Guest Post: What’s in a name?

Ben Spackman is well-known about the bloggernacle and he has kindly consented to write an article for us. He can also be found at Millenial Star. Thanks again, Ben.

Names have meaning. As a result of their archaic or foreign origin, today’s English names are often simply a nice fashionable collection of sounds devoid of any inherent meaning to an English speaker. Many of our names thus have meaning that we’re unaware of. Thomas, for
example, is anglicised Aramaic (via the Greek of the New Testament) meaning “twin,” and Benjamin from Hebrew “son of the south” or “son of the right hand.” Israelites seem to have understood what names meant, and utilized that meaning for literary and teaching purposes.
Understanding what these names meant to an Israelite can increase our appreciation of the scriptures.

‘Adam, – a person, a man, mankind (Gen 1:26-27), or Adam. It is sometimes difficult to decide which of these is the appropriate translation in the first few chapters of Genesis. (Outside of Genesis, Adam appears rarely- only in 1 Ch. 1:1 and as a place name in Joshua 3:16 and perhaps in Hosea 6:7). Etymologically, Adam is related to the place-name Edom, one of the words for “ground, dirt” (‘adamah). Indeed, Gen. 2:7 says that God
formed the ‘adam from the dust of the ‘adamah. Adam is found as personal name outside the Bible (in Eblaite, Old Akkadian, and Amorite), but only in early antiquity. This suggests that the creation story with Adam (Gen 2:4 ownwards) is quite old.

Eve- Heb. Hawwa, (Gr. Eua, Lat. Heva). Her name seems strongly connected with the word for “life,” hence Adam calls her “the mother of all living.” Eve appears by name only in Genesis 3:20 and 4:1 in the Old Testament. Eve is also called a “help meet for” Adam, which has often been slurred together into helpmeet or even helpmate, which sounds much like a secretary, or gofer. In reality, Eve here is accorded high honor. “Meet” is simply an old adjective meaning “appropriate” or “fit for.” ‘Ezer, or “help, aid” is not an underling. Beside Eve, God alone is called a help throughout the Hebrew Bible, and appears in such names as Eliezer, Ezra, and Azriel (all meaning
“God is my help”).

Eden- God planted a garden in the east of a land called Eden. Eden is generally associated with abundance, luxury and ease, and the Hebrew root appears elsewhere as a common noun, “pleasures” in Psa. 36:9 and “delights” in 2 Sa. 1:24. Some have suggested an etymology from
Sumerian edin meaning of “steppe, plain.” However, the word appears as a verb in an early Aramaic inscription from Tell Fakheriyah with the implication of providing an abundance of water. Eden, thus being well watered, is a luxurious green place. For those who inhabit a deseret
climate, water and the resultant greenery represents a paradisical place, worthy of God’s inhabitance.

Elohim- Careful readers may notice that Gen. 1-2:4, the divine entity is simply called “God,” but once we arrive in 2:4 and the account starts over, we have “the LORD God.” Prior to this point, it was simply Elohim, but from here on the Hebrew reads Yahweh Elohim.

Yahweh, of course, is traditionally anglicized as Jehovah. In purely Hebrew terms, El/Eloah/Elohim is a common noun meaning “God,” except for some passages in which a proper noun (ie. “the god El”) might be more appropriate. Yahweh is probably a short form of the phrase “The God who brings (the host? Creation?) into existance.” (We could go into a discussion of these two names, but that topic deserves its own long long post from someone.)

Sometimes, the Hebrew bible makes etymological word plays on words that seem related but actually aren’t. For example, in Exodus 2:10, Moses (Moshe in Hebrew) is said to be called Moses because Pharoah’s daughter drew him out (mashah) from the water. An Egyptian princess
naming an adopted son in the language of slaves seems a tad odd, and indeed, Moses is a well known part of Egyptian names, as in Ramses or Tuthmosis.

We find two potential examples of these in Genesis. First, Gen. 2:23 states that Eve shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. Our two words here are ‘ish and ‘ishah. It looks like the word for Woman ( ‘ishah) is simply the word for a man (‘ish) with the feminine ending. In reality, the two words are from different roots, and only resemble each other by conincidence.

The second example involves the serpent, who is said to be “more clever (‘arum- cunning, clever, shrewd) than all the other beasts of the field.” (Gen.3 :1) Adam and Eve, before they encounter the serpent, are also ‘arum, or naked, but they don’t know it. Only through the ‘arum (cleverness) of the serpent do they learn that they are ‘arum (naked), and cover themselves.

The two terms appear identical because Hebrew orthography could did not accurately represent all the sounds of Hebrew. We know from comparitive evidence, as well as later greek transcriptions, that the sounds ayin and ghayin were both written with ayin but still pronounced differently. (Think about the difference in –gh between “rough” and “through.” Spelled the same, but fluent speakers know to pronounce them differently.) This orthographic explains why Gomorrah is spelled with an initial g in English, though it is spelled with ayin. The Greek transliteration of the name, from whence we receive our English, represented the sound of ghayin with a g, but ayin with a smooth breathing and vowel.)

Further Readings
1. Hess, Richard S. “Getting Personal: What Names in the Bible Teach Us.” Bible Review 13:03 (December 1997)
2. Hess, Richard S. “Eden- A Well-watered Place.” Bible Review, 7:06 (December 1991)
3. Parry, Jay A., and Donald W. Parry. “Israelite Names- Witnesses of Deity.” Ensign December (1990): 52-54.
4. Barney, Kevin. “Examining Six Key Concepts in Joseph Smith’s Understanding of Genesis 1:1.” BYU Studies 39, no. 3 (2000): 107-123.
5. Pritchett, Bruce M. Jr. “Lehi’s Theology of the Fall in Its Preexilic/Exilic Context.” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 3, no. 2 (1994): 49-83.
6. Freedman, R. David. “Woman, a Power Equal to Man.” Biblical Archaeology Review 9 (1983): 56-58.

(The last four are all available on-line.)



Filed under Doctrine, Marginalia

4 responses to “Guest Post: What’s in a name?

  1. Ben S.

    Can you delete the phrase “When ‘mankind’ is meant, ” and capitalize the following “etymologically” ? Either I didn’t proof-read carefully or it got garbled in transmission. Dang scribal errors…

  2. Mogget


    Great post, thanks for writing it up. Two questions, and if they’re too long or complicated to address, don’t worry about it. Tis’ the season for school and work, again…

    1. The OT narrator doesn’t always provide explicit commentary on the names he hands out. In your experience, can an exgete read anything into the presence or absence of an explicit etymological point?

    2. If I recall correctly, the name Cain is associated with being a smith in several ANE languages. Given Cain’s biblical reputation, does the association of this profession with Cain constitute an insight on the status of this profession?

    Thanks again!

  3. J. Watkins

    Doesn’t the “mss” part of Moses and Ramses in Egyptian also mean to draw from/ be born of? I’d always heard it did which meant that Ramses meant drawn from or born of Ra and thus Moses was born of an unknown God and so was just called Moses. Have I been misled?

  4. Ben S.

    J. Watkins, I think you have been slightly mislead. The root means two different things in Hebrew (to draw out) and Egyptian (to bear/give birth). Presumably, Moses had an Egyptian theophoric (god-bearing) part of his name that was edited out or dropped. Ramses does indeed mean “born of Ra.”

    #1 I don’t think we can draw any conclusions from the lack of a explicit etymologizing, but I haven’t read anything specific on the question.

    #2 Scholars can’t agree on the etymology for Cain, and the biblical authors make no explicit connection to him. If there’s significance there, it has escaped us, I think.