Word of the Day Degel: The Miraculous Morphing of Military Unit Into Flag

The root d-g-l appears in the Bible several times, but in contexts that left translators bewildered.

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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A degel - now a military unit no more.
A degel - now a military unit no more.Credit: Olivier Fitussi
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

It is Israeli Independence Day - Yom Haatzmaut, and as you might have guessed, the streets are decked out with blue and white flags. The Hebrew word for flag is DE-gel, an ancient word that meant many things, none of which were flag. So how did this happen?

The Book of Numbers describes the Israelite army - this tribe’s fighting force was here, this tribe’s fighting force was there, etc. The word used to describe these military units is degel.

For example: ״And the children of Israel shall pitch their tents, every man by his own camp, and every man by his own standard [degel], throughout their hosts.” (1:52)

When the translators of the King James Bible translated degel as standard, meaning flag, they were following in the tradition started by St. Jerome, who in the late 4th century created the Latin translation of the Bible called the Vulgate. Earlier translations, such as the Greek Septuagint agreed that degel is some kind of fighting force.

Most likely St. Jerome didn't mean to reinterpret the text: rather he resorted to using metonymy. Meaning, the unit is referred to not by its name but by something associated with it - its flag.

This translation probably didn’t have any effect on the Hebrew language, though. What caused the word to shift in meaning was instead Jonah ibn Janah, whose 11th century dictionary Kitab al usul - (“Book of the Roots”) has degel defined as flag.

It is possible that ibn Janah was influenced by St. Jerome, but unlikely. Perhaps what had happened was his attempt to reconcile another use of the root d-g-l appearing in the Bible, this time in the Song of Solomon: “He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love.” (2:4)

Once again, the King James Bible is misleading, insisting on consistency where no consistency can be found. The text could better be understood as reading: He brought me to the banqueting house, where he looked at me admiringly.

This would in fact be consistent with another verse appearing three chapters later “My beloved is white and ruddy, the chiefest among ten thousand.” (5:10) with dagul being better translated: the most admired among ten thousand.

Clearly what was going on was an attempt to reconcile something you look at with a military unit and what came out from this was the use of the word to mean flag. This interpretation caught on and is why Israelis use the word degel to mean flag.

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