By Naama Baumgarten - Sharon
The ClassicalHebrew.com Team
Dear Friends,
In anticipation of our upcoming seminar about names in the Bible this week’s newsletter will be about names in the Bible and more specifically, in accordance with our interpretation series, in ancient biblical interpretation.
When babies are named in the Bible, it is very common to find an etiological reason for the name given. On some occasions we find that additional reasons are given for names, either in later biblical books or in extra-biblical interpretation. Today we will discuss a few examples of such interpretations.


Babies named for events that occurred during their birth

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Peretz
In Genesis 38, we hear of the story of Tamar, Judah’s daughter-in-law, who eventually gave birth to twin boys fathered by Judah himself. For more details about this story you are welcome to take a peek at the newsletter about twins published a few months ago. During their birth, we hear that one of the twins reached out his hand, and the midwife marked it with a crimson string, so as to know which of the two had the right of the firstborn. However, he then retrieved his hand, and his brother was born first. The twin who was in fact the firstborn was accused by the midwife:
מַה פָּרַצְתָּ עָלֶיךָ פָּרֶץ
Why have you broken through this way? (Genesis 38:29)
The word for breaking through is פֶּרֶץ, Peretz, and the baby is thus named.


 
Joseph
Joseph was born after many years during which his mother, Rachel, was barren. Upon his birth, her sole wish was quite surprisingly not thankfulness for the child she bore, but that she be given an additional child. She therefore named him יוֹסֵף, Yosef, a conjugated verb meaning “shall add”, asking that God add another son for her.


 
Jacob
In a story reminiscent of the later story of Peretz and Zerax’s birth, we also hear of how Jacob tried to receive the right of the firstborn and come out before Esau. However, he did not succeed, and ended up being born second, while holding on to his brother’s heel in an attempt to hold him back (more details about this birth as well can be found in the twins newsletter). The word for heel in Hebrew is עַקֵב, Akev, and in Genesis 25:26, we are told that this is the reason for the name given to Jacob – Ya’akov.


 
However, the prophet Hosea presents a different interpretation for Jacob’s name. In Hosea 12, the prophet describes Israel’s sins and the punishment he foresees for them. He then states:
בַּבֶּטֶן, עָקַב אֶת-אָחִיו Ba-Beten akav et axiv
In the womb he circumvented his brother (Hosea 12:4)
In this etiological explanation, or perhaps interpretation, of the name Jacob, Hosea tells a completely different story about this name: according to this, Jacob’s name is not (only) a commemoration of the physical act of grabbing his brother’s heel, it is a symbol of Jacob’s behavior, when he stole Esau’s blessing as the firstborn (Genesis 27). According to Hosea, Jacob began with this deceitful behavior even before he was born, and Jacob’s descendants, the Israelites, continued to be deceitful and unfaithful to God throughout history.

Later interpretations of biblical names – Noah
I would now like to examine one biblical name, already explained in the Bible, and the interpretations of that explanation. In Genesis 5:29, 10 generations after mankind was expelled from the Garden of Eden and forced to work the land so as to grow bread, a child was born to Lemech. He named him Noah, saying:
זֶה יְנַחֲמֵנוּ מִמַּעֲשֵׂנוּ וּמֵעִצְּבוֹן יָדֵינוּ מִן-הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר אֵרְרָהּ ה'
This one shall bring us relief from the work and from the toil of our hands out of the ground which the Lord has cursed

Noah’s name is here explained etiologically as deriving from the word נְחֲמָה – Nexama – comfort. In fact, the name Noah consists of the two first letters of this word, and is not from the same root! Perhaps for this reason, we find that later interpreters tried to offer different explanations for the name.
Philo of Alexandria, an Alexandrian Jew who lived towards the end of the first century BCE and the beginning of the first century CE, wrote an allegorical interpretation of the Bible, synthesizing between his Jewish heritage and his Greek philosophical education.

In his book on Abraham (27), Philo suggests two interpretations of the name Noah: the first is literal. The root נוח has the meaning of rest, and Philo explains that this is the meaning of his name. According to Philo’s second interpretation, Noah’s name in fact means “justice”. Elsewhere in his writings (QG 1.87), Philo combines the two explanations, stating that: “‘Noah’ is a sort of cognomen of justice, by participation in which the mind gives us rest from the evil labours and will give us rest from sorrows and fears”. It is interesting to note that Philo ignores the reasoning stated clearly in the Bible for this name – comfort – and finds a completely different interpretation, not that remote from the idea of comfort, but neglecting to mention it by name.
Have a Great Week.


By Naama Baumgarten - Sharon
The ClassicalHebrew.com Team


Weekly Biblical Hebrew words
שֵׁם
Transcription: Shem
Literal Meaning: Name

יָד
Transcription: Yad
Literal Meaning: Hand

עַקֵב
Transcription: Akev
Literal Meaning: Heel
More about Akev: the root עק"ב bears a few different meanings. One, as mentioned above, is that of circumvention. However, the more straightforward meaning is one of causality, something that follows at the heel of something preceding it. 



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