June 25, 2024
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What Is the Meaning of ‘Rochev Ba-Aravot’?

This phrase is used as a description of God at Psalms 68:5. From here, it made its way into the Baruch Kel Elyon song. But what exactly does “aravot” mean here? Where is God riding?

In an earlier column, I wrote about the many meanings of the letters ayin-resh-bet. One meaning is “mix.” Another meaning is “enter.” (This meaning lies behind the word “erev” as evening; it is the time when the sun has set, and early man viewed it as having entered into its resting location.) The letters ARB also underlie the word “aravah,” a desolate, wilderness area.

The letters ARB also underlie the Hebrew words for “guarantor” and “pledge.” (These meanings likely come from the “enter” meaning. One who pledges enters into the authority of another.) The letters ARB also underlie the Hebrew words meaning “pleasant” and “sweet.” (Many have suggested that these originated from the ARB/mix meaning and originally meant “mixed well.”) The letters ARB also underlie the words “arava” for willow and “orev” for raven.

But of all these meanings, which one fits at Psalms 68:5, “solu la-rochev ba-aravot”? The description is of God, and the meaning is “extol the One Who rides the aravot. “

Of all the above meanings, the only one that might reasonably fit is “desolate, wilderness area.” Thus, one widely used translation translated “rochev ba-aravot” as “rides through the deserts.” A similar idea is found at Is. 40:3: “ba-midbar panu derech Hashem, yashru ba-arava mesila….” (=clear in the wilderness a way for Hashem, set up in the desert a path for our God). But God as a rider in a desolate area is still an unusual image. More importantly, “rochev” usually means mounting an object and superimposing yourself upon it, and not “riding through” something.

In a statement of Reish Lakish at Chagigah 12b, the “aravot” of Ps. 68:5 was understood as one of the seven heavens. The precise Hebrew word he used is “rakia.” (This interpretation did not originate with Reish Lakish. It originated in earlier Jewish sources, not necessarily within the circle of the Sages.) But “aravot” does not otherwise mean “rakia/heaven” in Tanach. (“Aravot” as “rakia” is the understanding adopted in the Geonim and Rishonim as well, and presumably was the understanding of the author of the Baruch Kel Elyon song. At Chagigah 12b, the Talmud tells us which specific items are stored by God in this rakia.)

Is there another way to interpret “rochev ba-aravot” of Ps. 68:5?

The letters ayin-resh-pe mean “drip” two times in Tanach. Also, the word arafel (A-R-P-L) appears many times in Tanach with a meaning of “cloud.” (Sometimes it merely means “darkness.”) A reasonable understanding of the word “arafel” is that ayin-resh-pe is its root and the lamed reflects merely the addition of an ending letter. (See also the related word with the root ayin-resh-pe at Is. 5:30.) Therefore, a scholar who thought creatively could suggest that the “aravot” of Ps. 68:5 can be understood as if derived from a root ayin-resh-pe, and that the image would be God Who “rides the clouds.” (Note that Rav S.R. Hirsch would often be willing to exchange “bet” with its fellow bilabial consonant “pe” to help understand a word. Coincidentally, in a recent column, I explained how the word hefker, H-P-K-R, derived from an original root B-K-R.)

Supporting the “rides the clouds” interpretation of Ps. 68:5 is that we have such imagery for God elsewhere in Tanach. It is found at Ps. 104:4: ha-sam avim rechuvo (=Who makes the clouds His chariot) and at Is. 19:1: Hashem rochev al av kal (God rides on a swift cloud). (See also perhaps Deut. 33:26.) Very likely, the “cloud” symbolizes God’s chariot. It may be a symbol of glory as well, like the “ananei ha-kavod.” (Many interpretations of the “cloud” symbolism are possible.)

Is the “rides the clouds” interpretation of “rochev ba-aravot” merely unsupported conjecture? It turns out that with the discovery of Ugaritic, we now have evidence for it. The Ugaritic language first came to light in 1928, based on a discovery in a town in Syria, near the Mediterranean coast. Ugaritic is an ancient Semitic language closely related to Hebrew. The Ugaritic texts cover many centuries and predate the Biblical texts. The discovery of Ugaritic has led to many new understandings of difficult terms in the Bible. Relevant to our context is that the phrase “rochev arafot” with the meaning “charioteer of the clouds” appears 14 times in various Ugaritic mythological texts as an epithet of their most prominent god, Baal. (Baal was believed to control the rainfall. This might be the basis for the metaphor. But other interpretations of the metaphor are also possible. Regarding their spelling “arafot,” there are other examples of Ugaritic “p/f” becoming “b/v” in Hebrew.)

There is a tendency in Biblical scholarship to overemphasize Ugaritic in interpreting Biblical texts. Scholars who believe that Ugaritic has been overemphasized will likely reject this Ugaritic-based interpretation of the Biblical “rochev ba-aravot.” “Rides through the deserts” is admittedly a possible interpretation of the Biblical Hebrew, they would argue. Why should we create a new Biblical word, aravot=clouds? Nowhere else in Tanach does “aravot” have the meaning “clouds.”

So we are left with the following: 1) a “rides through the desert” interpretation, which is at least consistent with many uses of “arava” elsewhere in Tanach (and can be supported a bit by Ps. 68:8), 2) a very early Jewish interpretation of “aravot” as heaven, and 3) a “rides the clouds” interpretation that has a close parallel in Ugaritic, but which creates an unusual one-time meaning of “aravot “in Tanach.

But as stated earlier, “rochev” usually means mounting an object and superimposing yourself upon it, and not “riding through” something. “Rochev” fits the “clouds” interpretation much better than it does the “desert” interpretation. Also, later in the same Psalm, at verse 34, we have the phrase: “rochev be-shmei shmei kedem” (=He rides on the heavens of heavens of old). This serves as a much better parallel to the “clouds” interpretation than it does to the “desert” interpretation. So I think the “clouds” interpretation is the preferable one. The Daat Mikra edition of Psalms is willing to adopt the “rides the clouds” interpretation as its main interpretation in its commentary.

Of course, even though Ugaritic and the Bible may be using the same phrase as a description of God, the metaphor may have a different meaning in each of the two languages. As one scholar has observed in this context, the use of the ancient metaphor in the Hebrew language can be compared to the use of “new wine in an old bottle.” Admittedly, the meaning of the metaphor in each language is still not entirely clear.

With regard to the early Jewish interpretation, heaven, it probably arose based on a simplistic reading of our verse, Ps. 68:5. The thinking was probably: If God is “rochev ba-aravot,” “aravot” is likely a heaven. The heaven interpretation could be supported by Ps. 68:34, which uses the phrase: “rochev be-shmei shmei kedem” (=He rides on the heavens of heavens of old). But heaven/rakia still does not fit the word “aravot.”

Finally, I would like to mention one more (difficult) interpretation, that of Rav S.R. Hirsch. He reinterprets “rochev” to mean “guide” and then translates the phrase as “guides worlds through barrenness.” His suggestion is that through guiding and shaping, God safely leads His world even through times that seem hopelessly barren.

I will close with a little etymological humor. One of my favorite books is Ernest Klein, “A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers of English.” His entry for “safek” (doubt) has the following: “Of uncertain origin”!

By Mitchell First

 Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. His most recent book is “Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy.” He can be reached at [email protected]. He has no plans of riding on clouds, and is content with riding on the A train. No doubt about that.


For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.

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