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.”
However, the root r-h-m does exist in Classical Arabic, a dialect of Arabic attested about a thousand years later than Hebrew. In Arabic, r-h-m usually pertains to a particular kind of rain. ‘Arhamu, one form of this root, means “more (and most) fruitful or plentiful, or abundant in herbage or in the goods or comforts of life.1 It is tempting to conclude that there is an otherwise unattested Arabic root r-h-m meaning “to be plentiful,” but this is admittedly speculative. Because we can’t be sure that such a root existed in Arabic, it is even a bigger leap to understand the r-h-m of Abraham’s name as meaning “to be plentiful” in Hebrew, even though it would fit well with a presumed meaning, “father of a multitude (of nations).”
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And yet, the Hebrew text in Genesis 17:4-5 seems to suggest a wordplay on the theme of a multitude. In the text, God says, “I hereby [make] a covenant with you, and you shall be father to a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you father to a multitude of peoples” (author’s translation).
On one level the pun seems to be simple; in expanding Abram to Abraham, God is punning on the first syllable, “ab,” and the final syllable, “ham,” which is the root of a Hebrew phrase for “father of a multitude” (ab hamōn), rendering Abraham the “father of a multitude.” Yet the brilliance of the wordplay goes beyond this, for the name Abraham sounds very much like the Hebrew phrase “ab rab ‘am.” Because ‘am is the Hebrew word for “people,” and rab is another Hebrew word for “multitude,” the name Abraham could also be another way of saying, “father of a multitude of peoples.” This double play on words explains why the Bible chose the phrase, “Father of a multitude of peoples,” in relation to Abraham’s name change.
Let’s now consider the names Adam and Eve. In the case of Adam, there is an obvious pun between Adam and the Hebrew word ’adamah, meaning “earth.” Adam as the name of the first man is fitting, too, because in Hebrew ’adam means “man.” Thus, we have in the chapter that introduces the first man such verses as, “There was no man [’adam] to work the earth [’adamah]” (Genesis 2:5). Here the pun is implied for Adam proper. It culminates in Genesis 3:19, in which God says to Adam, “By the sweat of your brow, you shall eat your bread, until you return to the earth [’adamah], from which you were taken.”
The name Eve is actually pronounced ḥawwa in Hebrew. Genesis 3:20 puns that the name means “mother of all the living,” although the direct derivation of this definition from the Hebrew is difficult to find. However, Eve’s name may have a possible ancient Sumerian antecedent. The name of the Sumerian goddess of healing, Ninti, can mean “lady of life” or “lady of the rib” because the Sumerian word ti means both “life” and “rib.” In one Sumerian myth, it was Ninti’s role to heal the accursed deity Enki’s rib, which returned him to life.
It is possible that this Sumerian myth inspired a bilingual play on words in Genesis 3:20. Eve, which the Hebrew text calls life-giving “mother of all the living,” was formed from Adam’s rib (Genesis 2:21), and not from some other, perhaps seemingly more appropriate, body part.a So while the Hebrew does not convey the pun, the Hebrew scribes, who were very learned and likely knew the Sumerian myth, understood the pun and may have retained a modified version of it, although it is doubtful if the average Israelite would have gotten the pun.
Another name in the Book of Genesis given special treatment is Noah. A parallel for the figure of Noah is Utnapishtim in the Gilgamesh Epic from Mesopotamia. Like Noah, Utnapishtim builds an elaborate ark, which saves life. Unlike Noah, Utnapishtim is rewarded with eternal life, and his name means, “soul of Utu [the sun god],” possibly an allusion to Utnapishtim’s immortality.
We will return to the meaning of Noah’s name after we explain the quadruple play on Noah’s name in Genesis 5:29 and Genesis 6:6-8, saving the first for last. Genesis 6:6 says, “YHWH felt remorse that he had made human beings on the earth and was saddened in his heart.” The words “felt remorse” translate the Hebrew verb n-ḥ-m, which contains the consonants of Noah’s name n-ḥ. This is an anticipation of Noah and a wordplay on Noah’s name as it appears a couple of verses later, just as the puns on “man” and “earth” anticipated the introduction of Adam.
One might not be sure that this is a purposeful wordplay, except for the fact that the same root n-ḥ-m reappears immediately in the following verse of Genesis 6:7, “And YHWH remarked, “I shall wipe out the human race that I created from the face of the earth, from humans to beasts to creeping things, to the birds of the sky, for I greatly regret [Hebrew root n-ḥ-m] that I have made them.” The last clause is a repetition of verse 6, except that it uses a different conjugation of the root n-ḥ-m. The wordplay sets the stage for the next verse, “And Noah found favor in the eyes of YHWH.”
The words “Noah” and “favor” are an anagram: In consonants, Noah is written n-ḥ, while the word “favor” is written ḥ-n.2 That this is purposeful wordplay cannot be doubted. Yet the wordplay does not end here, since the word “greatly regret” (root n-ḥ-m) also contains the letters of Noah’s name (n-ḥ) in another wordplay. The author seems to have added the clause, “for I greatly regret that I made them”—something that is already clear from the fact that he is wiping out all living things—simply to play on the name Noah.
As a kind of rule of biblical wordplay, at least two out of the three root letters must be the same.
What then does Noah’s name mean? Again, the biblical writer provides an explanation. In Genesis 5:29, the text clearly puns on the verb n-ḥ-m, setting the stage for the plays on words I have already pointed out. Here, Lamech, Noah’s father, names him Noah, saying, “He [literally, “this one”] will provide relief [root n-ḥ-m] from our work and from our hardships on the soil that YHWH has cursed.”
Incidentally, Noah’s father, Lamech, is singled out as the only person in the Bible graced to live 777 years. Seven is a special or holy number in the Bible: On the seventh day of Creation, God rested (using the root for the Sabbath and, thereby, punning on the noun “Sabbath”) and sanctified the work he had done (Genesis 2:1-3). The 777 years comes to show that he was a good seed and worthy to father Noah, who was righteous and blameless in his time. Like his great-grandfather Enoch, who walked with God after the birth of his son Methusaleh, Noah walked with God (Genesis 5:22, Genesis 5:24; Genesis 6:9).
It has been suggested that Noah’s name is related to the Hebrew word nuaḥ (n-w-ḥ), meaning “to rest,” but I want to posit another meaning for the root n-w-ḥ—one based on comparative Semitics, specifically drawing on Akkadian, the ancient language of Assyria and Babylonia. Because of the large overlap between Hebrew and Akkadian vocabulary and grammar, I believe the root of the Akkadian cognate nâḫu meaning (among other things) “to relent, to be pacified, to abate (of storms, waves, fire, fighting)” provides a better understanding of Noah’s name.3
If this is the case, then the question becomes exactly who is doing the relenting and the abating? It is possible that the name Noah (n-w-ḥ) does not simply apply to the character of the ark builder, but is also a pun on the action of God himself, who ultimately relents from destroying the human race in the flood story of Genesis and, just as apropos, allows the flood waters to abate. Given the plays I’ve already shown above, these two meanings of Noah, “relent” and “abate,” appear to be in line with the wordplay theme pervasive throughout the flood story!
It is important to see that the Hebrews adopted the ancient flood story that originated in Mesopotamia. It is a story far more ancient than the Hebrew Bible and perhaps even older than the people Israel, who would retell it over time and put their own stamp on it, starting with Noah being righteous and blameless in his time. Like Enoch, Noah walked with God, and unlike the corrupt and sinful people of his time, Noah found favor in God’s sight. Therefore, God relented by letting the flood waters abate.
Either way, we see that the name Noah had relevance to the flood story—it was chosen for a reason! In the Mesopotamian Atrahasis Epic, which recounts another flood story, people were simply too numerous and noisy for the gods to tolerate. The unethical behavior of the people of Noah’s time is different—and is the unique “spin” of the Hebrew Bible.
I would like to conclude with an example of another type of wordplay altogether: alliteration. Alliteration is the use of the same letters or sounds in adjacent or closely connected words that make them stand out in the ears of the hearer when read aloud. However, more than biblical wordplay, this is a device in the composition of the Bible that completely escapes the attention of those who read the Bible in translation.
[Abraham] circumcised his son Isaac at the age of eight days as God had commanded him … And [Sarah] said, “Who would recount to Abraham that Sarah would nurse sons, that I gave birth to a son in his time of old age?” Then the boy-child grew and was weaned, and Abraham made a big feast on the occasion of Isaac’s weaning.
My English translation shows no sign of alliteration, yet it appears in the Hebrew original. The Hebrew verb I translate as “recount” is a rare word that one would not expect Sarah to use, but it was likely chosen for purposes of alliteration centered on the “m” and “l” sounds.4As the passage stands, the Hebrew reads mi millel l’ (“who would recount to”), which is alliterative in itself. When you add wayyamol (“he circumcised”) from verse 4, plus wayiggamal (“and he was weaned”) and higgamel (“weaning”) from verse 8, all with the “m-l” combination found in mi millel l’, you get an excellent example of the Hebrew writer shaping his text for purposes of alliteration.
These examples show that the biblical writers engaged in wordplay at every opportunity in shaping the biblical narrative. I believe that in Genesis (among other places in the Hebrew Bible, such as the literary prophets) plays on words are a way of showing the divine at work in the world, involving what they believed to be the very words of God.
 Edward William Lane, An Arabic-English Lexicon, (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1995–1956).
 Nahum Sarna, Genesis: The Traditional Hebrew Text with the new JPS Translation, JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), p. 47.
 The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, vol. 11.1 (1980).
 Gary A. Rendsburg, “Alliteration in the Book of Genesis,” in Elizabeth R. Hayes Karolien Vermeulen, eds., Doubling and Duplicating in the Book of Genesis: Literary and Stylistic Approaches to the Text (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2016), p. 85.
This post originally appeared in Bible History Daily in July, 2020
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