July 18, 2024
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NevuchadNezzar or NevuchadRezzar?

During the haftarah reading of parshat Va’era, we are all jarred when this king’s name is read with that middle “R.” What is going on here?

Let us look at the name as it appears in the various Biblical books. In II Kings, Chronicles, Esther, Daniel, Ezra and Nechemia, the name always has the middle “N.” In Ezekiel, all four references to the king have the middle “R.“ Jeremiah has both versions of the name, but there is consistency within each chapter. Chapters 27, 28 and 29 have the name with a middle “N,” while the balance of the chapters have the name with a middle “R.”

What are we to make of all of this?

It turns out that in Babylonian sources, his name always has the middle “R.” His true name was “Nabu-kudurri-uṣur.” The meaning is: “Nabu, protect my son.” (Nabu was one of their gods and was the son of Marduk.) The book of Ezekiel, with its setting in Babylonia, did a good job of recording the name.

So why does the Tanach have the name with a middle “N” in many places? No one knows for certain, but I will make a few observations.

  1. When names transfer from one language to another, the result is almost never an exact match. Aside from the fact that the precise letters differ from language to language, people are used to the word structures and consonant patterns in their own language. Moreover, they typically do not understand the meaning of the name in the other language. Discrepancies are the norm, not the exception.
  2. In this particular case, it is possible that the initial “N” led to the “R” being transformed into an “N.” There is a linguistic term for this: sound assimilation at a distance.
  3. There is a relationship between the sounds for L,M,N and R in many languages, and there are many examples of interchange of these letters. (I would elaborate more but I admit I do not fully understand this.)

An example of another nun/resh switch in Tanach is found in the case of the individual Achan. Even though the Tanach usually spells his name ayin-caf-nun, there is one place, I Chr. 2:7, where his name is spelled ayin-caf-resh. (See the commentary of the Malbim there.)

Also, at Joshua 7:24-26, the Tanach describes Achan as being taken to a place called Achor and he is criticized with a verb from the root ayin-caf-resh. The wordplays here imply that there is a connection between the name Achan and the letters ayin-caf-resh. (Of course, perhaps two out of three similar letters was sufficient for the wordplay.)

  1. Some scholars believe that the “N” version of the name Nevuchadnezzar was intended as an insult. While the original Babylonian name (with the “R” sound) meant “Nabu, protect my son,” the version with an “N” sound would mean “Nabu, protect my jackass.” See Hayim Tawil, “An Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew,” p. 461. (Perhaps the version with the “N” sound originated in Babylonia by enemies of the king, or by an Israelite who knew the language of the Babylonians.)

Something similar in Tanach may have occurred in the case of “Kushan Rishataim,” king of Aram (Judges, chap. 3). Is the Tanach recording his name accurately? Perhaps not, and the name was tweaked a bit so that it would have the meaning “doubly wicked.”

A remaining issue is why the book of Jeremiah has both versions of the name. The most likely explanation is that chapters 27 through 29 reached the compiler of the book from a different source. See Encyclopaedia Judaica 9:1355 and S.R. Driver, “An Introduction to the Literature of the Old Testament,” p. 272. Chapters 27 through 29 have other variant spellings as well. For example, in these chapters, “Yirmiyahu” is sometimes spelled without the last vav. None of the other chapters have this variant spelling.

The topic of Nevuchadnezzar leads me next to one of my favorite Hebrew roots: G-L-H. These letters have two different meanings: “uncover/reveal” and “go away/emigrate.” The issue is whether these two G-L-H meanings are related and have a common origin.

Most scholars believe that the two roots are related. But exactly what the relation is and which meaning came first is still subject to debate. A widespread view is that “uncover/reveal” was the original meaning of the root, and emigration can be understood as an “uncovering of the land.” However, the alternative view (based on evidence from Ugaritic) that “go away/emigrate” was the original meaning of the root is also a possibility. In this alternative view, G-L-H is fundamentally a verb of motion.

Let us return to the first view, that “uncover/reveal” was the original meaning of the root. Instead of connecting the root with the “uncovering of the land,” there is a different way to connect the meanings “uncover/reveal” and “go away/emigrate.” Did you ever pick up a rock and discover ants underneath? The instant they are revealed, they are on the move! By analogy, when enemies come and are G-L-H another people, they are first “uncovering them” by forcing them out of their homes and hiding places, and this causes the victims to be on the move. This approach is mentioned by S. Mandelkern in his concordance.

Finally, based on the evidence from Ugaritic that G-L-H is fundamentally a verb of motion, it is possible to make the case that the two G-L-H roots did not have a common origin. It is hard to think of a good explanation of how a verb of motion would have evolved into an “uncover/reveal” meaning. (There is still a dispute as to the precise meaning of the root in Ugaritic. It may mean “leave” or it may mean “arrive/enter.” But it does not mean “uncover/reveal.”)

I will close with one of my favorite instances of name transformations. For reasons I have elaborated on in my book “Esther Unmasked” (and in previous Jewish Link columns), the Greeks referred to Achashverosh as “Xerxes.” (Greek did not have a letter for the “shin” sound.) Xerxes’ son had a Persian name that sounded like Artachshathra, which is recorded in Tanach as Artachshasta. But how did the Greeks refer to him? They called him “Artaxerxes.” Why did this name diverge so significantly from the Persian name? The explanation is that the Greeks recorded the first part of the name correctly, “Arta,” but then oversimplified the second part of the name into “xerxes.” To them, since he was the son of Xerxes, that is how they heard and desired to record the latter part of his name!

By Mitchell First

 Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. His most recent book is “Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy.” He can be reached at [email protected]. His name is often misspelled by others as Furst. This is not that intriguing and would not warrant a column.


For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.

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