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Meaning and etymology of the Hebrew name Ben

Ben Ben

The name Ben is vastly popular in our culture but in the Bible it occurs only once, and that in a high name-density chapter of Chronicles. The sole Biblical Ben is an obscure second degree Levite who is a gatekeeper but who is drafted to make music during the transportation of the Ark (1 Chronicles 15:18).

Ben is surely also the shortest name in the Bible, and although a fine name in its own right, the word ben appears as part of about a dozen compound names, such as Benjamin, Ben-oni and Ben-ammi.

The name Ben is identical to the common Hebrew word Ben (ben), meaning son, but common as this word is, we have no idea how we got it. BDB Theological Dictionary rattles off a vast array of obscure researchers and impenetrable abbreviations but grimly observes that "all traces of this root are lost in Hebrew form."

The brilliant Bible scholar Wilhelm Gesenius, however, quietly proposes that Ben may have originated in the root bana (bana), meaning build or rebuild. This verb usually simply refers to the building of buildings, but since a man's "house" most often denotes the family that lives in the house, rather than the actual building, the connection with the word Ben is defendable with a great deal of optimism. The optimism rises even higher when we observe that in Genesis 16:2 Sarai, until then barren and desiring sons at any cost, addresses her husband Abram, shoves her aid Hagar front-center and utters the words, "Please go into my maid; perhaps I shall be built up from her," using our verb bana.

This at once directs our attention towards the curious statement made by Jesus: "...for I say to you that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham" (Matthew 3:9), which is now far less curious.

Jesus also says, "...and you will be sons of the Most High (Luke 6:35)," and Peter writes, "You also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house..." (1 Peter 2:5).

The word "house" is often used to denote someone's family. But it's also used to denote any other clearly defined group, such as a guild, a caste or order, and the word Ben denotes a member of that group. Hence the Bible speaks of sons of the prophets (1 Kings 20:35); sons of the troops (2 Chronicles 25:13); or sons of the exile (Ezra 4:1).

The word Ben is not even solely reserved for males. In Genesis 3:16 God informs Eve that she will suffer labor pains due to giving birth to benim, which certainly denotes both boys and girls. The word Ben is not even reserved for humans (calves are 'sons' of the flocks - 1 Samuel 14:32), or even living things ('sons' of the sparks - Job 5:7; kernels on the threshing floor are 'sons' of the floor - Isaiah 21:10).

So yes, the name Ben means Son, but it really means Quantum or Building Block.

It gets even more interesting when we look at the plural of the word Ben (as in Genesis 5:4, "and he had other sons and daughters"). For 'sons' we see the common masculine plural: sons (benim) and for daughters we see the common feminine plural of the same word: daughters (benut). In other words, the Hebrew word for daughters is the feminine form of the word for sons.

The singular form for daughter appears to be a contraction of the plural word benut, namely bat (bat). And that is not at all peculiar. In the Bible a group of people (which consists of many benim) is feminine, and not only in some vague grammatical sense. The word for people (nation/ tribe) is umma ('umma) and the word for mother-city (as used in 2 Samuel 8:1) is umma ('amma). Both are closely related to the word em ('em), meaning mother. This word em, meaning mother, is even directly applied to cities and their townsfolk (Isaiah 50:1, Ezekiel 16:44, Hosea 2:2).

On the same note, Israel as a nation is frequently compared to a bride, and more specifically, to the bride of God (Ezekiel 16). Similarly, believers who are gathered into the Body of Christ are also depicted as bride (Rev 21:2, John 3:29).

We should also note that the Hebrew word for house (temple, family, group), bayit (bayit), which contracts to beth is compound names such as Bethlehem or Bethel, bears a striking resemblance to our word bat, bat, meaning daughter.

And finally: the plural of the word ben (ben) is benim (benim). But in compounds or constructs (like: sons-of-Israel), the final mem drops off: benay_Israel (benay-Israel).



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