[b-hebrew] The Meaning of Joseph's Egyptian Name

JimStinehart at aol.com JimStinehart at aol.com
Wed Feb 27 10:04:46 EST 2008


The Meaning of Joseph’s Egyptian Name
 
One of the most important language issues in the Hebrew Bible is the question 
of what Egyptian words are meant by the Hebrew letters in Joseph’s Egyptian 
name at Genesis 41: 45.
 
Joseph’s Egyptian name in Hebrew is:
 
zayin-peh-nun-tav  peh-ayin-nun-het
 
Though it is often said that it is uncertain exactly what this Egyptian name 
means, in fact there is general agreement as to many of the components of this 
name.
 
1.  Non-Controversial Elements
 
(a)  Most everyone agrees that the nun-tav/NTh at the end of the first part 
of Joseph’s Egyptian name means the Egyptian general name for god:  nTr.  True, 
the final R sound has been dropped, but that seems to be merely a 
simplification, which often happens when the Hebrew author of the Patriarchal narratives 
attempts to reproduce a non-Semitic word.  One reason there is general 
agreement on this is that in context, Pharaoh is clearly claiming that Joseph is 
divinely blessed.  So some reference to the divine needs to be in this grand 
Egyptian name, and the only candidate for that in Joseph’s Egyptian name is 
nun-tav, meaning nTr/“god” in Egyptian.
 
(b)  Likewise, most everyone agrees as to what Egyptian word is intended by 
the end of the second part of Joseph’s Egyptian name.  The ayin-nun-het must be 
ANKh, the famous Egyptian word “ankh”, meaning “life” or “eternal life”.  
As an Egyptian word, these Hebrew letters seem the best way to try to 
reproduce “ankh” literally (though these Hebrew letters in this combination would be 
pronounced differently if this were a west Semitic word).  Ayin is the A, nun 
is the N, and het is the Kh:  ANKh.
 
2.  Semi-Controversial Element
 
The zayin at the beginning of Joseph’s Egyptian name seems a bit strange.  In 
most transliteration systems, there is no Z in Egyptian hieroglyphs.  But 
some transliteration systems use a Z, and say it is the same as S.  Clearly this 
zayin/Z must be some kind of an S sound here. 
 
The zayin here seems to be “sa”, literally meaning “son” in Egyptian.  In 
the best-known phrase in the ancient near east, “Sa-Ra”, a title held proudly 
by every pharaoh, the “sa” had come to mean “king” or “the appointed one”.  
The “Ra” in turn had come to mean “the divine”, or “god”, rather than 
focusing on the sun-god Ra.  Every pharaoh had “Sa-Ra” as his proudest title, 
even though few pharaohs worshipped Ra as their main god.
 
So zayin…nun-tav is looking like a variation on the world-famous “Sa-Ra”, 
namely, “the one appointed…by god”.
 
Let me interject here the subtlety by which the Hebrew author of the 
Patriarchal narratives indirectly, but surely, undercuts Pharaoh’s interpretation of 
the divine Will.  Jacob/“Israel” later determines that it is not Joseph who is 
“the one appointed…by god”, at least not to be the leader of the next 
generation of the Hebrews.  No, it is not heroic Joseph, but rather Judah, whom 
Jacob/“Israel” properly selects to be the leader of the next generation of the 
Hebrew monotheists.  The name “Judah” means “praise YHWH”.  Judah, not Pharaoh’
s choice Joseph, is portrayed in the text as being the son of Jacob who is 
truly appointed by the true God.
 
3.  Super-Controversial Element
 
That leaves us with a single peh in each part of Joseph’s Egyptian name.  A 
straightforward explanation of this would be to view each peh in this Egyptian 
name as meaning “pa” or “pA”, the Egyptian word for “the”.  That would make 
perfect sense here.  The name would then mean “the one appointed by the god 
(to provide) the life (that is, food for the Egyptian people)”.  “The one 
appointed [zayin/sa] by the [peh/pA] god [nun-tav]nTr (to provide) the [peh/pA] 
life [ayin-nun-het/ANKh]”.  That fits the storyline perfectly.  Every Hebrew 
letter matches up perfectly to an appropriate Egyptian word.
 
However, I myself have never seen any analyst mention the possibility that 
the Hebrew letter peh here could mean “pa”/“the” in Egyptian.  Rather, 
analysts sometimes venture that perhaps the Hebrew word peh, meaning “speak”, is 
there in the middle of Joseph’s Egyptian name.  For example, the JPS 1985 
translation gives the following explanation of Joseph's Egyptian name 
"Zaphenath-paneah":  "Egyptian for 'God speaks;  he lives,' or 'creator of life'."  Perhaps 
realizing how improbable it is, though, that the Hebrew word “speak” would be 
stuck in the middle of Joseph’s Egyptian name, most accounts of this name 
simply say that we do not understand what Joseph’s Egyptian name means.
 
If the Hebrew letter peh in Joseph’s Egyptian name means “the”, being 
Egyptian “pa”, then everything makes sense.  But then “pa-nTr” is right there in 
the middle of Joseph’s Egyptian name.  That would be super-controversial, to be 
sure.
 
You see, if “pa-nTr” is there in the middle of Joseph’s Egyptian name, then 
the Patriarchal narratives would be far older, and far more historical, and 
far more accurate in their use of Egyptian nomenclature, than most secular 
analysts today are willing to grant.
 
Language issues are extraordinarily important in the Patriarchal narratives.  
Either “pa-nTr” is right there in the middle of Joseph’s Egyptian name, or 
we do not understand Joseph’s Egyptian name.  If “pa-nTr” is there in Joseph’
s Egyptian name, then the Patriarchal narratives are much older than the rest 
of the Hebrew Bible.  
 
Remember, the Hebrew author of the Patriarchal narratives is  n-o-t  
affirming that Pharaoh is correct in anointing Joseph as being “the one appointed by 
The One God”.  On the contrary, Jacob/“Israel” will later make the correct, 
and very different, choice of Judah as the one who is truly appointed by YHWH, 
whom the Hebrew author views as being the one and only true God, a very 
different deity than any monotheistic deity that Pharaoh may be worshiping.  In my 
view, the text here is using very accurate, very old, historically-documented 
Egyptian language for Joseph’s Egyptian name. 
 
Here is Pharaoh’s rhetorical question, right before Pharaoh bestows this 
grand Egyptian name upon Joseph:  “And Pharaoh said unto his servants:  'Can we 
find such a one as this [Joseph], a man in whom the spirit of God is?'” Genesis 
41: 38  The Hebrew answer to that rhetorical question is, in effect:  “Yes, 
the spirit of God resides in Judah even more strongly than it does in Joseph.”  
That is to say, the fact that Pharaoh is portrayed as giving Joseph an 
historically accurate monotheistic Egyptian name should not be misinterpreted to mean 
that the Hebrew author of the Patriarchal narratives trusts Pharaoh’s 
judgment in that regard, or that the Hebrew author thinks that Pharaoh is worshiping 
an authentic god.  Neither is the case.
 
My point is that if the text is accurate as to ancient Egyptian nomenclature, 
we should simply recognize that.  We should not have an unfounded fear that 
the Hebrew author of the Patriarchal narratives would thereby be deferring to 
any of Pharaoh’s religious judgments, which manifestly is  n-o-t  the case, as 
a close reading of the text clearly reveals. 
 
The linguistic key to this very controversial issue is simply whether the 
Hebrew letter peh, in Joseph’s Egyptian name given to him by an Egyptian pharaoh, 
could mean “pa”/“the” in Egyptian.  If so, then this text is very old, and 
is very accurate as to ancient Egyptian nomenclature that was only used (until 
such Egyptian nomenclature was taken up again over a thousand years later, in 
the 3rd century BCE) for a very short period of time, in truly ancient times.
 
Jim Stinehart
Evanston, Illinois




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