Friday, July 02, 2010

machoz and chozeh

In our last post, we showed how the Hebrew word for port, namel נמל, comes from Greek (and perhaps earlier from Egyptian.) But how could it be that Biblical Hebrew didn't have its own word for port?

Well, it turns out that it probably did. Kutscher (pgs 41-44), based on ancient translations, cognates in Arabic, and Bar Kochba letters, writes that the Biblical word for port was machoz מחוז. It appears once in Tehillim 107:30, a psalm describing travel at sea:

 וַיִּשְׂמְחוּ כִי-יִשְׁתֹּקוּ;    וַיַּנְחֵם, אֶל-מְחוֹז חֶפְצָם.
They rejoiced when all was quiet, and He brought them to the port they desired.

He writes that the word derives from the Akkadian maxazu, meaning "city". He claims the Hebrew word maoz מעוז, which also may have meant "port" (Yeshayahu 23:4), influenced the adoption of machoz from Akkadian; so the word went from "city" to "port city" to "port". (For further discussion, see this interesting article.)

Klein agrees that the Biblical machoz meant "harbor", but offers a different etymology. After mentioning Kutscher's theory, he writes:

However, it is more probably related to Ethiopian me'hez (=frontier place), which derives from 'ahaza (= he seized), so that מחוז would be a derivative of אחז
But in modern Hebrew machoz means "district". How did this come about? It appears to be from influence from Rashi (and others) who translate machoz in Tehillim as "border", based on the dictionary of Menachem ben Saruq1.

Yet there is something unusual about how Rashi (and Menachem) come to this conclusion. Rashi quotes Yeshayahu 28:15 which uses the word chozeh חוזה:

כִּי אֲמַרְתֶּם, כָּרַתְנוּ בְרִית אֶת-מָוֶת, וְעִם-שְׁאוֹל, עָשִׂינוּ חֹזֶה
For you have said, "We have made a covenant with death, concluded a chozeh with Sheol"

In every other verse in the Tanach, chozeh means "seer" or "prophet". But that clearly is not the meaning here. In modern Hebrew chozeh in this context means "contract", Ben Yehuda translates it as "stipulation", and the JPS uses "pact". But here too Rashi, based on Menachem, explains the word as "border" (from a root unrelated to "seer". Many others have tried to connect the two meanings of the word - see here for example.) To me, it certainly seems strange that Rashi explains one unique word in Tanach by using another unique word as a proof (and vice versa.) In any case, Modern Hebrew accepted Rashi's understanding of machoz, while rejecting that of chozeh.


1.  See Menachem's dictionary here, page 3. The dictionary also quotes the unusual root חזה in Iyov 8:17, and in the footnote mentions that Rashi quotes Malachim I 7:4 where we find the word מחזה (this word does not appear in any manuscripts of Menahem, despite the fact that Rashi quotes him on it.) All of these words are very unusual and unique, and as the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament points out here, "the text is so uncertain that it is impossible to use them for the meaning of the root and its history".

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