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Meaning and etymology of the Hebrew name Ben-oni

Ben-oni Ben-oni

Ben-oni is the name that Rachel gives her second and final son, just before she dies. The boy is renamed Benjamin by his father Jacob (Genesis 35:18).

The name Ben-oni consists of two parts:

1) The Hebrew word ben (ben), meaning son (also in the sense of member of a group). See for an exhaustive treatment of this word the name Ben.

2) Either the word awen (awen), meaning trouble, or the word awen (on), vigor, wealth. The final i of the name Ben-oni means "my."

Traditionally - and subscribed to by Jones' Dictionary of Old Testament Proper Names, BDB Theological Dictionary and NOBS Study Bible Name List to list a few - the name Ben-oni is said to mean Son Of My Sorrows, taking the meaning of awen (awen) meaning trouble in the sense of one step away from becoming wicket, or emptiness in the sense of one step away from becoming idolatrous (HAW Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament).

But this interpretation seems at odds with the events surrounding the naming of Ben-oni. His mother Rachel died when giving birth, so she surely must have felt troubled, but if she wanted her son to be a reminder of these labor-troubles, she would have picked a different word than awen.

Remember that Rachel used to be deeply grieved for not having children (Genesis 30:1). It is highly unlikely that she would name her youngest son in such a way that the boy would be continuously reminded that he was the cause of his mother's death.

In addition to this, Jacob dearly loved Rachel. He spend 14 years of his life working to earn her (Genesis 29:20-30). It is highly unlikely that he would expunge Rachel's final act and her dying wish, and name the boy something completely different, yet still with the segment ben.

In stead, Rachel may have sought consolation that her son made it alive, just as the midwife says, "Do not fear, for now you have another son," and named him with the word awen (on): The article on this word in HAW Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament reads, "[on] designates reproductive power as evidenced in the firstborn son."

We can not be certain how the ancient text of the Torah was pronounced. Yet from history we have received two ways to pronounce the word awen: awen, in which the letter waw is considered a consonant, and on in which the waw is considered a vowel. Waw-vowel is a completely different letter than waw-consonant, and thus awen (awen) is a completely different word than awen (on).

The traditional pronunciation of the name Ben-oni strongly suggests that it was derived from on and not from awen,and that awen means vigor and not sorrow.

All things considered, it seems most likely that when Rachel dies, Jacob doesn't simply rename the boy. Instead he respectfully amplifies the name that his wife had given him. This Son Is My Progeny (Ben-oni) becomes This Son Is Strength (Benjamin).



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