This week, I’d like to talk about rivers.
I’ll start with the conclusions of an article by Yoel Elitzur, originally presented at the 14th World Congress of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, in 2005. It’s an article about the Hebrew words נהר nahar and נ֫חל náḥal, words that look very much the same, but have similar, yet distinct, meanings.
My biblical dictionary defines both of these words as stream. But even the dictionary points out a difference between them: nahar (which occurs 120 times in the Bible) is river or stream, while náḥal (even more often, 140 times) makes stream the second definition. The first is river valley or wadi, a “stream” with a perennial supply of water, “more often only in winter.” That’s not a translation, of course, it’s an explanation.
A náḥal is what’s called in the American Southwest a wash or, if you want something a little bit more colorful without having to go too far from English, you can call it an arroyo, a word they also use out there, though that’s originally a Spanish word. Fun fact, completing the circle: the Guada- of Spanish names like Guadalajara comes from Arabic wadi.
Elitzur tells us something more than the dictionary does: A nahar is always full of water and a náḥal is often dry; a nahar is big and a náḥal is small. And there’s one more thing.
Poetry has its own rules, but in prose, at least in Standard Biblical Hebrew, a nahar refers to water outside of the land of Israel, and a náḥal is almost always inside the land of Israel, the one possible exception being náḥal mitzráyim ‘the Stream of Egypt’, Wadi El-Arish. Note that Akkadian, which obviously doesn’t care whether a náḥal is in Israel or not, also calls Wadi El-Arish a náḥal.
In any case, when you see a náḥal in the Bible, you are inside the land of Israel, you are looking at something smaller than a river, and unless they tell you something different, there’s no water in the thing.
Why am I mentioning it this week? Obviously, because the word náḥal occurs in this week’s reading:
From there they proceeded to Guggod and from Guggod to Yot’vat, a land with naḥalim of water.
That’s Deut 10:7. Two stops after the death of Aaron on the Israelite march to Canaan, the Israelites reached Yot’vat, a land with naḥalim of water. (In Num 33:33-34, in the complete list of the Israelites’ travels, the stop before Yot’vat is Hor-haggidgad, and nothing is said about naḥalim.) Most likely Yot’vat is at (or near) the modern kibbutz called Yotvata.
The same expression occurs earlier in this week’s reading, in Deut 8:7, where these naḥalei máyim are part of a promise:
For YHWH your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with naḥalim of water, springs, and deeps, coming forth in the valleys and the mountains.
What is it that makes this such a good land? Quite simple: Your new home comes with free running water included. In both cases, Elitzur’s point would be that if they didn’t tell you that these were naḥalei máyim, you would assume that they are dry.
When you say náḥal, the assumption is that you’re talking about something that’s dry unless they specifically tell you that it has water in it. The whole point of this promise in Deut 8:7 is that these are not dry washes. Unlike what you would expect from a náḥal, these are always flowing with water. That’s what makes this such a good land. And that’s also why you have to learn biblical Hebrew and not just read your Bible in English. (End of commercial.)
You may be wondering one more thing; at least, it naturally occurred to me, and it occurred to Elitzur as well. If a nahar is outside of Israel and a náḥal is inside Israel, is הַיַּרדֵּן ha-yarden, the Jordan River (as we call it in English) a nahar or a náḥal? On one side of it you are in Israel and on the other you are outside of Israel.
Answer: the Jordan is just ha-yarden and nothing else. We’ll see it again almost as soon as next week’s reading begins, but there are no more naharim and no more naḥalim, dry or running, in the rest of the Torah.