We are all used to this word as the fifth plague. But it only appears one time in that plague. It has a life of its own elsewhere in Chumash and Nach.
1. In the fifth plague, it is only mentioned one time, at Ex. 9:3. But it is mentioned at 5:3 (pre-plagues), and at 9:15 (plague of hail).
In the seven sentences that tell the story of the “dever” plague, the words “davar” and “ha-davar” with standard meanings are mentioned three times. This is an obvious word play.
2. “Dever” is mentioned once each in Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. In Lev. 26:25 and Deut. 28:21, the context is the curses. In Num. 14:12, the context is God threatening to destroy the Israelites (after their reaction to hearing the report of the spies: “akenu va-dever ve-orishenu” (=I will destroy the people via “dever”). God then offers to make a new nation for Moshe.
3. In Nach, “dever” is mentioned 43 times. (Only one of these times, Ps. 78:50, is it in connection with the Exodus plagues.)
4. In the description of the Exodus plague, it is a plague on animals only. But once we look at the rest of Tanach, we see that in all the other places it is not limited to animals.
For example, in a story at 2 Samuel 24 about God punishing David for ordering a census, we are told that 70,000 Israelites perished in the ensuing “dever.” Throughout Nach, “dever” is constantly used to threaten the Israelites and other nations, along with items like famine and death by sword. Nowhere else is the threat or result limited to the death of animals. By focusing only on Exodus chapter 9, where “dever” affected the animals only, we had a very skewed perspective!
5. It is evident from many places in Tanach that “dever” is typically fatal. If one looks through all the “dever” verses, it is often used next to a word from the root “mavet” and many times next to “cherev,” which implies death by sword. “Dever” is used as a parallel to death at Ps. 78:50.
Targum Onkelos always translates “dever” by “mota”(=death) and the Septuagint always renders “dever” by “thanatos,” the Greek word for “death.”
“Dever” is not a broad word like “magefah.” A “magefah” can include a war. “Dever” is a specific disease, just that there is not enough data in Tanach to specify which one. Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament explains it simply as a “fatal pestilence…which comes upon men and domestic animals.”
6. Psalms 78:50 refers to “dever” and the next verse refers to the smiting of the first-borns. Many read these two verses together as implying that the first born were killed through “dever.” See, e.g., Ibn Ezra, Radak, and Daat Mikra. See also N. Sarna, Exploring Exodus, p. 75 (chart). (For a different view, see Rashi to Ps. 136:10 and the Yalkut Ha-Mechiri cited in the Daat Mikra there.)
7. The Latin Vulgate always translates “dever” as “pestilentia.” But in the early 16th century, William Tyndale decided to use the term “murrain” for the “dever” in the ninth chapter of Exodus and to use the term “pestilence” everywhere else. This distinction was retained by the King James version.
With regard to “murrain,” it entered English in the 13th century from a French word “morine,” which was a plague on cattle. Ultimately, it derived from the Latin “mors.” This Latin word is the source for the word “mortality” and “mortal” (=someone who will die someday, as opposed to the gods).
8. Some connect our “dever” word with the Ugaritic root “D-B-R,” which means “death.” (Ugaritic is a Semitic language closely related to Hebrew.) Others suggest a relation to the Akkadian word “dibiru,” which means “calamity.” (Akkadian is also a Semitic language, but it is not as closely related to Hebrew as is Ugaritic.)
9. Our initial goal should be to see if we can find a relationship between Hebrew words that have the same three-letter root. But in a case where this seems difficult, like this one, we do not have to make weak arguments to support such a relationship.
Nevertheless, I always find it interesting to collect the proposals of those who claim word relationships in challenging situations like this one, as I will now summarize.
D-B R has two other main meanings in Hebrew: one is “speak,” and the other is “lead” (probably by pushing from behind). Regarding the first meaning, one source I saw theorized that the root D-B-R fundamentally has the meaning of “combining separate items into one.” “Speech” is of course a collection of words. Then this source used the word “epidemic” for our meaning. Alternatively, R. Hirsch saw the “dever” of Ex. 9:3 as a fulfillment of the “word” of God. Perhaps he would expand that to all the references to “dever” in Tanach. Another view focuses on the “lead” meaning and points out that in a plague, the illness of one person causes illness to another person. (I mention these suggestions only because they are creative. I am not at all advocating them.)
10. Psalm 91 (“yoshev be-seter elyon”) is part of our Shabbat morning liturgy. At 91:3, we are told that God saves us from from “dever havot.” Daat Mikra comments: “mi-magefet mavet ha-tokefet et ha-adam pitom.” (This is parallel to the trapping mentioned in the same verse and its suddenness.)
But what does that word after “dever” mean? It is spelled הוות. I always wondered about it.
הות appears many times in Tanach, always with a negative meaning. Its root is הוה. Scholars generally give this root two different meanings: “to fall” and “to be.” The “fall” meaning evolved into a word meaning “destruction, ruin, calamity.” The meaning at Ps. 91:3 is something like “destructive dever.”
A widespread view is that both the “to be” meanings and the “to fall” meanings are related. It probably originally meant “to fall, to fall out,” and then developed into “come to pass, come to be.”
Finally, at Ex. 9:3, we are told that the hand of God will הויה on the Egyptian cattle. We recite it at the seder, but I never understood it. As you can see now, both meanings are acceptable: “will fall on/cause damage to” or “will be on.” See Daat Mikra.
I wish to acknowledge the Philologos post of April 22, 2020: “The Plague-Words of the Bible” for some of the above material.
Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. Please visit his website rootsandrituals.org for more of his articles.