[b-hebrew] What Does "Beth Shan" Mean?

JimStinehart at aol.com JimStinehart at aol.com
Mon Nov 24 11:00:06 EST 2008


What Does “Beth Shan” Mean?
 
Scholars tell us that “Beth Shan” means “house of lolling” (or, more 
respectfully but less accurately, “house of tranquility”).  “Shan”, which is $)N 
[the middle letter being an aleph], is viewed as being the Hebrew verb $)N, 
which means “to loll”. 
 
There are many problems with the traditional etymology of the meaning of “
Beth Shan” (for one of the oldest cities in all of Canaan):
 
(1)  Such etymology makes no sense at all, substantively.
 
(2)  Such etymology cannot be squared with the earliest attestation of the 
name “Beth Shan”, which is at item #110 on the mid-15th century BCE Thutmosis 
III list of places in Canaan.
 
(3)  The Hebrew common word $)N, with an aleph in the middle, probably did 
not exist until the mid-1st millennium BCE, about a thousand years after the 
city name “Beth Shan” is first attested.
 
Everyone agrees that item #110 on the Thutmosis III list from the mid-15th 
century BCE is Beth Shan.  But there is no final N there (even though N is the 
most common ending on the Thutmosis III list).  Nor is it at all certain that 
there’s an aleph there either.  Rather, after Beth and the initial Sh/shin/$, 
what we see at item #110 is first a single reed, then an R:  $JR.  A single 
reed is often viewed by scholars as being an aleph, but an eagle was an aleph;  a 
single reed was not an aleph, even though a single reed sometimes, but by no 
means always, comes over into Hebrew as an aleph.  The R there has 
traditionally been viewed as being a lamed/L, but the more usual case is that an Egyptian 
R was a resh/R in the Bronze Age, which later often softened in common words 
to a lamed/L in the Iron Age.  
 
If the single reed represents a heth/X [rather than an aleph, with both heth 
and aleph being guttural sounds], and if the R is a resh/R [rather than a 
lamed/L], then what we are seeing at item #110 (for Beth “Shan”) is 
shin-heth-resh/$XR.  $JR = $XR.  $XR means “dawn, early morning”.  This ancient west 
Semitic word appears in the truly ancient Patriarchal narratives at Genesis 19: 15; 
 32: 24, 26.  Note that from a Canaanite or Hebrew viewpoint, that is a very 
sensible name for Beth Shan, since Beth Shan is located on the far eastern 
edge of Canaan, on the west bank of the Jordan River, and hence is where dawn 
first comes to Canaan.  Excluding cities in the Transjordan, which are not part 
of Canaan proper, Beth Shan is located farther east than any other sizable city 
in Canaan.  So it makes eminent sense for the original meaning of the city 
name that eventually became “Beth Shan” to be “house of dawn”.  The ancient 
word for “dawn” is $XR, and that is precisely what we see at item #110 for Beth 
Shan, if the single reed represents a heth/X [not an aleph/)] and the R 
represents a resh/R [not a lamed/L].  $JR = $XR. 
 
What happened then to the R in $JR on the Thutmosis III list?  As noted by 
Aloysius Fitzgerald in “The Interchange of L, N, and R in Biblical Hebrew”, in 
Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 97, No. 4 (Dec, 1978), an R can sometimes 
interchange with an N, even within Biblical Hebrew.  This was particularly 
likely here, since N (not R) is the most common final letter in a west Semitic 
geographical place name (as we know from the 119 geographical place names on 
the Thutmosis III list).  It appears that an Akkadian scribe in the mid-14th 
century BCE made that error/interchange at Amarna Letter EA 289: 20, where he 
wrote sa-a-ni for Beth “Shan”, with an N thus replacing the former R at the end 
of this city name.  _http://www.tau.ac.il/humanities/semitic/_ 
(http://www.tau.ac.il/humanities/semitic/)  EA263-end.html  Note that the middle letter, as 
before, is still totally ambiguous.  Both the Egyptian scribe on the Thutmosis 
III list, and the Akkadian scribe who wrote Amarna Letters for Abdi-Heba of 
Jerusalem, knew how to write an aleph (or a heth), and chose not to do so for 
the middle letter of $JR/“Shar”/“Shan”.  (An aleph is seen, for example, at 
Amarna Letters EA 288: 11 and 290: 8.)
 
With the identity of the middle letter remaining unclear, and with the final 
letter now being a nun/N (instead of the original R), the meaning of Beth “Shan
” was in limbo for centuries.  $XN (unlike the original $JR/$XR) did not make 
sense.  As discussed below, there probably was no Hebrew common word $)N 
(with an aleph in the middle) in existence at that time.  The sound seemed as 
close to $(N (with an ayin in the middle) as anything else.  $(N, with an ayin, 
meaning “to rest”, is an old, perfectly respectable word, which appears in the 
Patriarchal narratives at Genesis 18: 4 and is often used throughout the 
Bible.  But the middle letter in $JR/Shan almost certainly was not an ayin.  
Presumably based on the sound alone, and with no apparent underlying meaning at all, 
we see BYT $)N, with an aleph, at Joshua 17: 11, 16 and Judges 1: 27.  
(Interestingly enough, in the construct state, such as at I Samuel 31: 10, 12, the 
mysterious middle letter drops out completely, leaving just $N/shin-nun.)  The 
Book of Joshua in particular records dozens of Late Bronze Age city names 
accurately (regardless of when Joshua was composed or the accuracy of its account 
of a Conquest), apparently on the basis of some authentic ancient source as to 
Late Bronze Age city names.
 
It was probably only later, when the Jezreel Valley and all of northern 
Israel had fallen to the hated Assyrians and Babylonians, that the Jews of Judah 
came up with the new Hebrew common word $)N, with an aleph in the middle, at 
Jeremiah 30: 10;  46: 27;  48: 11.  (Jeremiah relates to 6th century BCE events 
in Judah, after the Jezreel Valley had been lost for centuries to various 
conquerors.  The only other two uses of $)N as a common word in the Bible are at 
Proverbs 1: 33 and Job 3: 18, whose dates of authorship are disputed.)  In 
Jeremiah, we now see $)N, meaning “to loll”.  Retroactively (by a thousand years 
or so!), Beth Shan in the foreign-held Jezreel Valley was now conceptualized, 
for the first time, as having a name with the derogatory meaning “house of 
lolling”.  This, despite the fact that in ancient Canaan, there had probably been 
more action, and less “lolling”, at Beth Shan (Egypt’s only garrison in 
inland Canaan for centuries, which zealously guarded the finest fields of grain in 
all of Canaan) than at virtually any other city in the long history of ancient 
Canaan.
 
The point is that $JR as $XR, meaning “dawn”, makes perfect sense on the 
Thutmosis III list, whereas $)N (with an aleph),  meaning “to loll”, is, by 
stark contrast, as suspicious (and late) a word as can be imagined in the entire 
Bible.
 
The meaning of “Beth Shan” in its original form on the Thutmosis III list 
makes sense if the single reed there represents a heth/X, not an aleph/).  $JR = 
$XR.  In that case, “Beth Shan”, being the easternmost city in Canaan 
proper, has a truly ancient name that very appropriately means “house of dawn”, or 
in English lingo:  “House of the Rising Sun”.
 
Once we realize that a single reed on the Thutmosis III list may represent a 
heth (not necessarily an aleph, whose symbol was the eagle), many exciting 
things begin to become clear.  In particular, JBR at item #99 on the Thutmosis 
III list can then be seen  as being the foundation of XBRWN/“Hebron”.  JBR = 
XBR.  JBR + WN = XBR + WN = XBRWN/“Hebron”.  Everything turns on recognizing 
that a single reed on the Thutmosis III list was not an aleph (an eagle was an 
aleph), and that accordingly a single reed does not always come over into 
Hebrew as an aleph/), but rather sometimes comes over into Hebrew as a heth/X.  
(And an R in a proper name on the Thutmosis III list often is and remains a 
resh/R in proper names, even if in corresponding common words the resh/R often 
later softens to lamed/L.)
 
If we can understand the etymology of “Beth Shan”, then we can understand 
the etymology of the Patriarchs’ “Hebron”, and vice versa.  $JR = $XR = “dawn”
.  JBR = XBR.  J/XBR + WN = XBRWN/“Hebron”.  Both etymologies make perfect, 
logical sense.  “Beth Shan” definitely does  n-o-t  mean “house of lolling”!  
 
Jim Stinehart
Evanston, Illinois

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