While trying to look up something else in my big Russian-English dictionary, I happened on the entry Вирсавия [Virsaviya] f bib Bathsheba. Well, that’s odd, thought I: Virsaviya doesn’t sound much like Bathsheba (who was King David’s wife and Solomon’s mother, in case you’re not up on your Bible references). I looked it up in my indispensible Dictionnaire Russe-Français (by N.P. Makaroff, Saint-Pétersbourg, 1908) and found it rendered as Bersabée, which is an older French version of Beersheba, which is an ancient site southwest of Jerusalem (the name means ‘well of seven [lambs]’) where Abraham spent a good deal of time. So which is it, the woman or the well? Turns out it’s both, and Russian didn’t invent the confusion but inherited it from Greek, where both are rendered in the Septuagint as Βηρσαβεε (/bhrsabee/ in the usual transcription where /h/ = eta, and pronounced by the Byzantines, and thus by the Russians, as /virsave/, giving Russian Virsaviya). The confusion was evidently borrowed by Latin as well, allowing Sir John Mandeville to produce the following supremely confused passage:
And when men pass this desert, in coming toward Jerusalem, they come to Bersabe [Beersheba], that was wont to be a full fair town and a delectable of Christian men; and yet there be some of their churches. In that town dwelled Abraham the patriarch, a long time. That town of Bersabe founded Bersabe [Bathsheba], the wife of Sir Uriah the Knight, on the which King David gat Solomen the Wise, that was king after David upon the twelve kindreds of Jerusalem and reigned forty year.
So what I want to know is how the two Hebrew words, which are after all distinct even if fairly similar, one referring to a person and the other to a place, got rendered the same in Greek. And I would also like to know, though less urgently, where the stress is in the Russian word; Makaroff has virsAviya and the modern dictionary virsavIya.
By the way, in the course of all this I ran across this excellent site, which has the entire Bible (divided into chapters) with the text in Russian, English, and Greek (the Septuagint text for the Old Testament). I love the internet.