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In Bereshit 13:1, Negev is meant to mean the south of the Land of Israel (according to Rashi), because Abraham was going from Egypt to Israel and otherwise wouldn't make sense.

וַיַּעַל אַבְרָם מִמִּצְרַיִם הוּא וְאִשְׁתּוֹ וְכָל אֲשֶׁר לוֹ וְלוֹט עִמּוֹ הַנֶּגְבָּה
And Abram came up from Egypt, he and his wife and all that was his, and Lot with him, to the south.

. . .

But in Bereshit 13:3, Negev means just south (also according to Rashi), because Abraham was going from the south of Israel to the North.

וַיֵּלֶךְ לְמַסָּעָיו מִנֶּגֶב וְעַד בֵּית אֵל עַד הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר הָיָה שָׁם אָהֳלֹה בַּתְּחִלָּה בֵּין בֵּית אֵל וּבֵין הָעָי
And he went on his journeys, from the south and until Beth el, until the place where his tent had been previously, between Beth el and between Ai.

How can Negev change meanings like this?

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It does not change meanings. A word is used in context. In English for example, we speak of "the South" to mean the southern portion of the eastern United States even though someone may be in Mexico when using the term. Similarly here we speak of the "South" relative to Yerushalayim when speaking about different parts of the country of Yisrael.

Thus, the answer to your question is "yes".

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Negev actually means "the dry area" (NGV root means "dry")which is in the southern part of Eretz Yisrael. "Negbah" means "to the dry area," not a cardinal direction. "Minegev" in the later verse means "from the dry area." (In any event, it is not switching meanings. In the first instance the "heh" at the end of the noun means "to" that area. The mem in front of the noun means from that area. So it is not a contradiction. But you also asked if it was a cardinal direction. It is not.)

Similarly, "yamah" doesn't mean "to the west", rather it means "to the sea." Both of these would be used in relation to Eretz Yisrael but not other lands. A more cardinal-like direction would be "maaravah" meaning "towards where the sun sets." Of course that's west.

"Kedmah" means "to the east" because it is in the direction of where Avraham was "mi'kedem,"(beforehand) In other contexts, "to the east" would be said "mizrachah shemesh" (towards where the sun rises) which is more like a cardinal direction.

Finally, I believe I saw it in Rav Hirsch's commentary, but "tzafonah" would mean"towards where things are hidden" since, in Eretz Yisrael, being above the equator, the sun always remains on the southern part of the sky. So the northern wall of a building (for instance) never gets direct sunlight, it is always tzafun/(hidden) in shadows.

I don't recall why "daromah" means "to the south," but I imagine it also has to do with the sun and would be more like a cardinal direction.

  • Kedmah is from Kadima meaning forward, because the basis for directions was assumed to be facing east (Teimana, for example, is to the right, ie south.) – Double AA Dec 14 '15 at 4:31
  • Some directional names are dependent on the sun, which was a very easy way of directing oneself. Others were facing certain well known geographical areas. Hence "Teimana" would mean "towards Yemen" – R Yisroel Meir Vogel Dec 14 '15 at 4:33
  • ...and Yemen is called that because it's all the way to the Yamin/right/south. East is the default forward. – Double AA Dec 14 '15 at 4:34
  • Consider Isaiah 9:11 mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt1009.htm#11 where west is called "backwards". Recall too that the Med. Sea is called the Yam HaAcharon, the western sea. See as well Ezekiel 16:46 mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt1216.htm#46 where Shomron is described as left (ie north) of Jerusalem and Sodom as to its right (ie south). – Double AA Dec 14 '15 at 4:35
  • The point from Yeshaya is a good one. Standing in Eretz Yisrael, Aram is in front and phi stones are in back. Still you see that Jeremiah relates to where Avraham originally came, but the philistine reference seems to strengthen your point. – R Yisroel Meir Vogel Dec 14 '15 at 4:52

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