.
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