Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Significance of Given Names in Tanach, Part 1

When did the Jewish practice of naming children after someone (In the Ashkenazic tradition children are named only after someone who is already deceased but in the Sephardic tradition children are often named after living relatives) begin?

The practice seemed to have been instituted in Judea sometime between the years 500- 300 BCE . Before that period, children were named after a significant event or occurrence in the life of the parent(e.g. Moses naming his son Gershom, ger- stranger, sham- there, to signify his sojourn in a foreign land).

In Bereisheit Rabba 37:7:

Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel said, the first ones were endowed with divine inspiration therefore they named their children after an event, however we who do not possess that quality we name after our ancestors.

However, we do see certain unique given names repeated in Tanach. Some examples include Gad, Eleazar, Saul etc.[1]

But the name that captured my greatest interest is Menasheh/Manasseh. In Genesis 41, Joseph’s wife Osnat, daughter of Potifera, gives birth to two sons. Joseph is said to have named the firstborn Menashe, (etymologically derived from the Hebrew word “nasha” which means to forget and it was commemorating the fact that Joseph “forgot his troubles”), and the younger one he named Ephraim (etymologically derived from the Hebrew word “poriah” which means to be fruitful).

I would venture to say that it is entirely possible- if not probable- that Menashe and Ephraim were in fact Egyptian names and not Hebrew. Joseph himself was not known to the Egyptians as Joseph but rather by his Egyptian name tzofnat paneach[2]. Firstly, why would Joseph give his sons Hebrew names? It seems unlikely he would burden his children with something that would be nothing less than a handicap for them; Egyptians were not known to be too friendly to foreigners and jealously guarded their own culture. Not to mention the fact that Joseph was the viceroy of Egypt! Why would the viceroy of Egypt give his children Hebrew names? (Imagine the taunts they would have received from their Egyptian playmates). Wouldn’t that serve to delegitimize his claim to the throne? After all, Joseph is a Hebrew foreigner. Would he really want to remind the Egyptians of his “lowly” (at least according to the Egyptians—“ki cherpa hi lanu..”) origins?

Let us take a look at a similar example of a name whose etymological root is given as Hebrew but is more likely Egyptian, namely Moses. In Exodus 10, he is said to have been named Moses by the daughter of Phaaroh, “ki min hamyaim meshitihu” literally because he was pulled from the water. The obvious problem with this explanation is how could Pharaoh's daughter have known the Hebrew language? and even if she did, why would she give him a Hebrew name? An additional problem lies in the fact that we don’t see the word masha (as in pulling), anywhere else in tanach (other than one obscure passage in Psalms 17: yamsheini mimayim rabim).

Therefore a much more logical explanation would be the one given by Ibn Ezra (and many other commentators) on the verse in Exodus, namely that Moshe was in fact an Egyptian name [3].

Egyptian meaning of the name Manasseh

Thomas Kelly Cheyne, John Sutherland Black in Encyclopædia Biblica cite the possibility that Manasseh is in fact a combination of two names of Egytpian deities deities: Men and Sa. Or perhaps Sa is used in this context to mean “son of” i.e. son of Men. Another possibility is that Manasseh is derived from Menes, a common Egyptian name (Menes is considered to be the first king of a unified Egypt).

Mannaseh King of Judah

Now let us for a minute turn to a different Manasseh, not Joseph’s son but rather the son of Hezekiah King of Judah (687 – 642 BCE). Although he reigned for a quite a long time, relatively little information is revealed about him in Tanach. What is clearly apparent from the Biblical account however is that he was wicked and an idol worshipper.

What struck me most about him is the fact that his is a pretty unique name in Tanach (see comment 1) . Why did Menashe’s righteous father Hezekiah give his son this name? Was it to commemorate forgetting something (as in Joseph’s case) or was it something more significant?

In order to attempt to answer this question let us for a moment take a look at the Talmud in Berkahot 10a. The Talmud relates that Isaiah the Prophet went to tell Hezekiah that he was going to die (the narrative of Hezekiah's sickness and miraculous recovery is found in 2 Kings 20:1, 2 Chronicles 32:24, and Isaiah 38:1) because he (Hezekiah) deliberately did not have children. This was on account of the fact that Hezekiah had seen prophetically that his child would be an idolator and therefore he preferred not to have children.

Isaiah told him he was required to fulfil the biblical commandment of "be fruitful and multiply" and not outguess God about what the future would bring. Isaiah then suggested perhaps if his own daughter married Hezekiah in the merit of righteous parents their children would also be righteous. Hezekiah agreed and Isaiah's daughter bore him Manasseh who was an idolator and later murdered his grandfather Isaiah.

Forgive me if this sounds overly casuistic but a thought struck me when I read that. Perhaps, as Hezekiah shuddered to bring a child into a world awash in idol worship, he thought back to a time when another Hebrew monarch, at different time and place was faced with a similar dilemma. Joseph in Egypt, living in a land full of idol worship, surely had second thoughts about having children. Yet he did have children and not only did they not grow up to become idol worshippers but they have since become the prototype of “good children”. To this day fathers bless their sons with the blessing that the Patriarch Jacob gave to the sons of Joseph יְשִׂמְךָ אֱלֹהִים כְּאֶפְרַיִם וְכִמְנַשֶּׁה, "May God make you like Efraim and Menashe" (Genesis 48). Perhaps Hezekiah seized upon the name as a sort of “segula” (lucky charm) that his son may turn out righteous after all . And in fact, we see (in 2 Chr. 33:11-13) that Manasseh did repent during the end of his life. There is even an Apocryphal book “the Prayer of Manasseh” that commemorates this event (see here).

I also came across an interesting verse in Judges 18 that seems to link Moses and Manasseh. There we find mention of a priest, closely associated with an idol worshipping cult called pesel micha. His name is given as Yehonatan ben Gershom ben Menashe. However the "נ" in Menashe is superscripted, which does not occur elsewhere in the Tanach. The correct reading is probably Moshe and Rashi and other sages suspected as much, arguing that the name was changed to Manasseh to avoid embarrasing his grandfather Moses. So here again we have illustrious ancestors and wayward idol-worshipping children ( I would also add that Moshe, like Menashe [the first] is raised in the king's palace in an atmosphere permeated with idol worship. Yet he too, like Menashe, is steadfast in his monotheism).

The Strange Cases of Menashe in the Bible

While researching the name Manasseh in the Bible, I noticed the strange themes and undercurrents surrounding the name. Francesca Stavrakopoulou in King Manasseh and Child Sacrifice points out the infrequency of the name Manasseh in the Bible and also mentions the possibility of an "anti-Manasseh polemic in the Hebrew Bible"; whenever Manasseh is mentioned there is the theme of idol worship or "gentile ways" present. The first would be the idol-worshipping priest Yehonatan ben Gershom ben Menashe (with Menashe substituting for Moshe), the second would be King Menashe and the third Menashe is mentioned in Ezra as having been chastised by Ezra for marrying foreign wives. The switching of order between the firstborn Manasseh and the younger Ephraim by Jacob is also explained by Stavrakopolou as part of “an anti-Manasseh polemic pervading the Hebrew Bible”. I would also add King Jehu of Israel who is said to be of the tribe of Menashe פסיקתא רבתי פרק ג (probably because of the peculiar name of his supposed father Nimshi, which sounds similar to Menashe). Yehu is the only Israelite King who instituted major reforms in the religion of the Northern Kingdom and made an initial effort to stamp out idol-worship (מלכים א יט:טז-יז, מלכים ב ט-י, דברי הימים ב כב ) before he himself succumbed to it.

There is also another Menashe mentioned in Antiquities by Josephus who left the Jerusalem Temple and joined the Samaritans on Mount Gerizim.

Other Opinions as to Why Hezekiah Named his Son Menashe

Some Bible scholars opine that Hezekiah's naming of his only son, Manasseh, was meant as a good will gesture toward the northern tribal kingdom (who were ruled chiefly by kings of Manasseh and Ephraim) "What could better show the desire to let all past offences and discord be forgotten than give the heir to his throne the name in which one of their tribes exulted" Hezekiah wanted to "to take advantage of the overthrow of the rival kingdom by Shalmaneser and the anarchy in which the provinces had been left, to gather round him the remnant of the population... it was at least partially succesful, divers from Asher Manasseh and Zebulun humbled themselves and came to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover" [5].


[1]. However, I have noticed one case in Tanach where someone was named after a dead ancestor, albeit with a slight variation: one of Cain's descendants was apparently named after him, namely תּוּבַל קַיִן (בראשית ד:כב, thus indicating that the general practice of naming sons after dead ancestors and relatives may be much older than I previously thought.

While the names of the three patriarchs are not repeated anwhere in Tanach, some of the names of the 12 sons of Jacob are:

There is a Bohan son of Reuben in Joshua 15, a Shimon in Ezra 10, There are four Judahs in Nehemiah and one in Ezra, There is a Isaachar son of Oved Edom in Chronicles I, 26, A prophet named Gad mentioned in Samuel and in Chronicles, a Yigal son of Joseph mentioned in Numbers 13, a Asaf son of Joseph mentioned in Chronicles I, 25 and two more Josephs, one in Ezra and one in Nehemiah respectively It seems that the Jewish practice of naming sons after famous Biblical figures only became widespread during the second temple period. Thus we see many personages in the books of Ezra and Nehemia with very familiar Biblical names.

[2]. See an interesting discussion here on the possible meaning(s) of that name.

[3]. Heres a rundown of the different opinions as to the origin of the name Moses, the majority of whom posit an Egyptian origin of some sort: Strongs's concordance gives the name Moses as from the Egyptian mes ses.

In Egyptian the name "Moses" means mes (birth) ses (protect) so named by Pharaoh's daughter after she had pulled the infant from the banks of the river. (Shemot Rabbah 1:26, Chasidah p.345) Further, Moses led the Israelites across the Red Sea, which also shows deliverance out of water. Josephus also cites this etymology.

Some medieval Jewish scholars had suggested that Moses' actual name was the Egyptian translation of "to draw out", and that it was translated into Hebrew, either by the Bible, or by Moses himself later in his lifetime.

Some modern scholars had suggested that the daughter of the pharaoh might have derived his name from the Egyptian name element mose, which means "son" or "formed of" or "has provided"; for example, "Thutmose" means "son of Thoth", and Rameses means "Ra has provided (a son)".

According to Islamic tradition, his name, Mūsā, is derived from two Egyptian words: Mū which means water and shā meaning tree (or reeds), in reference to the fact that the basket in which the infant Moses floated came to rest by trees close to Pharaoh's residence. A growing number of critical scholars believe that Moses actually had a full Egyptian name, consisting of the root word -mose and the name of a god (similar to Rameses), but the name of the god was later dropped, either when he assimilated into Hebrew culture or by later scribes who were dismayed that their greatest prophet had such an Egyptian name

[4]. The Prophet Isaiah’s martyrdom at the hands of Menasseh is referred to in both ancient Jewish and Christian texts. In addition to the account in Berkahot, it is also mentioned in a Christian apocryphal work called “Lives of the Prophets” and in “the Martyrdom of Isaiah” which has been preserved in part in the Christian work “the Ascension of Isaiah”.

[5]. Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature By John McClintock, James Strong

See also How the Bible Became a Book by William M. Schniedewind

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At Tuesday, August 11, 2009 10:16:00 AM, Blogger Steve said...

It's interesting how the linguistic approach taken by medieval mefurashim like ibn Ezra, Ramban and Radak overlaps with what would probably closer to Conservative exegesis today. Also, we shouldn't overlook that Osnat (from the Egyptian goddess Nut) was the daughter of one of the high priests, making it even more unlikely that Ephraim and Manasheh were Hebrew names. And what's even more intriguing is that we are told in some midrashim that Hashem redeemed Bnai Yisrael from slavery because they retained their Hebrew names!

At Thursday, August 13, 2009 7:54:00 PM, Blogger Joels W. said...

It's also possible that like Joseph, Menashe and Ephraim had bona fide Egyptian names which the Bible doesn't mention. They may have taken on their Hebrew names later. The midrash with the names is definitely problematic (as is the bit about not changing their language and clothes), although Moshe, Menashe and Ephraim are not exactly good examples of a broad cross section of Jewish slaves in Egypt (since none of them were in fact slaves and all of them were raised in non-Jewish environment).

At Thursday, December 29, 2011 1:25:00 PM, Anonymous Shlomo said...

Some comments:

1) I don't think you can infer that a name is rare because it is not mentioned in the Bible. Most people who lived in the time of the Bible did not get mentioned in it. Even when an etymology is given for a name, it is possible that the name already existed and was chosen according to the parent's sentiments at the time (an approach that would explain many of the apparently forced etymologies we see).

2) Similarly, while the concept of "drawing out of the water" is rarely discussed in the Bible, there is no indication that knowledge of the verb m.sh.h was rare, so there is no linguistic reason to doubt the etymology in Shemot. The argument that Pharaoh's daughter would not have given a Hebrew name is stronger - but given Moshe's upbringing in a Hebrew household BEFORE receiving the name, it is plausible that she agreed to a name which originated with the Hebrew stepparents. (And the possibility of a concurrent Egyptian pun cannot be ruled out.)

3) Breishit and Shemot consistently portray the Patriarchs and their descendants in Egypt as being loyal to the Jewish God, so it is somewhat forced to say that they named their kids based on Egyptian mythology. The objections in this case might be weaker when it comes to kids born to Yosef while he was separated/estranged from his family.

At Wednesday, December 04, 2013 9:13:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I ran across this very interesting article a few days ago while pondering the origin of the name Menashe in parashas Miketz, which we just read last week. Just a passing thought. Why is it necessary to assume that Hezekiah named his son Menashe--a name associated with forgetting the house of one's father? Perhaps Menashe is a "kinui" -a nickname- assigned to the king by the authors of Kings and Chronicles to reflect his idolatrous practices. Because those practices were diametrically opposed to those of his righteous father, the man who engaged in them could fairly have been described as forgetting his father's house?



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