Biblical Hebrew Names with an Egyptian Etymology

Biblical Hebrew Names with an Egyptian Etymology May 9, 2023

This is a counter-argument to those who believe that the Hebrews / nation of Israel never spent time in Egypt in bondage. The presence of so many Egyptian names among prominent figures in the Bible (among many other demonstrable parallels)  suggests quite the contrary. Eleven such names in the Torah (first five books of the Bible) and six outside of it in the Hebrew Bible can be identified as definitely or likely, plausibly Egyptian.

In the Torah

Aaron The origin of the name of Moses’ older brother, a priest (Exod. 4:14, 30; 7:1-2; 30:30) is uncertain, but it has no obvious Semitic derivation. German biblical scholar and historian Martin Noth (1902-1968) speculated in 1928 that it might be Egyptian. Scholars have been unable to achieve a consensus on this matter, but they generally think that it is probably Egyptian. (1)

Ahira was a leader of the tribe of Naphtali (Num. 1:15; 2:29; 7:78, 83; 10:27). The etymology of the name is unclear. It never appears again in the Hebrew Bible (whereas most biblical names are common and repetitive). Some scholars believe that it may be a hybrid of Egyptian and Hebrew:  hi + ra, meaning “brother” (Heb.) of Re, the sun-god (Egyptian). Examples of such hybrid names include Abdosir, Ahimoth (1 Chron. 6:25), Mut, Asarel (1 Chron. 4:16), and Abdhor.

Assir was a son of Korah (Exod. 6:24), and one of the infamous grumblers and complainers regarding the exodus (Num. 16). Some think that the name is connected to the Egyptian god Osiris (wsir). Others have speculated a relation to  the Egyptian isr (tamarask tree).

Hori was from the tribe of Simeon (Num. 13:5) who was a spy in Canaan. This is a name well-known in Egypt, derived from the sky-god Horus.

Hur stood with Moses during the battle with Amalek (Exod. 17:10, 12), and was a “stand by” leader while Moses and Aaron ascended Mt. Sinai (Exod. 24:24). This could very well be a transliteration of the Egyptian sky-god Horus (hr): of whom the Pharaoh was considered to be an incarnation, or “Living Horus” (‘nh hr).

Merari is a name that first occurs with the son of Levi who went to Egypt with Jacob (Gen. 46:11). Later it was a family name of those connected with tabernacle service (Num. 3:17, 20, 33, 35-36). Mrry was a common Middle Egyptian [c. 2055 B.C.–c. 1650 B.C.] name. If it were Semitic in origin, we would expect to see the name more frequently in the Bible and in the Levant, but we don’t. Therefore, an Egyptian derivation seems more plausible.

Miriam was Moses’ and Aaron’s sister and a prophetess (Exod. 15:20; Num. 26:59). Scholars agree that mary came from the Egyptian root mry, meaning “love” or “beloved.” As such, it would be one of a number of ancient Egyptian names that have survived into English.

Moses It is thought that this name comes from the Egyptian root msi, meaning “drawn out” or “born.” This is reflected in Exodus 2:10 (RSV), where Pharaoh’s daughter “named him Moses, for she said, ‘Because I drew him out of the water.'” Msi or ms-type names were very popular during the New Kingdom [c. 1550 B.C.–c. 1069 B.C.] (e.g., Amenmose, Thutmose, Ramose, Mes, Mesu). Being named by Pharaoh’s daughter would obviously suggest an Egyptian name in and of itself.

Phineas was a priest in the wilderness period and grandson of Aaron (Exod. 6:25). It’s consensus among scholars that  it derives from the Egyptian name p3 nhsy, meaning “the Nubian”: thought to be a description of a boy with a dark complexion. Nehsy (nhsy) was a Fourteenth Dynasty [c. 1725 B.C.–c. 1650 B.C.] Delta king. In the New Kingdom, , the definite article p3 was added to the name.

Puah was one of the Hebrew midwives in Egypt (Exod. 1:15). It possibly came from the Egyptian p3c3, “The Great.” Others think it derived from the Ugaritic pgy. Since she was born in Egypt, this would seem to favor the Egyptian root.

Putiel was the father-in-law of Phineas (Exod. 6:25). It’s thought that it’s a hybrid name, combining the Egyptian p3-di and the Hebrew el (God), meaning, “He whom God has given.” The appearance of p3-di-type names occurs in Egypt during the New Kingdom.

Outside the Torah

Ahimoth occurs once (1 Chron. 6:25) in a genealogical list of Levites. The Hebrew mot might be from the Egyptian goddess Mut. Ahimoth, following this line of reasoning, could be “Brother of Mut” or “Mut is Glorious.” Akh-mut is an Egyptian personal name.

Harnepher occurs only in a genealogical list (1 Chron. 7:36). The Egyptian etymology is clear: hr nfr, or “Horus is Good” or “Beautiful” and is known to be a personal name in Egypt from 2000 B.C. onward.

Hophni was the son of Eli, the priest of Shiloh (1 Sam. 1:3; 2:34; 4:4, 11, 17) and brother of Phineas. The Egyptian origin has long been recognized: hfn(r) (“tadpole”), which was a name as early as the Middle Kingdom.

Jeremoth According to a genealogy in 1 Chronicles 7:7-8, he was a grandson of Benjamin; hence, born in Egypt. Hoffmeier holds that mot might correspond to the Egyptian deity Mut, while the Hebrew yri might be a transliteration of the Egyptian verb iri, meaning “begat.” This would lead to a meaning of “begotten of Mut.”

Pashhur was a priest in Jerusalem who arrested Jeremiah the prophet (Jer. 20:1-3). The name is widely regarded as Egyptian, with one of two possible etymologies: p(s)s-hr, meaning “Share of Horus,” or  p3 sri n hr, “The Son of Horus”, which is a name documented in Egypt. Hoffmeier prefers the first option.

Sheshan was mentioned in a genealogical list (1 Chron. 2:31-35). The name has long been regarded as deriving from ssn, Egyptian for water lily, which was a flower ubiquitous by the Nile, canals and swampy areas, and especially the Delta, and a personal name in Egypt. It represented a man here, but survived into New Testament times (Luke 8:3) as Susanna, and later in English, as Susan.

FOOTNOTE

1) This article is largely derived from (or “inspired by”) pages 223-228 of Egyptologist James K. Hoffmeier’s book, Ancient Israel in Sinai: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Wilderness Tradition (Oxford University Press, 2005).

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Photo credit: Moses striking the rock (1630), by Pieter de Grebber (c.1600–1652/3) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

Summary: The presence of biblical Hebrew names with an Egyptian etymology refutes the notion that the Hebrews / nation of Israel never spent time in Egypt in bondage as slaves.

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