By Tyson Thorne

April 11, 2018

Zaphenath Paneah Large

During our series on the book of Acts we learned that most of the apostles had more than one name, specifically a Hebrew and a Roman name. For example, Saul didn't become Paul, Saul was his Hebrew name and Paul his Roman. This is a practice that had its roots in ancient times. Abram became Abraham, Jacob became Israel — names given by God. One of the most mysterious, however, is Joseph who was given the name Zaphenath-Paneah by Egypt's Pharaoh. One would think this was an Egyptian name, though no Egyptologists today can decipher it's meaning.

The story of Joseph's life is told in Genesis chapters 37 through 50, but his new name is given in chapter 41.45:

Pharaoh gave Joseph the name Zaphenath-Paneah. He also gave him Asenath daughter of Potiphera, priest of On, to be his wife. So Joseph took charge of all the land of Egypt.

According to the scholars that worked on the translation of the NET Bible:

"The meaning of Joseph’s Egyptian name, Zaphenath-Paneah, is uncertain. Many recent commentators have followed the proposal of G. Steindorff that it means “the god has said, ‘he will live’” (“Der Name Josephs Saphenat-Pa‘neach,” ZÄS 31 [1889]: 41-42); others have suggested “the god speaks and lives” (see BDB 861 s.v. צָפְנָת פַּעְנֵחַ); “the man he knows” (J. Vergote, Joseph en Égypte, 145); or “Joseph [who is called] áIp-àankh” (K. A. Kitchen, NBD3 1262)."

The problem is that this meaning bears only a small meaning with the context. Joseph interpretted the dreams of Pharaoh, albeit through God's revelation. An interesting possibility comes from Julia Blum, of the Israel Institute for Biblical Studies. She asked herself the question, "What if the name isn't Egyptian?" What if the name derives from Hebrew rather than Egyptian? She writes:

The name Zaphenath-Paneah that was given to Joseph, can be derived from the Hebrew roots: צפן פִּעְנֵחַ (tsaphan and paneach). Tsaphan means “to hide, treasure or store up”. Paneach means “to decipher; solve; decode, interpret”. Thus, Zaphenath-Pa’neach, Joseph’s Egyptian name, might be translated as, “He who explains hidden things”.

This fits in much better with the context of historical events, but one has to wonder if Pharaoh would provide a Hebrew based name? Pharaoh was in a generous mood — just look at the ways he honored Joseph in the Bible's account — and in an effort to continue that he might just have given Joseph an honorific based on Joseph's native tongue.

Almost all ancient names have meanings that are lost on English readers. The problem isn't with translation, as the names are not translated at all. Rather names of people and places are transliterated, letter for letter from the source language to the target language. Even so, most English translations will add a footnote of the names meaning, if one is available. If you find some Old Testament stories too familiar, try reading them again and pay attention to the meanings of names. Try to figure out how that meaning relates to the character's destiny. It will help you see God's handiwork in all the aspects of a person's life.

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