Eating the Apple

Eve did it. Adam did it. Now it's my turn to take a bite. Why not? Hey! It's delicious.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Meriam: Bitter or Beloved

Miriam, the older sister of Moses and Aaron is one of the most beloved figures in the Scriptures. She is the one who followed the basket carrying the infant Moses to Pharaoh's daughter, and 'found' a nursemaid for her brother. After the crossing of the Sea of Reeds (mistranslated as the Red Sea), Miriam led the the women in a victory song. She and Aaron criticized Moses' wife, but only she was punished by having her face turned snow-white.

Some people see her as a proto-feminist. Her name lives on with its many variants, such as Mary, Marie, Marilyn, Moire, and Marion. However few people realize that the traditional meaning of these names is 'bitter' or 'bitterness'.

I was surprised to learn that. I don't think that it makes good sense to give a child such a negative name. It inflicts on that child a psychic burden that can harm the person's self esteem. It may turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Perhaps the name Meriam was given to her because life in Egypt was harsh and bitter for her parents. I have not seen any explanation of why that name was given.

But missing from traditional commentaries is any discussion of the Egyptian Connection. Since the Israelites lived in Egypt for four hundred years, according to scripture, they would have adopted Egyptian culture, Egyptian religion, and used the Egyptian language. As slaves, the Israelites would have to use the Egyptian language to communicate with their masters. A good Egyptian would not lower himself to the level of these 'dirty Asiatics'. The Book of Exodus portrays Meriam as speaking directly to Pharaoh's daughter. This could only happen if Meriam, at a young age, was fluent in Egyptian.

Some slave masters may have also required the Israelites to adopt Egyptian names. This is what happened when African slaves were imported into the United States before the Civil War. They were forced to learn the English language, adopt English names, and convert to Christianity. The same was probably true for many of the the Israelites in ancient Egypt.

Some Israelites may have adopted Egyptian names voluntarily. Many immigrants from Eastern Europe 'anglified' their names when admitted to the United States. Many Jewish entertainers use English stage names. Some ancient Israelites may have done the same in order to fit in with the dominant Egyptian society.

Did the ancient Israelites use Egyptian names? The answer is an unqualified yes. The prime example is Moses. His name means 'child' in Egyptian. Many Egyptians bore similar names -- Ptah-mose meaning child of the god Ptah, Tu-tmose meaning child of the god Tut, and Ramesses for child of Ra. Almost universally, the syllable 'mose' is coupled with the name of an Egyptian god. The only exception I know of is Moses.

Question must be asked: Why is the name Moses not coupled with the name of an Egyptian god? I think it likely that Moses was given a name such as Sethmose. But after the Exodus this name was shortened because it became an embarassment.

What about the name Meriam? Many Egyptians had similar names:

Mery-ra -- beloved of the god Ra.

Meren-ptah -- beloved of the god Ptah.

Mery-netjeri -- beloved of the gods.

Mery-amun -- beloved of the sun god Amun.


In Egyptian, the 'Meri' of 'Meriam' means beloved. This is especially fitting for a woman who has been beloved for three thousand years. Now how about the last syllable of Meriam's name? In Joan Comay's excellent reference, "Who's Who in the Old Testament", look up Meriam's father, Amram. In Hebrew, 'Am' means 'uncle' and 'ram' means 'exalted'. Thus 'Amram' means 'uncle, i.e. God, is exalted'. This suggests that 'Meri-am' means 'beloved by uncle, i.e. God.'

I am not completely comfortable with this thesis. It would mean that the name 'Meriam' mixes Hebrew and Egyptian syllables. I would expect that the Israelites who adopted Egyptian names would use pure Egyptian names. Thus we should look again at these names.

Could Amram get away with a Hebrew name? Did he have an Egyptian name? There is a similar Egyptian name -- Amun-Ra. This name is formed by combining the names of two solar dieties, Amun and Ra. Could Amram's original name be Amunra? Then Miriam's original name would have been Mery-amun -- beloved of the god Amun.

How likely is it that the Israelites used names of Egyptian gods? Very likely. At the end of his life, Joshua tells the people to put away the gods that their ancestors worshiped in Egypt. [Joshua 24:14]. If one worships Osiris or Ptah or Amun, it is natural to use these names when naming children.

Possibly, the ancient Israelites had both an Egyptian and an Israelite name. There is a famous example of this from Persian times. A Jewish woman named Haddassah also used the name of the Persian goddess Ishtar. She is known to us as Esther. Even today, Jews in America may have both English and Jewish names. For example, a Jewish woman may use the English name Barbara and the Jewish name Bashaleah.

Is it possible that Meriam was originally named 'Meri-amun' -- beloved of Amun? I will be the first to admit that I cannot answer this question with any degree of certainty. Proof one way or another is probably impossible.

If Moses and Miriam were named for Egyptian gods. they may have changed their names after the Exodus out of a need to appear anti-Egyptian. Or the names could have been changed in the oral tradition or by early biblical writers and copyists. Biblical writers were not above changing names in the texts. For example, King Saul's fourth son was named Eshbaal, which meant 'man of Baal'. [1 Chron 8:33] Later biblical copyists of the Book of Samuel despised the god Baal and were embarassed that a king of Israel could name a son 'Eshbaal'. So they deliberately changed it to 'Ishbosheth', meaning 'man of shame'. [2 Sam 2:8 see note in the Jewish, Harper-Collins, or NIV Study Bible] If they encountered names like Sethmose and Meryamun in the Exodus story, they would have had no scruples against changing these names to Moses and Meriam. Nor did the bilblical scribes and copyists have scruples against rewriting passages in order to make them conform with their theological prejudices.

If it turns out that 'Meriam' does not mean beloved it will be a shame. All the Marys, Maries, Marilyns, and Maryannes in the world ought to be beloved.

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