The Noun איש (’îš) in Biblical Hebrew: A Term of Affiliation

David E. S. Stein

Abstract



This article investigates one of the most frequent nouns in the Hebrew Bible, איש (’îš). Using paradigmatic (comparative) and syntagmatic (contextual) linguistic analysis, it finds that איש is a term that intrinsically conveys relationship. That is, איש serves to relate two referents to each other: one that it points to directly (the individual), and one that it points to indirectly (the group or party with which that individual is affiliated). Specifically, this noun variously signals three related nuances: membership or participation; representation as exemplar; and representation on behalf of others. At least 87% of biblical instances of איש can thus be accounted for, and some usages are best explained in this way. The article also cites evidence to suggest that the feminine counterpart noun, אשה (’îššâ), should likewise be construed as a term of affiliation. After noting that the primary sense of איש is probably not “adult male” as many lexicons state, it sketches some implications for glossing, translating, and interpreting איש.

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