July 17, 2024
Search
Close this search box.
Search
Close this search box.
July 17, 2024
Search
Close this search box.

Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

The Etymology of ‘Melech’ (King)

We all know the noun מלך (king). But what is the underlying verb here? Sometimes when the noun is fundamental, the noun precedes the verb. But most scholars believe that there was an underlying verb here that preceded the noun. Our goal is to try and figure out what that verb was. That will help us understand what a מלך did in earliest times, or at least was supposed to do.

Of course, perhaps the verb was to “rule.” But that seems too abstract to have been the original meaning of the verb.

In Aramaic, aside from the “rule” meaning, the root has meanings like “decide, “advise” and “consult.” See Jastrow, page 791.

At Nehemiah 5:7, the root is used for Nehemiah consulting with himself: “vayimalech libi alay.” (In English, we might say “to think it over.”)

At Daniel 4:24, in an Aramaic section of Tanach, “malki” means “my advice.”

——

With that background, let us see what suggestions have been made for the meaning of the original verb and for the noun.

Many relate the “king” meaning to the “consult” meaning. For example:

The Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon suggests that מלך originally meant “counselor” and that the מלך was the one whose opinion was decisive.

Similarly, Ernest Klein一in his etymological work一mentions that some think that the original meaning of the word was “counselor.” (But he himself prefers a different view, see below.)

Jastrow (page 791) implies that a מלך was fundamentally a “leader in council.”

Matityahu Clark, in his etymological work, defines the verb מלך as “consult; consider differing views.”

Others reject any connection between the “king/rule” meaning and the “consult” meaning. See for example, Hayim Tawil, “An Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew.” In his discussion of the root מלך in Akkadian (a Semitic language), he has two separate entries: 1) to wield power and 2) to deliberate, give advice. He does not connect the two entries.

Scholars admit that the issue of the etymology of the word מלך is a difficult one. What follows are some other approaches.

Ernest Klein adopts the view that the “king” meaning probably derives from a Semitic root מלך which means “to possess.” We have evidence for this meaning in both Arabic and Ethiopic.

Another suggestion is that the word מלך is a contraction of something like: “mah lecha?”一what (belongs) to you?

Shmuel David Luzzatto (commentary on Genesis 36:31) suggests that the word derives from מוליך. This means “leader” and is from the root הלך. He writes that Moshe was fundamentally a “molich” and “menahel” to the Israelites. I like this suggestion because when a noun begins with “mem,” it is usually not a root letter. This suggestion by Luzzatto enables us to discount that initial “mem” and understand the root as הלך with the ה having dropped.

Most creative is Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch in his commentary at Genesis 10:10. He points out that the word מלך is very close in sound to the word מלק, a procedure that involves removal of the head. He suggests that this symbolizes that all the needs of the nation are placed on the king’s head, having been removed from the heads of the individuals. Regarding the “consult” meaning, he suggests that when you consult with someone it is as if you are making him your head.

(Regarding the passage I just discussed, I have to mention that it is not found in the widely used edition of Rav Hirsch, the one translated by Rav Hirsch’s grandson, Isaac Levy. I have learned in recent years that this edition sometimes leaves out passages. In the “Translator’s Foreword,” Levy writes: “In a few instances I have curtailed, or even omitted long etymological passages … ” (But who reads these introductions!) The passage is included in the edition of Rav Hirsch in Hebrew that is found on the alhatorah.org site, which is a translation from the original German.

This particular omission at 10:10 is noteworthy because the commentary on 14:1 in Levy’s edition has the sentence: “We have already considered the root מלך in its relation to מלק … ” But Levy had omitted that passage!)

——

We also have the name “Molech” in Tanach, the name of a pagan god. The service to this god involved the sacrificing of one’s children by passing them through fire. “Molech” is mentioned eight times in Tanach. Most scholars relate this divine name to the meanings “king” and “rule.” So there is probably not an additional spin on the root that we can learn from this name. For more details on this service and for information on extra-biblical sources, see “The JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus,” (1989), excursus 7, “The Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible,” (1995), page 582 and Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein, “God versus Gods,” (2021), page 531. But note that there is a view that the biblical “Molech” means “sacrifice” (that which is presented), from a root ילך. See the essay on “Molech” in “Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament,” volume 8.

——

What about the word נשיא? It originated as a word for “leader of a clan,” presumably because the leader was the one “lifted up” from the clan to be the leader.

There is an interesting post on this word at balashon.com on December 3, 2016. He quotes from the “JPS Commentary to Numbers” by Jacob Milgrom: “The term ‘nasi’ occurs over 100 times in the Bible in a striking distribution. It clusters in the first four books of the Torah and in Joshua and again in Ezekiel and the post-exilic books. It is totally absent from Deuteronomy, Judges, Samuel and all the other prophets.” (So it is absent from works relating to the monarchy. Also, in Ezekiel, it is used in futuristic visions relating to a king, not with the original sense of “chieftain.”)

The post at balashon.com also points out that Nahum Sarna, in a comment to Exodus 22:27 in the JPS commentary to Exodus, makes the following comment: “Hebrew ‘nasi’ is the title given to the chief of a clan or tribe in the period before the monarchy.” Finally, the post at balashon.com tries to track when נשיא came to be used to describe the President of the United States. The column reports that the term is used to describe Abraham Lincoln in the 1860s. But before that, in an article in Hamaggid in 1858 (published in East Prussia), President James Buchanan was called: “HaSar בוכענאן Rosh LeMemshelet Amerika.”


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. P.S. The word “monarch” comes from the Greek “monos,” and means “one who rules alone.”

Leave a Comment

Most Popular Articles