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Biblical Archaeology Review 46:3, Summer 2020

Epistles: Wordplay in Genesis

By Philip D. Stern

Biblical Archaeology Review

It is no secret to students of the Bible that the ancient Hebrews loved plays on words. And nowhere in the Hebrew Bible are there more plays on words in relation to names than in the Book of Genesis.

Let’s start with the name Abraham. Abraham starts life as Abram, a name with parallels in ancient sources. Abram’s name means “high father” or more probably “exalted Ab,” where Ab (meaning “father”) is a deity’s name or an epithet of a deity such as El, the Canaanite father of the gods.

Yet there is no name like Abraham. Why precisely did God change Abram’s name to Abraham, a name that has no discernible meaning in Hebrew? Abraham means father (ab) of r-h-m, but there is no word with the root r-h-m attested anywhere in the Bible or in the known Ugaritic or Phoenician language texts. Hebrew (and other Semitic languages) consists of mostly three-letter roots, such as z-k-r, which means “to remember.” As a noun, the word zeker means “memory.”

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