Sunday, June 30, 2024

Nukhba and Nahbi

I was curious about the etymology of Nukhba, the Hamas special forces unit that carried out horrific terrorist attacks on October 7.

The root n-kh-b in Arabic means "choose, select, elect," and so nukhba is an elite military unit. It's a fairly common root in Arabic, appearing in many words related to elections. However, I couldn't fnd any Hebrew cognates. 

The Arabic Etymological Dictionary, while including words from that root, didn't provide any additonal Semitic cognates. It left it unknown with the entry (the etymology and cognates go in the brackets):

nachaba: choose, select [?]

I didn't see any entries in Stahl's Arabic dictionary, and a search of Klein's dictionary for related Arabic words also came up blank.

I was about to give up, when I found this brief mention in the Ben Yehuda dictionary:


ממנו אולי השֵם נַחְבִּי.

בערב' יש שני שרשים, נחב نحب במשמ' בכיה חזקה, ונח'ב نخب במשמ' בחירה ובררה.

This was a strange entry. It was for the root נחב nakhav for which the only word provided was perhaps the Biblical name "Nahbi". Nahbi, the son of Vofsi, appears only once in the Tanakh, in Bamidbar 13:14. He was one of the spies - the representative from the tribe of Naftali.

The Ben-Yehuda dictionary notes that in Arabic there are two (possibly related) roots. One is nahab which means "strong cry." The other is our nakhab, meaning "choice, select." 

I still don't exactly understand why this hypothetical root was included in the dictionary, which might have been the source of a name, and may have a connection to one of two cognates. But it does at least leave the door open that Nahbi is related to nukhba, which could make sense, considering he was a prince of the tribe.

Once again, I looked to see if there was support for this theory. I suppose I was surprised how little is written (or at least I could find) about the name Nahbi (even speculation). The Encyclopedia Mikrait (EM) and Daat Mikra both said that no convincing etymology has been found. The EM did note the scholar Martin Noth, who proposed it is related to an Arabic root meaning "coward."

Noth's suggestion is also mentioned by James Barr in his essay, "The Symbolism of Names in the Old Testament." (also found here). On page 23 (of the document), in footnote 2, he writes:

Noth, p. 229, n. 12, derives from Arabic nakhb with the sense "fearful"; but one could also consider the sense "choice" on the same Arabic basis, and also derivation from a quite different root, cf. Huffmon, Amorite Peraonal Names in the Mari Texts, p. 189.

So Barr does entertain the connection. He also points us in the direction of Huffmon, who mentions yet another Arabic root, nhb, this time meaning "vow, implore, lament" (perhaps the last of these words equals the "strong cry" mentioned in Ben Yehuda).

One other suggestion for Nahbi doesn't include the letter nun as part of the root. Rather it says the name comes from the root חבא, meaning to hide. Prof. Alexander Rofe quotes his teacher Umberto Cassuto as noting:

Sethur, derived from the root str (to hide), brought to mind the son of Vophsi, Nahbi, from the root hb', with the same meaning. 

Cassuto was pointing out that the name before Nahbi in the list of spies was סְתוּר בֶּן־מִיכָאֵל, whose name also indicates hiding. If that's the case, both names implying hiding would be fitting for spies.

That same theory is proposed by the BDB dictionary, as well as in a midrash in Sotah 34b:

אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן, אַף אָנוּ נֹאמַר: ״נַחְבִּי בֶּן וׇפְסִי״, ״נַחְבִּי״ — שֶׁהֶחְבִּיא דְּבָרָיו שֶׁל הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא.

Rabbi Yoḥanan says: We can also say an interpretation of the name: “Nahbi the son of Vophsi” (Numbers 13:14): He is called Nahbi, as he concealed [heḥbi] the statement of the Holy One, Blessed be He, that the land is good, by delivering a distorted description of it.

All of these theories testify to the fact that other than the two spies who brought a faithful report of the land (Yehoshua and Kalev), the rest were soon forgotten and so their legacies are obscure. I hope that someday soon we can say the same about the Nukhba terrorists as well.


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