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Names in Genesis 1-11

The names are often overlooked by modern readers, but not by the ancient Israelites, who understood Hebrew.

See Richard S. Hess, Studies in the Personal Names of Genesis 1-11 (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2009)

By Richard S. Hess
Earl S. Kalland Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages
Denver Seminary
February 2010

The text of Genesis 1-11 is of great interest to many people. Any reading of these chapters will demonstrate how much the personal names dominate. The genealogies of chapters 4, 5, 10, and 11 are filled with personal names. Of course, the main characters, from Adam and Eve to Abram and Sarai, are also named. The names are often overlooked by modern readers, but not by the ancient Israelites who understood Hebrew. Many of these names were important on several levels. Let us consider, for example, the name, Adam. It is not until Genesis 4:25 that it occurs for the first time as a personal name. Before that, the noun, ’adam, carries the sense of "man, mankind, humanity." Thus, in Genesis 1:26-28, it refers to both male and female, and indeed identifies the entire species of humanity. In chapter 2, it appears with a definite article and conveys the sense of "the man," distinct from "the woman." This sense continues into chapter 3. It is only at the end of chapter 4 that "the man" becomes the personal name, Adam. By this time, there is a clear connection between the "man," ’adam, and the “earth," ’adamah, from which the man is formed. The two words sound alike. So there is a wordplay on the man's connection with the earth where he returns after his death (Genesis 2:7; 3:17, 19).

There is another area in which personal names play an important role. This has to do with the origins of the personal names in the larger context of the ancient Near East. Thanks to the discoveries of archaeology, hundreds of thousands of written documents have been uncovered that were composed before the time of Christ. The most frequently written elements on these documents are personal names. We have tens of thousands of personal names attested from ancient Palestine, Syria, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and throughout the ancient Near East. They appear in every century from the 24th century B.C., until the time of Christ, and attest to changing patterns and languages in which the names find use. Some names contain elements that recur frequently and appear at many times and places. An example of this is the root meaning "to live" that lies behind the name of Eve. Other names, such as Adam, have roots that are attested frequently at certain times and places, but then disappear. Thus the element, Adam, occurs in personal names, divine names, and month names that appear in the West Semitic texts of the third and second millennia B.C. West Semitic is the linguistic and cultural background that lay behind Hebrew and the Israelites. Hebrew is a West Semitic language. The root of Adam occurs only in the third and second millennia B.C., but it disappears in the first millennium. It is found in documents from archives at the ancient cities of Ebla, Mari, and Emar, all located in modern Syria. Its disappearance after the twelfth century B.C. indicates that this name was preserved in the earliest linguistic levels and not in later ones.

As already mentioned, the root behind the name of Eve occurs at all times. Unlike Adam, it is not useful for dating the origins of the stories in which the names appear. However, the form of the name is a noun used elsewhere in Hebrew for occupations. Further, the form suggests a stronger meaning than "to live." It implies the meaning, "to give life." The name Eve thus refers to the role of the woman as life giver and reflects the divine decision of Genesis 3:16, which Adam translated into a name in 3:20. This is a good example of a name that is given to identify the character or role of a person rather than as a means of exercising domination. Adam "seconded" what God had already defined in the story. He did not "invent" something new. The same is true of the connection of Adam with the ground (’adamah) that he works. His name is also connected with his role.

With this background it is possible to see the meaning, purpose, literary wordplay, and ancient Near Eastern origins of many of the names in Genesis 1-11. If we look at the names in the narrative of Cain and Abel, we have two personal names that reveal different bits of information. Cain is a name that connects with the story of Genesis 4:1, where Eve gives birth and says I have "acquired" (or less likely "created") a man with the help of the LORD. The verb is qaniti, and that term sounds like the name Cain, qayin. The origins of the name itself have nothing to do with the verb, but the similar sound creates a wordplay that explains the background of the name. The name Cain probably comes from the same root as his descendant, Tubal Cain, and as the Kenites, a nomadic people who became attached to Israel at an early period (Judges 4:11, 17; 5:24; see also Kenan below). The term is not known except in South Arabian languages, where it carries the meaning of a metal smith. Because Cain’s line in Genesis 4:17-24 is a list of founders and inventors of many important aspects of human culture, this name fits that line and describes the development of the craft of metallurgy. In South Arabia there are no texts of any sort that predate the first millennium B.C. Therefore, it is not possible to know how early this name was used, if it was used before the first millennium. However, both the wordplay and the etymology of the name fit the context of Genesis 4.

Abel, on the other hand, is made up of a root, hebel, which is not used in other personal names at any time or place. The root is the same as that found in Ecclesiastes 1:2 et passim, where it was translated "vanity" in the old King James Version. The meaning or sense is of something ephemeral that leaves no lasting or permanent mark on the world. It is present and then disappears like a wisp of smoke. This unique name is in fact a description of the role of Abel in the story. His life is cut short by Cain’s crime, and he leaves no descendants or lasting memorial by which his memory can be kept alive.

When we look at the descendants of Cain, we find numerous examples of names whose Hebrew meanings and other associations reflect cultural achievements as much as the notes attached to this genealogy. This is especially true in the case of the female names. Adah, Zillah and Naamah may mean ornament, cymbal and singing, respectively. Some have seen Enoch as derivative from the Sumerian UNUG, a name for one of the earliest known cities, Uruk. More generally accepted is the name Irad and the similar sounding early city Eridu. Other names suggest connections with deities or their epithets. Methushael means "devotee of (the underworld deity?) Sheol." Mehujael suggests a translation, "the god (El?) enlivens." The names of Jabal, Jubal and Tubal-Cain all reflect the ybl root, meaning "to bring, carry." These may be shortened names where a divine name is omitted; in this case, in the form of a name of thanksgiving for the birth of the child, such as "(the god X) has brought forth (a child)." This element occurs only in West Semitic names of the second millennium B.C. and earlier. The other names discussed here have elements that occur early and late. Some names, such as Lamech, are of unknown origin, and not attested outside the Bible. However, Jabal, Jubal and Tubal-Cain exemplify types of names that are more common the further back in time we go.

When we come to the names in the line of Seth (Genesis 5), we find an emphasis on topics that shift from culture in general to spirituality in particular. Some of these names contain elements or roots common among West Semitic personal names as part of confessions to various deities. In this case, the names may be shortened by the omission of the divine name. Thus, Seth may reflect a longer name, "(the god X) has placed/replaced." Mahalalel may mean "praising god (El?)." Methuselah reflects a meaning such as "devotee of the Missle," where missle may be an epithet for a deity. Jared may be a shortened name, where the root yrd appears without the original divine name attached. The meaning would then be "(the god X) has come down (to bring help)." The syntax of these names and the verbal elements and roots occur at various times throughout the West Semitic world. Other names such as Enosh, Kenan and Lamech are not attested as personal names outside of Genesis 4-5. However, the wordplay on Enosh, which is a synonym of the common noun ’adam, implies that this son of Seth is a new Adam and that this line of hope is "set" in place of Seth. Kenan, Enosh’s son, is a form of the name Cain, and recalls his line. Thus the line of Seth moves forward beyond the death of Abel and the degeneration of the line of Cain (as portrayed in Genesis 4).

Noah’s name preserves a root in Hebrew that means "rest, settle." Lamech’s prophecy (Genesis 5:29) plays on the more common Hebrew verbal root, nacham, "to comfort." In a different form (niphal instead of piel), this root appears in Genesis 6:6-7 to describe how God "repents" of the decision to create human life and sends the flood. The three sons of Noah are Shem, Ham and Japheth. Shem is "name" in Hebrew and is a common element in many Semitic names. Ham, who is connected with Egypt in Genesis 10:6, carries the meaning of "servant" in Egyptian; a common word in personal names often compounded in the form, "servant of the god X." The etymology of Japheth is uncertain, but there is a clear wordplay in Noah’s blessing, "May God enlarge Japheth" (Genesis 9:27). The verbal form of "may enlarge" is yapht, which sounds like Japheth in Hebrew.

The "Table of Nations" in Genesis 10 introduces many place names but few new personal names. The remaining set of personal names in Genesis 1-11 occurs in the line of Seth in Genesis 11:10-32. Here it is sufficient to note that many of the names in this collection are most closely related to the names of places in northern Syria and southern Turkey, in the major river valleys that pour into the Euphrates. Chief among these is the Balikh Valley. In and around the site of Haran, also the name of Abram’s brother, there appear place names associated with Serug, Nahor and Terah. This is the largest single block of related names in this genealogy and points to the origin of Abram’s family in this region of the ancient Near East.

In conclusion, we would argue that many of the personal names, especially those associated with the narratives of Genesis 1-3 and 6-9, provide wordplay with the Hebrew of the narratives and thus point to key emphases in those texts that might otherwise be overlooked. The three groups of names in the genealogies of Cain, Seth and Shem each emphasize an aspect of the text that fits well with their contexts. Thus, Cain is the progenitor of those concerned with various aspects of human culture. Seth’s genealogy moves us through various emphases on spirituality. Shem, especially in the latter part of his genealogy, localizes the family of Abram in northern Syria in the river plains that feed into the Euphrates. Some of the names are otherwise unknown in the attestations of names outside of Genesis (e.g., Abel, Lamech and Arpachshad). Other names (or the roots and elements contained in those names) are well attested throughout the West Semitic world in many times and places (e.g., Eve, Shem, Jabal, Mahalalel and Jared). However, a significant collection of personal names with attestations elsewhere in West Semitic inscriptions occurs only in, or much more frequently in, the earliest inscriptions containing such names, in the second and late third millennia B.C. These inscriptions include the names (or particular elements in the names) Adam, Methushael, Methuselah, Jabal, Jubal and Tubal-Cain.

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