Describing the assignments of Levite gatekeepers, the Chronicler records that there were four at the “highway” at the western end of the temple, and two “at the Parbar,” which was also on the west (1 Chronicles 26:18).

Scholars have proposed a variety of foreign etymologies for the term. From Persian, some have etymologized the word to mean “possessing light,” hence a summer house or open-aired colonnade or porch. Some have suggested an Egyptian origin, a “portable chapel containing a divine image which was carried in festival processions” (Donna Runnalls, 326). A related word, parwar, appears in 2 Kings 23:11, which describes Josiah's removal of “chariots of the sun” from the temple. Finally, some have suggested a Sumerian origin, meaning “shining house” and used for the temple of the sun in Sumerian inscriptions.

All of these are suggestive. The ark of the covenant was in the inner chamber of the temple on the west, and is the closest thing Israel possessed to a “portable shrine.” The spatial orientation is also enticing: Located in the direction of sunset, the Parbar may be associated with the sun and its light.

In a 1991 Vetus Testamentum article, Donna Runnalls argues that Parbar has a Hebrew origin. She cites E.Y. Kutscher's observation concerning the doubling of consonants in Hebrew roots that were changed from two-consonant to three-consonant form. Despite shifts in spelling, the new words retained the meaning of the original two-consonant term.

The root pr is in the background of Parbar (the p and b being phonetically close), and the root means “separate”: “Consider several verbs whose first two radicals are pr: e.g., prd ‘divide,' prt ‘change (money),' prk, prr ‘crumble,' prm ‘tear (a garment),' prs ‘divide in two, break (especially bread),' prq ‘tear apart,' prs ‘break through' and a few others. It seems obvious that the underlying notion of ‘divide' is bound up with the consonants pr while the third radical acts as a semantic modifier” (329-30).

Based on evidence from the Temple Scroll, she argues that the Parbar was a colonnaded stoa on the western end of the temple, used to ensure that the flesh of purification offerings for priests (which no one could eat) was kept separated from the flesh of purification offerings for the common people (eaten by the priests). As Runnalls puts it: the word ”was created from a reduplication of an original biconsonantal root pr. It originated within the cultic vocabulary of the Second Temple and meant something like ‘the place of separation.' The architectural design of the parwar, a columned area to the west side of the temple building where the sacrifices of the priests and the Israelites were kept separated, could then have resulted in the term being used simply to designate a columned stoa” (330-1).

This is interesting not only for providing a plausible solution to a puzzling term, but also for what it suggests about the way the Hebrew language developed. In Runnalls's view, words from the same root have similar meanings, and retain the earlier meanings even in later forms. James Barr, I think the phone's for you.

(Runnalls, “The Parwar: A Place of Ritual Separation?” VT 3 [1991]: 324-31.)