No the Levites do not have Egyptian names!

Its that time of year again when we have to contend with “progressive” publications regurgitating revisionist history and pseudo-scholarship from the late 1800s that claims that the Exodus never happened and the Jews were never in Egypt. One variation on this theme that keeps rearing its ugly head is the bizarre idea that only the Levites were in Egypt and that this is indicated by the supposed fact that famous Levites such as Moshe, Miriam, Aharon, Pinchas, Chophni all have Egyptian names. However if we examine the facts, none of these names are Egyptian!

Lets start with Moshe. The usual nonsense claim is that the name is Egyptian for “son” or “child”. Except it isn’t. The Egyptian for son was se and child was sheere. To an English speaker the Anglicized name Moses does superficially resemble the Egyptian for “born of” or “offspring” (mess / mesut). However this Egyptian word actually occurs in Sepher Sh’mot in the place name Ra`amses where it is rendered m’ses in Hebrew, very different to Moshe and correctly reflecting the Egyptian pronunciation with s not sh. The name Moshe is 100% Hebrew. It has the commonly found Hebrew noun pattern _o_e_ as in the words boker, chodesh, ozen, omer and many more. The root has the meaning to draw out / extract and it thus means “an extract”. The Tanakh explains that the name was given to him as he had been drawn out of the water. A form of the word occurs frequently in second millenium inscriptions made by Semitic workers at an Egyptian mining site in the Sinai. There the term was used in connection with extracting (“drawing out”) purified metal from smelted ore. Moshe is thus precisely the sort of name one expects to find in a population of Hebrews set to work as builders and artisans. I would argue that any Hebrews hearing his name and being unfamiliar with his origins would simply understand the name to mean an extract of purified metal.

Ancient Sinai inscription containing the word m-sh referring to the extraction of purified metal from smelted ore.

But surely you say, he was named by Pharaoh’s daughter and so the name must be Egyptian! Well actually the Tanakh is ambiguous as to who named him. The story states:

“And the woman {Yocheved] she took the child,
and she [Yocheved] breast-fed him and the child grew,
and she [Yocheved] brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter and he was to her as a son,
and she [?] called his name Moshe
and she [?] said: ‘Because from the water I extracted him.’

Was it Yocheved or Pharaoh’s daughter who named him? As the name is certainly Hebrew and Moshe was initially raised by Yocheved, writers and commentators such as Yechezkel Ha-Tragikan, Chizkuni and Abarbanel all independently state that it was Yocheved who named him! On the other hand there has always been the idea that there is some pun relating to the Egyptian for water involved. Yedidiah Ha-Kohen (Philo of Alexandria), claimed that it was Pharaoh’s daughter who named him saying that the Egyptian for water is mos. However he has added a Greek grammatical suffix -s to the actual Egyptian word for water mo which makes it look more like his Greek transliteration of Moshe than it should. Nevertheless Josephus later expanded on this idea stating that he was called Moüses (his Greek for Moshe) because Egyptian for water is mo and one saved out of it is uses. Commentators on Josephus have themselves noted that what he is referring to is the Egyptian word for safe which is udje where he has represented the dj sound as a sigma (s) and also added the Greek grammatical suffix -s to the end. The original Egyptian would thus be mo-udje literally “water-safe” which can be interpreted as meaning saved from water. Interestingly the Greek for Moshe used by Josephus and the Septuagint, Moüses is not a simple Greek transliteration of the Hebrew Moshe but appears to indeed be a Greek representation of such an Egyptian phrase, already used by the Egyptian historian Manetho who knew of Moshe and the Exodus independently of Jewish sources. Regarding this Ibn Ezra claims that his name in Egyptian was actually Monius (which appears to be a scribal error for Greek Moüses) and that Moshe was used as a Hebrew translation. However, the Egyptian phrase mo-udje is quite contrived and not typical Egyptian idiom, so it is more likely that the very real Hebrew noun, Moshe, was his original name (given by Yocheved) and that Mo-udje was a later awkward Egyptian reinterpretation, perhaps actually going back to Pharaoh’s daughter!

As for the name Miriam, the usual revisionist claim is that it is Egyptian for “beloved”. Except it’s not. It vaguely resembles the Egyptian masculine element mery- meaning “beloved of”, but the feminine of this is actually merit- and the typical usage in Egyptian requires it to be followed by the name of an Egyptian god or other name, you can’t just take the masculine form mery-, slap a meaningless m at the end and claim that its an Egyptian girls name! A more sensible explanation of Miriam, is that it is Hebrew having the same mi__a_ pattern as the nouns mikhtav, misgav, midbar and others, applied to the root r-y/w-m which means to lift up, but particularly in the sense of offering a gift so that the sensible meaning is “gift / present” (as noted by serious Bible scholars). Another word from this root is terumah literally “elevation” but used in the sense of “donation / contribution”. Midrash tells us that she was named Miriam because she was born when Pharaoh began to embitter the lives of the Jews. This is a pun on the word mar meaning bitter. Midrash typically employs puns not literal etymology but failure to appreciate this has led to the widespread misconception that the name literally means “bitterness”.

Revisionists also like to claim that Aharon’s name is Egyptian. Except it’s not. The argument that it is Egyptian is quite bizarre – it is noted as resembling a-r-n i.e. the word aron meaning an ark and since the Egyptian goddess Isis had a sacred bark (which is supposedly like an ark) both it and the name Aharon must be Egyptian. However aron for ark is Hebrew not Egyptian (which had several words for arks, barks and boxes, none of which are aron). The name Aharon as well as the name Haran of Avraham’s brother have often been explained by well-meaning church ministers of the past as “mountaneer” i.e. someone who climbs mountains for sport. This gets repeated over and over but was made in ignorance of the culture of the times and of the wider family of Semitic languages. Lets look first at Avraham’s brother Haran. The basis is indeed har and the pattern is _a_an used for nouns denoting the possession of a quality indicated by the root to which it is applied like the words atzlan, pachdan, rashlan. Although in Hebrew the word har has survived with only the meaning of “mountain”, at the time of Avraham, Hebrew and Aramaic were not yet two distinct languages and Aramaic preserves another meaning for the word har – a nobleman – surviving in the Mandaic dialect. The meaning is probably not unrelated to that of mountain – a mountain is physically high, a nobleman socially high. Since Haran was not literally high as a mountain, the sensible understanding of the name is that it means having the quality of a nobleman or simply put “noble”, “of high standing”. This of course fits in well with his brother Avraham’s original name Avram, a symbolic kinship name meaning “father of height/greatness”. Now what about Aharon? Well we immediately recognize the ending -on as the Hebrew agent suffix somewhat similar in meaning to English -er (although Hebrew does not make as much use of it as English does of -er and when it does, it is often in a more abstract sense). The main root is a-h-r which with a bit of thought is just the two letter root word har augmented with an initial aleph so that it can be conjugated as a typical three letter Hebrew root. This is similar to how the word adom (red) gets formed from the word dam (blood) which similarly only has two letters. Here a-h-r would be a verb formed from har, in other words, to make high or noble and the name as a whole can be understood as something similar to English “uplifter” and is thus similar to Miriam’s name which is also based on a root meaning lift although in that case in the sense of offering.

As for Pinchas, the name of Aharon’s grandson as well as one of the sons of Eli Ha-Kohen: this too is claimed to be Egyptian. It’s not. The argument actually goes back to Abarbanel who failing to understand its meaning conjectured that it might be Egyptian due to the fact that it sounds similar to the Egyptian city name Tachpanches mentioned in the Tanakh. The element -panches in this name was thought to mean “the Nubian” in Egyptian (earlier forms of the name in hieroglyphs show this to be erroneous) and it is typically argued that Pinchas thus means “the Nubian”. However, “the” in Egyptian is pa not pi and the practice of including the definite article as part of an Egyptian name only appears in the Hellenistic period due to Greek influence. Looking at the name one recognizes pi- as meaning “mouth of” suggesting that the name is of the typical X of Y formula commonly used to make Hebrew names. But mouth of what? The word nechas was not known to Abarbanel but it is found in other Semitic languages with a meaning of snake. It is cognate with Hebrew nachash and appears here probably due to inter-dialect borrowing (similar to Hebrew having both the native word eshkol and the borrowed Akkadian cognate segol). The name thus means “snake’s mouth”, as in fact noted in recent years by etymologist and lexicographer Justin Cord Hayes. (Vipers for example have a characteristic glum expression not unlike that of some babies.)

Chophni the brother of Pinchas the son of Eli is also said to have an Egyptian name. No he doesn’t. Despite having sounds that look like what one might think Egyptian sounds like due to the way Egyptian place names like Tachpanches are rendered in Hebrew, this name is clearly just the very Hebrew word chophen (fist) with the adjectival ending -i. It thus means “of a fist” and is similar in form and meaning to the name Naphtali which means “of combat/wrestling”, cases of a kinship formula being used symbolically (instead of naming a literal father, family, nation or place of origin with the -i suffix as in the names Yitzchaki, Yisraeli, Beit-Halachmi).

Revisionists also like to claim that Chur, the compatriot of Moshe and Aharon in Sepher Sh’mot has an Egyptian name – in fact they like to claim that it is the name of the Egyptian god Horus. This is of course utter nonsense as the name has a well-known Hebrew meaning of “freeborn” which is the generally understood meaning when using it as a name (besides it also being a variant of the Hebrew words chor meaning “white linen” or “borehole”). Moreover, Chur although a compatriot of Moshe and Aharon was actually from the tribe of Yehuda, not Levi!


One thought on “No the Levites do not have Egyptian names!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.