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Bible Dictionaries

Vine's Expository Dictionary of OT Words


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Yâm (יָם, Strong's #3220), “sea; ocean.” This word has cognates in Aramaic, Akkadian, Ugaritic, Phoenician, and Ethiopic. It occurs about 390 times and in all periods of biblical Hebrew.

This word refers to the body of water as distinct from the land bodies (continents and islands) and the sky (heavens): “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea and all that in them is …” (Exod. 20:11). Used in this sense yâm means “ocean.” This is its meaning in Gen. 1:10, its first biblical appearance; unlike the use in the singular, where the word is a collective noun, it appears here in the plural: “And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas.…”

Yâm may be used of “seas,” whether they are salty or fresh. The Great Sea is the Mediterranean: “From the wilderness and this Lebanon even unto the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites, and unto the Great Sea toward the going down of the sun, shall be your coast” (Josh. 1:4). This sea is also called the sea of the Philistines (Exod. 23:31) and the hinter or western sea (Deut. 11:24; KJV, “uttermost sea”). The Dead Sea is called the Salt Sea (Gen. 14:3), the Arabah (Deut. 3:17; KV, “plain”), and the east sea (Ezek. 47:18). Thus, yâm can be used of an inland salty “sea.” It can also be used of a fresh water “sea” such as the Sea of Galilee: “… And the border shall descend, and shall reach unto the side of the Sea of Chinnereth eastward” (Num. 34:11).

The word is sometimes used of the direction west or westward, in the sense of toward the (Great) Sea: “Lift up now thine eyes, and look from the place where thou art northward, and southward, and eastward, and westward” (Gen. 13:14). In Gen. 12:8 yâm means “on the west side”: “And he removed from thence unto a mountain on the east of Beth-el, and pitched his tent, having Beth-el on the west, and Hai on the east.…” This word can also refer to a side of something and not just a direction, but it is the side that faces westward: “He turned about to the west side …” (Ezek. 42:19). Exod. 10:19 uses yâm as an adjective modifying “wind”: “And the Lord turned a mighty strong west wind, which took away the locusts.…”

Yâm is used of the great basin immediately in front of the Holy Place: “And the pillars of brass that were in the house of the Lord, and the bases, and the brazen sea that was in the house of the Lord, did the Chaldees break in pieces, and carried the brass of them to Babylon” (2 Kings 25:13). This is also called the “sea” of cast metal (1 Kings 7:23; KJV, “molten sea”) or simply the “sea” (Jer. 27:19).

Yâm is used of mighty rivers such as the Nile: “And the waters shall fail from the sea, and the river shall be wasted and dried up” (Isa. 19:5). This statement occurs in the middle of a prophecy against Egypt. Therefore, “the river” is the Nile. But since the term “river” is in synonymous parallelism to “the sea,” this latter term also refers to the Nile. Ezek. 32:2 uses yâm of the branches of the Nile: “… And thou art as a whale in the seas: and thou camest forth with thy rivers, and troubledst the waters with thy feet, and fouledst their rivers.” This word can also be used of the Euphrates River (Jer. 51:36).

In some instances the word yâm may represent the Canaanite god Yamm, “which alone spreadeth out the heavens, and treadeth upon the waves of the sea” (Job 9:8). If understood as a statement about Yamm, this passage would read: “and tramples upon the back of Yamm.” The parallelism between “heavens” and “seas,” however, would lead us to conclude that the reference here is to the literal “sea.” Ps. 89:9- 10 is a more likely place to see a mention of Yamm, for there the word is identified as one of God’s enemies in immediate proximity to the goddess Rahab: “Thou rulest the raging of the sea [Yamm]: when the waves thereof arise, thou stillest them. Thou hast broken Rahab in pieces, as one that is slain; thou hast scattered thine enemies with thy strong arm.” Especially note Job 7:12: “Am I a sea [Yamm], or a whale, that thou settest a watch over me?” (cf. Job 26:12; Ps. 74:13).

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Bibliography Information
Vines, W. E., M. A. Entry for 'Sea'. Vine's Expository Dictionary of OT Words. 1940.

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