[b-hebrew] The Names "Abram" and "Abraham"

Will Parsons wbparsons at alum.mit.edu
Sat Sep 17 17:43:56 EDT 2011

On Sat, 17 Sep 2011 15:17:32 -0400 (EDT), jimstinehart at aol.com wrote:
> William Parsons:
> 1.  You wrote:
>> “Although the form "Ra" is commonly used in English for the Egyptian sun
>> god, this transcription is based on a earlier misunderstanding of the
>> Egyptian writing system, in which the name is written in a way
>> corresponding to   /R( in Hebrew.  The second letter corresponds to Hebrew
>> `ayin and is definitely consonantal in Egyptian, but was earlier thought to
>> represent a long "a".  The spelling "Re" is better in that it uses the
>> Coptic vocalization, but even this is far from how the name was pronounced
>> in much earlier times, such as that of Abraham.  We happen to have a
>> cuneiform transcription of a name containing r` from the Amarna period that
>> indicates the vocalization of the name at that time was ri`a, so I can't
>> see how this fits particularly well with the [ra] in "Abraham".”
> I agree with everything you say except your conclusion.  We know that Ra or
> Re or r‘ or ri‘a is spelled R( in full form in the Patriarchal narratives,
> because the name of Joseph’s Egyptian priestly father-in-law ends in P-R(,
> representing pa-Ra, and meaning “T-h-e Ra”.  Genesis 41: 45.  But what would
> be the shortened form of R(?  Certainly it would be expected to be R, which
> we see in both the names “Abraham” and “Sarah”: )B-R-HM and %-R-H.

You assume there *was* a shortened form without the final consonant, but I
don't see evidence of that.

> 2.  You wrote:
>> “On another note, I don't see that "Ra" was ever used as a generic term for
>> God in Egypt.  As far as I can see, it always referred to a specific deity
>> (although there could be identification with other, specific, deities, such
>> as Ammon).”
> Wouldn’t you agree that the Egyptian pharaonic title sa-ra was the
> best-known phrase in the ancient world?

No, I don't know that at all.  And the title was probably not pronounced
sa-ra.  I notice that you commonly use a transcription for Hebrew that
represents only the consonants.  That's fine when you don't want to pre-judge
what the vowels are, but if you do that, it is even *more* important to do the
same for Egyptian.  At least in the case of Hebrew, we have an oral tradition
ultimately resulting the Masoretic vowel signs.  While the Masoretic pointing
may sometimes be wrong, it's more that we have for Egyptian, where there is no
such equivalent.  So the Pharaonic title is better represented s3-r‘, which I
find only vaguely similar to Hebrew   /%R.

> Everyone knew that phrase, and many cultures had somewhat similar phrases,
> as I indicated in my prior post.  Most pharaohs didn’t care much about a
> sun-god, but they all proudly bore the title sa-ra.  For example, Amen is
> totally unlike Ra the sun-god, yet the Amen-loving pharaohs of the early
> 18th Dynasty all proudly bore the title sa-ra [not sa-Amen].  Here’s a
> standard explanation of pharaonic titles: “royal titulary.  Classic sequence
> of names and titles held by each of the pharaohs consisting of five names
> (the so-called ‘five-fold titulary’), which was not fully established until
> the Middle Kingdom.  It consisted of the Horus name, the Golden Horus name,
> the Two Ladies name (nebty), the birth name (nomen; sa-Ra) and the throne
> name (prenomen; nesu-bit).”  Beatrix Midant-Reynes, “The Prehistory of Egypt
> from the First Egyptians to the First Pharaohs” (2000), at p. 273.  The
> point is that since e-v-e-r-y pharaoh had a sa-Ra title, but few pharaohs
> honored the sun-god Ra in particular [with Amen often being by far the most
> popular Egyptian god in the 18th Dynasty], in my view the grand pharaonic
> title sa-Ra effectively honored Deity, not just the sun-god.

First of all, in polytheistic societies, the gods important from the point of
view of the state were frequently different from those most popular with the
populace.  For example, in Roman society the state worship of Jupiter remained
important thoughout pagan times, but the gods one worshipped at home were more
likely lesser, more homely gods.  In the case of Egypt, the importance of Re
diminished over time, but that doesn't mean that the Pharaoh would abandon his
title s3-r‘ in favour of another one.  Eventually the god Re was identified
with the god Ammon (or Amen if you prefer).  But saying "Oh Re, that's just a
different name for Ammon" is quite different from Re becoming a generic word
for deity.  And I see no evidence that s3-r‘ ever became a generic term.

> It seems to me that an early Hebrew author could (i) use R as a shortened
> form of R(, and (ii) have the intended meaning of Deity, not focusing on a
> particular Egyptian sun-god.  That’s my theory of the case.

William Parsons

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