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

jimstinehart at aol.com jimstinehart at aol.com
Sun Sep 18 19:56:16 EDT 2011

Prof. Yigal Levin:

With your permission, I will address the points you make in your post in reverse order.

1.  You wrote:  “The case or Reuben that Jim cited below, like most of the names of the sons of Jacob, is a great example of internal "midrash" - despite what the name probably "really" meant, the story uses it to convey something else.”

Yes and No.  Yes, in most respects Genesis 17: 5 and 29: 32 are like classic midrash.  But there’s one  h-u-g-e  difference.  The person doing the creative interpretation of the names “Abraham” and “Reuben” is the person who came up with those two names in the first place!  He knew that everyone would think of “Reuben” as the name of Jacob’s firstborn son as logically meaning “Behold a son!”.  Yet he has constructed the name so that he can give it an explicit alternative meaning.  Same with “Abraham”.  Yes, the author knew that most people would logically think of )BRHM as simply being a “lengthened” version of )BRM.  But that name in fact is carefully constructed so that at Genesis 17: 5, the original Hebrew author can give it an alternative explanation, viewing it not as )B-RHM, but rather as being )B-R-HM.  That’s brilliant Hebrew wordplay at its finest.  It’s better than the best midrash.  It’s the Patriarchal narratives, the finest of the finest.

2.  You wrote:  “Abram's name was changed to Abraham WAY AFTER Abram's stay in Egypt.  So there is no reason to assume that there is anything "Egyptian" about the name….”

I fail to follow the logic there.  The Hebrew author created the names Abram and Abraham and Poti-Phera and Joseph’s Egyptian name and all the other names.  The Hebrew author was well-versed in Egyptian religion and Egyptian words [as well as Hurrian and Akkadian, for that matter].  Why on earth couldn’t the Hebrew author use an Egyptian word as part of an alternative explanation of the name “Abraham”?  Why couldn’t he construct that name so that only a partial Egyptian analysis would work in the Genesis 17: 5 analysis of the name?

3.  You wrote:  “[T]he most likely probability is that the form "Abraham" is also NW Semitic, perhaps Amurru/"Amorite", in a local Canaanite dialect.”

Once again, I fail to follow your logic.  Abram and Abiram are the names that are historically attested, not Abraham.  What Genesis 17: 5 explicitly says is that the ordinary, run-of-the-mill name “Abram” would no longer be this man’s name, but rather that YHWH has given him a divinely-changed name:  “Abraham”.  Why would you think that a divinely-changed name bestowed by YHWH, or presented by the author who is coming up with these names as being divinely bestowed by YHWH, would have a run-of-the-mill meaning, that might be determined by a modern linguist from “a local Canaanite dialect”?  How does that make sense?  The brilliant Hebrew author has come up with a name that can be construed, albeit with some effort, to mean:  “Father, by grace of God, of a multitude”.  You won’t find that particular name with that particular meaning in “a local Canaanite dialect”.  It’s a Biblical name, expertly modified by a Biblical Hebrew native speaker who was the greatest Hebrew wordsmith of all time.  It looks at first glance like a “lengthened” version of Abram, but per Genesis 17: 5 it can be construed, via a type of “midrash” by the very author who came up with this name for this very purpose, as being )B-R-HM.  )B is the Hebrew word for father, R is a shortened form of the Egyptian word r‘, which can be a generic reference to Deity, and HM, which is a shortened form of HM-WN, means “multitude”, and even as HM could mean something approximating “multitude”.

4.  Prof. Levin, this midrash-type aspect of the Patriarchal narratives is part of the heart and soul of this incomparable Biblical text.  The author  w-a-n-t-s  us to ask how “Abraham” could mean “Father, by grace of God, of a multitude”.  He’s not afraid that we’ll think less of him for knowing some Egyptian, or using a shortened form of an Egyptian word in the name of the greatest Hebrew Patriarch.  If, per the later Book of Exodus, we’re that afraid of Egypt, then in my opinion we will fail to see how )B-R-HM can be construed by the first Hebrew to mean “Father, by grace of God, of a multitude”.

In my opinion, we shouldn’t throw Genesis 17: 5 and Genesis 29: 32 under the bus, because they’re an integral part of what the Patriarchal narratives are telling us.  “Abraham” is not a name passively recorded from “a local Canaanite dialect”.  Rather, in my opinion “Abraham” is a name constructed by the Hebrew author precisely in order to enable the Genesis 17: 5 analysis to be set forth.  I agree to a certain extent with your insightful comment that “despite what the name probably "really" meant, the story uses it to convey something else.”  But to that I would add this:  the name “Abraham” was chosen by the Hebrew author of the Patriarchal narratives precisely so that he could make the analysis that is set forth in Genesis 17: 5.  When a Hebrew author tells us that a name is divinely changed, shouldn’t we rightly expect that such name may have a reference to the divine in it?  Here, that’s R as a shortened form of R(.

Jim Stinehart
Evanston, Illinois

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