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This is how the fourth plague is described in Exodus chapter 8:20-21

(טז) וַיֹּאמֶר יְדֹוָד אֶל משֶׁה הַשְׁכֵּם בַּבֹּקֶר וְהִתְיַצֵּב לִפְנֵי פַרְעֹה הִנֵּה יוֹצֵא הַמָּיְמָה וְאָמַרְתָּ אֵלָיו כֹּה אָמַר יְדֹוָד שַׁלַּח עַמִּי וְיַעַבְדֻנִי: (יז) כִּי אִם אֵינְךָ מְשַׁלֵּחַ אֶת עַמִּי הִנְנִי מַשְׁלִיחַ בְּךָ וּבַעֲבָדֶיךָ וּבְעַמְּךָ וּבְבָתֶּיךָ אֶת הֶעָרֹב וּמָלְאוּ בָּתֵּי מִצְרַיִם אֶת הֶעָרֹב וְגַם הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר הֵם עָלֶיה

And the Lord said unto Moses, Rise up early in the morning, and stand before Pharaoh; lo, he cometh forth to the water; and say unto him, Thus saith the Lord, Let my people go, that they may serve me.

21 Else, if thou wilt not let my people go, behold, I will send swarms of flies upon thee, and upon thy servants, and upon thy people, and into thy houses: and the houses of the Egyptians shall be full of swarms of flies, and also the ground whereon they are.

The KJV and other christian translations identify the Hebrew word ערב (arob) with "swarms of flies". They were no doubt influenced by the Septuagint who identifies it with flies as well. However, the Jewish scholars (Josephes, Exodus Rabbah according to one opinion, Rashi) have translated this term as "swarm of wild beasts" or "mixture of wid beasts". What they both have in common though is the word "swarm", which leads me to conclude that the literal translation of arob (according to the Jewish and Christian translations) is swarm, thus leaving the translators to fill in the blank each according to their preference. The KJV favors flies whereas the others favor wild beasts.

My questions:

  1. Since this Hebrew word has no parallel in scripture, on what basis do they translate the term arob as "swarm"? Furthermore, since the term "swarm" is only a descriptive term and not the subject of the plague it would be absurd to say that the biblical author couldn't find a more suitable word to describe the plague (as in the third plague of gnats=כנים)!

Another point, the OT rarely uses the word swarm when dealing with such things. For example when describing the locust plague the bible says (10:14) "ויעל הארבה על כל ארץ מצרים=and the locust ascended over the entire land of Egypt". There is no "swarm" attached to locust, only the word "locust=ארבה". See also the story of the quail mentioned in 16:13, there is no "swarm" attached to it, just "quail=שלו".

I saw that some translate the word arob as "mixture" (Rashi, Ibn Ezra), since there is a similar Hebrew word that clearly means "mixture". See Exodus 12:38; Numbers 11:4 "ערב רב" "a mixed multitude". However, the choice of "swarm" for the translation of ערב seems to be lacking basis!

  1. Given that were dealing with swarms of some kind, is there any basis for choosing flies over beasts or any other living creature for this plague?
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Psalms 78:45 describes the arob as eating the Egyptians:

יְשַׁלַּ֬ח בָּהֶ֣ם עָ֭רֹב וַיֹּֽאכְלֵ֑ם וּ֝צְפַרְדֵּ֗עַ וַתַּשְׁחִיתֵֽם׃

He sent arob and it ate them...

The word for "eating" in Hebrew (וַיֹּֽאכְלֵם) doesn't necessarily mean that it was an animal, since fire, for instance, is described with the same word (Isaiah 5:24 and elsewhere). However, if we imagine a reader of the verse with no previous knowledge of the word, the most likely image to come up is some kind of animal, a beasts or an insect (according to Wikipedia, the Septuagint's "dog-fly" sucks blood).

All that is left is to find an etymology. What meaning of the root ערב could mean an animal? This particular root has many different meanings in different contexts (evening, west, sweet, raven, Arab, pledge...); however, once we have established that the word is connected to an animal, the meaning "mixture" is probably the most logical one to be applied: "a swarm of beasts" or "a swarm of flies."

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  • good point there. I missed the verse in Psalms which is quite clear that were dealing with animals! I wonder what the KJV and others would do with that? Another point i see that you understood that swarm and mixture are interchangeable and that it is the basis for this translation, however i am still not convinced that this is the case, since swarm and mixture are two different words with different definitions. But +1 anyways. – Bach Jan 16 '18 at 20:09
  • @Bach I tried to defend the "fly" translation with the reference on flies at Wikipedia, but I can understand if you don't find it convincing. And you're right that swarm is semantically different than mixture, but it can be a logical step away for a different form of the root – b a Jan 16 '18 at 20:13
  • I am very inclined to say that arob is an Egyptian word and describes a certain kind of animal or class of animals, but as of now i am lacking evidence. – Bach Jan 16 '18 at 21:05
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Regarding my first question what is the basis for the translation of swarm i found an answer here. James Kugel thinks that if arob is compared to the Hebrew word erev (night, darkness) this would render something like "to darken", hence the choice of "swarms of insects" which would darken the sky, similar to the locust plague which is said to have darkened the sky.

He also notes as "b a" has pointed out in his answer that from the verses in Psalms it seems like that were dealing with beasts rather than insects of any kind. But the fact that it is juxtaposed with "kinnim" (lice, gnats) in Psalm 105:31 there is some merit to the fly interpretation.

That were dealing here with insects rather than beasts is evident from the verses describing the plague filling up the houses of the Egyptians, this is harder to understand if were dealing with beasts but much easier to imagine if were dealing with insects filling up their houses. As "b a" notes the term ויאכלם must not refer to eating or devouring only.

There is another interesting interpretation that i came across here which identifies arob with the beetle, or the cockroach, and designated by Dr, Harris as the blatte aegyptia which is known for its destructive and invasive nature even today. The reason he chose to identify arob with the beetle is because of its black color and its nocturnal activity. As we have already noted arob is similar to the word erev and is of the same root. Furthermore, we find the word orev in the list of unclean birds in Leviticus 11, this bird is almost certainly the raven and is called orev in Hebrew because of its dark black color. So it is not so far fetched that dark and black unknown insects would be named arob by the ancient Israelite's. The expression of filling up their houses fits well with the cockroach interpretation since theyre known to eat up leather, wool, plants and anything of animal origin, thus literally destroying and "devouring" (term used in Psalms) their homes. See also this.

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(ʿārōb) is a Hebrew word used exclusively to identify the pestilence of the fourth plague found in this scripture (cf. Ps. 78:45; 105:31). Though it reads as flies, the most likely understanding is that of a diverse mixture of harmful insects.

Umberto Cassuto (2005) weighs in by stating, "As a rule the word is explained to mean a 'mixture'....that is, different kinds of creatures mingled together." (Commentary on Exodus page 107). Whether this mixture is beasts of prey or tiny parasites is debated within the many circles.

Based upon the fact that Exodus indicates that this "mixture" would be sent upon humans beings, in their houses, and that the homes would be filled with them would definitely lend more credence to the idea of a "parasitic mixture" that permeated and dominated every facet of the land, except for in Goshen.

The ruined land, associated with the devouring of Psalm 78 is most fitting to describe the idea of "swarms" in English translations, especially since homes were to be "full" of them and the "ground" as well.

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  • "the most likely understanding is that of a diverse mixture of harmful insects." Though i strongly disagree with this reading as i have outlined in my question your post is still useful +1. – Bach Jan 23 '18 at 3:29
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Some scholars hypothize, according the root’s basic meaning (‘to mix’), that the term ערב of Exo 8:21 (inside the Bible story of the ‘4th plague of Egypt’) indicates an indefinite swarm of insects. But, we have to note that with the same term the TaNaKh refers also to other natural ens, like trees, or birds, and also the evening.

So, could the term ערבin Lev 23:40; Job 40:22; Psa 137:2, indicate an indefinite mix of various trees? No, because the lexicographers are certain it refers to a specific tree, a kind of poplar (or, according a minority of scholars, a kind of willow). The name ערב seems to correspond to the Arabic term gharab, which continues to be used for the Euphrates poplar. Thus, although the poplar and willow are of the same family of trees, and both common to the Middle East, modern lexicographers favor the poplar tree (Populus euphratica) in translation. (see, please, Koehler and Baumgartner’s Lexicon in Veteris Testamenti Libros, Leiden, 1958, p. 733; Brown, Driver, and Briggs’ Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, 1980, p. 788; The New Westminster Dictionary of the Bible, edited by H. Gehman, 1970, p. 998) John Parkhurst opted, instead, for a species of willow (A Hebrew and English Lexicon, under ערב). We will see ahead another hypothesis, more fit.

In every case, the point is that the term ערבin Lev 23:40; Job 40:22; Psa 137:2, could not indicate an indefinite mix of various trees, but a specific one (poplar, or willow).

The same pattern we may follow with the term ערבin Gen 8:9, and Lev 11:15. There, we cannot think that it could mean an indefinite flight of various birds, but it must indicate a specific kind of bird. In the Leviticus passage, expecially, the bird described there must be a specific one, otherwise the food prohibition cannot be performed by an Israelite one. In that particular case, the specific bird the passage cited of was a kind of corvid. In this respect, John Parkhurst added: “[…] if ערב in these passages signifies a mixture or colluvies, it is strange that the Heb. should not expressly inform us of what this mixture consisted.” (A Hebrew and English Lexicon, under ערב).

So, logically speaking, the term ערבin Exo 8:21 – too - must refers to a specific kind of animal which was guided by God to punish the Egyptians’ wickedness and cruelty against the people of Israel.

Therefore, what kind of animal Exo 8:21 relates?

Please, examine some clues: It must be an insect, since Psa 105:31 put ערב into a parallelism together with כנים (the God-guided insects of the previous [3th] plague).

It must be a flesh-fly insect, or a haematophagous one, since Psa 78:45 informs us that the ערב “nourished” themselves with the Egyptians.

Moreover, the basic concept of ערב (to mix) must be complied with, along with the fact that this kind of ‘mixing’ has to be a common factor between the ערב-tree, and also the ערב-bird.

In brief, what kind of mixing can link a corvid, a poplar, an evening, together with the ערב of Exo 8:21?

Again, John Parkhurst put forward a keen clue about the meaning of the term ערב (the bold is mine): “[…] probably it was so denominated from its colour […].” (ibidem)

So, What connection exists between the ‘colour’ factor and the concept of ‘mixing’? A chromatic one. In fact, if we mix the same quantity of pigment from the 12 main colours (3 primary ones + 3 secondary ones + 6 tertiary ones) the colour resulted is grey (technically, the same colour that is derived from a mingling of white and black, in a minimum ratio 50%/50%, and, also increasing the ratio of black colour, but before the colour became pure black).

So, the grey colour ('the mixed') must be the common factor which links all the terms ערב we mentioned above.

In fact: During the evening, the neat natural colours are going grey, darker and darker (cfr. Akkadian EREBU, ‘setting of the sun’; and probably from this source was derived the term Europa, that is, ‘the western region’ > ‘the region where the sun sets’)

A kind of poplar is – for an example – the ‘gray poplar’ (Populus Canescens, or others kindred to it).

A kind of corvid is – for an example – the ‘hooded crow’ (Corvus Cornix, or others kindred to it).

Along this lines we may hypothize, with good probability, that the ערבof Exo 8:21 could be the ‘grey gadfly’ (Haematopota Coronata, or others kindred to it), a kind of haematophagous dipteran, dangerous also for humans. On this identification agrees also the LXX, translating that term with κυνομυια, ‘gad-fly’, a Greek term utilized also by Aelian (4.51) with same meaning, or by Philo of Alexandria (‘the Jew’): “dog-fly” (De Vita Mosis, l.1. p.622).

In every case, the supernal power of the Lord IEUE was demonstrated when all the gods-worshippers Egyptians scratched themselves for all the period of the plague, “for he remembered his holy promise, and Abraham his servant” (Psa 105:42, Webster).

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  • +1. Excellent summary of views and interpretations of ערב. – Bach Oct 27 '18 at 23:45

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