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I understand בְּתוֹךְ as "in the midst of". The tree of life is b'tokh ha-gan (in the midst of the garden), and God spoke to the people mitokh ha-eish (from the midst of the fire -- the initial mem is "from"). JPS also sometimes translates a different word, ,בְּקֶרֶב as "in the midst", as it does in Habbakuk 3:2 (בְּקֶרֶב שָׁנִים, in the midst of years).

I understand קֶרֶב as "nearness". It's the same root as korban, the animal offering that brings us closer to God. Both "midst" and "nearness" indicate proximity, but in English there is a nuanced difference between the two. Does that nuanced difference exist in biblical Hebrew too, or is "midst" one possible meaning of קֶרֶב (if perhaps not the primary one)? Is there any significance to the text using one of these words over the other?

(This isn't a question about these texts in particular but about these two words. We also see the difference in Gen 23:10 vs. Deut 17:15.)

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up vote 4 down vote accepted

I found help in both the Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon (BDB) and the New International Diction of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis (a.k.a. NIDOTTE, ed. VanGemeren).

'tawek' appears as a substantive or adjective, meaning "middle" or "center". It most often appears with the 'bet' preposition, 'betok', with an emphasis on "in", as in "in the very midst of", or "in the very heart of". It is used by most writers of the Hebrew Scriptures around 8-10x per book, but most often in the Psalms.

'qereb' has a broader range of related words from the root 'qrb', like the question acknowledges, but 'qereb' refers often to internal organs, and "inner parts". BDB lists the primary definitions as being under numbered and lettered headings, traced here: 1) the inward parts of a human being (or a city, a house, land, number of persons, the hand, or time); 2) inward part of of man (seat of thought or emotion, the faculty of thought; 3) as a technical term for entrails. There are frequent uses of most headings under "1)".

So the difference is that 'qereb' denotes an "inward part" and 'tawek' denotes the very "middle" of something. Therefore we can expect to find quite a few similar uses. However, since the root of 'tawek' does not have any significance in the theology of the Hebrew Scriptures (its root is not used in any other derived forms), and 'qereb' does - if someone were to want to do further exegesis on a particular text, the usage of 'qrb' derivatives may bear significant meanings.

Both 'betok' and 'beqereb' are well attested in a range of uses and the use of one over the other does not appear to me likely to affect the interpretation of any particular passage.

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