Lost In Translation: The Names

We continue our journey through this passionate Bible story: the story of Joseph and his brothers. We are in the Torah Portion Miketz, Genesis 41-44. These chapters are my absolute favorites in the book of Genesis, so I will definitely need lehitapek -– “to restrain myself” – in the same way, as we will see Joseph is doing in this portion.

The Names

At the very beginning of our Torah Portion, we witness an amazing scene: Joseph (who was just brought from his prison) is interpreting Pharaoh’s dream. Very impressed, Pharaoh decides to make him the second man in Egypt, stating that only Pharaoh’s throne will separate his authority from that of Pharaoh. As a sign of Joseph’s new identity, “Pharaoh… gave Joseph the name Zaphenath-Paneah.”

There is no agreement among scholars as to what this name may actually mean, and to this day there has not been an interpretation accepted by all. However, if, along with the Jewish tradition, we would derive the name Zaphenath-Paneah from Hebrew (and not Egyptian) roots, the name would make much more sense. The root Tzaphan means, “To hide, treasure or store up”; Paneach means, “to decipher, to figure out, solve, decode, interpret”. Thus, Zaphenath-Paneach, the new name of Joseph, might be translated as: “He who explains hidden things.” Taking into account the fact that Joseph, indeed, interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams, it could have really been the name that Pharaoh gave him.

Then we read that two sons were born to Joseph in Egypt. First of all, there is a clear connection here between two sons of Joseph and two sons of Judah that died in chapter 38: Judah‘s two sons die, while “Two sons were born to Joseph” – the one who sold loses his two children, while he who was sold had two sons born to him.

Let us try to understand the original Hebrew meaning of their names. Joseph called the name of the firstborn Manasseh. The name Menashe (Manasseh) is derived from the Hebrew root נָשָׁה: “to cause to forget”. Joseph wanted to forget all the suffering and affliction that he went through. That is why he called his son Menashe.

The name of the second he called Ephraim.  The name Ephraim is derived from the root פָּרָה – “to make fruitful”. Evidently, by this time Joseph was able to move on, to become fruitful and productive in the foreign land.

What was so special about Joseph’s sons? Why on Friday evenings, during Shabbat celebration, do Jewish fathers bless their sons by the names of Joseph’s sons? Why are the sons of Joseph chosen for this blessing rather than the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?

We do not know much about these boys, and yet there had to be something about them that turned them into a paradigm for blessings. First, Ephraim and Menashe are the first brothers in the Torah whose relationship is not marked by jealousy and rivalry, and this fact alone presents a powerful testimony to the peace in Joseph’s heart and Joseph’s home. Moreover, these two children grew up in exile, completely separated from their extended family, and yet they obviously remained faithful to Israel and to the God of Israel. Therefore, before his death, Jacob selects Joseph’s two sons for the blessings across the ages. There is a powerful message in this blessing. When we say to our sons: “May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe,” we wish them to be always spiritually connected to their people and their God, regardless of where they live and grow up.

The Long-Awaited Meeting   

In Genesis 42, we witness a dramatic scene: Joseph’s brothers finally arrive to Egypt and stand before him. How long and how passionately has Joseph been waiting for this encounter! Have you ever contemplated the fact that, even though many years had passed and so many things had happened to Joseph, the reconciliation of the brothers is still the main point of this narrative? Joseph is Viceroy of Egypt, with a brilliant career and a wonderful family of his own, yet the meeting with his brothers is still extremely important to him! Doesn’t this indicate that it is extremely important to God, first of all? We saw something similar in Jacob’s story: Jacob had spent twenty years in exile and so many things had happened and changed in his life, and yet his meeting and reconciliation with his twin brother Esau were so important in God’s eyes that God came to Jacob right before this meeting! Yes, the most important encounter in Jacob’s life, the one that defined his name and destiny and the name and destiny of the whole people – Penuel – happened right before his meeting with Esau (and undoubtedly changed this meeting from how it could have gone, to the amazing story we actually have in the Bible). Something about the reconciliation of brothers is vitally important in God’s eyes: we can clearly see this from Jacob’s life, and even more clearly, we can see it from Joseph’s story!

So, the brothers came. They bowed before Joseph, the Viceroy of Egypt, exactly as it was foretold by his dreams—and he recognized them. However, they did not realize that this Egyptian Viceroy was the brother they had sold some twenty-two years earlier: And Joseph’s brothers came and bowed down before him with their faces to the earth. .Joseph saw his brothers and recognized them, but he acted as a stranger to them and spoke roughly to them.

This story is absolutely gripping, even in translation, however, when we read it in Hebrew we discover something almost incredible: The verb for ‘he recognized them’ (וַיַּכִּרֵם), and the verb for ‘he acted as a stranger to them’ (וַיִּתְנַכֵּר אֲלֵיהֶם), are derived from the same root! Can you imagine? These two actions, not only very different but in a sense, completely opposite – “to recognize” and “to disguise” – are expressed by verbs coming from the very same root. It is impossible to translate, and almost impossible to even explain.

This is an exceptionally beautiful example of how special the Hebrew language is, and how profound God’s Word is. Hebrew is primarily a verbal language, and the verbs here are derived from three-consonant roots that comprise the “essence” of a word’s meaning. Most of the verbs in Hebrew are formed by changing vowels and adding to a root different prefixes and suffixes, thus forming different stems. Depending on their stem (binyan), verbs derived from the same root can have very different meanings, as we see here in our text. Nevertheless, being derived from the very same root, they all have something in common—they all relate to the very same “essence”.

Back to our story: yes, Joseph made himself a stranger, and yes, he was unrecognizable, and yet, out of his disguise, this amazing root of recognition touches the hearts of the brothers with something painfully familiar. No wonder, from the very first meeting with this Egyptian Viceroy, they knew it was all about their long-ago sold brother, even though there seemed to be no connection at all between the stories.  The Spirit of God is touching their hearts, and their hearts are burning, even though their eyes could not recognize their own brother – and this completely incredible dynamic is expressed by two Hebrew verbs, opposite in the meaning, but derived from the same root: hikir – hitnaker.


In Genesis 43, eleven brothers stand before Joseph. Joseph finally sees his brother Benjamin, from whom he has been separated for many years, and is absolutely overwhelmed with love: Now his heart yearned for his brother, and he sought somewhere to weep.[1] In Hebrew, the description of Joseph’s feelings is acutely intense:  כי-נכמרו רחמיו אל-אחיו this is one of the strongest expressions in the Bible to describe the feelings of love and compassion. When King Solomon sought to determine the real mother of a contested child and pretended to have the baby divided in two, she yearned with compassion for her son[2] (נכמרו רחמיה אל-בניה). That same depth of love describes the emotion with which Joseph is overcome.

Joseph runs to weep in his inner room.  However, what does he do upon leaving this inner room? The complete opposite of what we expect and what he might personally desire to do:  he washed his face so that there would be no trace of those tears,  and … restrained himself…- hitapek(ויתאפק).[3] The Hebrew word להתאפק (lehitapek) means to hold back or control oneself.

We need to see Joseph restraining himself in chapter 43 (ויתאפק), in order to fully appreciate chapter 45, our next Torah portion, where Joseph can no longer restrain himself… (לא יכול להתאפק). Next time, we are going to see this straight line – invisible to participants, yet visible to the reader – directly connecting the Joseph who weeps in secret in the inner room and holds back his tears, with the Joseph openly sobbing with deep, uncontrollable emotion.  Joseph who ויתאפק – with Joseph who could not restrain himself: לא יכול להתאפק.

[1] Gen. 43:30

[2] 1 Kings 3:26; the NASB translates this phrase as ‘She was deeply stirred over her son.’

[3] Gen. 43:31

Excerpts from my books are included in this post (and many other posts on this blog),  so if you like my articles,  you might enjoy also my books, you can get them here. The insights you read on these pages, are typical of what we share with our students during DHB (Discovering the Hebrew Bible) or WTP (Weekly Torah Portion) classes. If these articles whet your appetite for discovering the hidden treasures of the Hebrew Bible, or studying in depth Parashat Shavua, along with New Testament insightsI would be happy to provide more information (and also a teacher’s discount for new students) regarding eTeacher courses. (juliab@eteachergroup.com) .

About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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  1. Nick

    Thank you Julia for this thought provoking teaching – looking forward to next week!