🔼The name On in the Bible
There are one man and one city named On in the Bible:
- The city named On (or Aven) is mentioned in the story of Joseph, the son of Jacob and Rachel. After his brothers sold him into slavery, and a stint in an Egyptian prison, Joseph found favor with the Pharaoh, and he renamed him Zaphenath-paneah and gave him for a wife Asenath, daughter of Potiphera, priest of On (spelled אן in Genesis 41:45 and 46:20, and און in Genesis 41:50; the Septuagint reads consistently Ηλιουπολις or Heliopolis). The prophet Ezekiel mentions On (און / Ηλιουπολις) in his sermon on the doom of Egypt (Ezekiel 30:17) and it's generally assumed that On is the same as the Beth-shemesh mentioned by the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 43:13). In Greek this city was known as Heliopolis. It was situated at the point of the Nile-delta triangle.
- The man named On (און and Αυν in the Septuagint) was a son of Peleth of Reuben, who joined Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab of Reuben, and Korah the Levite and 250 leaders of Israel in an insurrection against Moses and Aaron (Numbers 16:1). Their main complaint was about the liturgic hierarchy that they thought should be annulled. Moses challenged the renegates to a fire-pan dual, which Korah accepted. This wasn't very clever of Korah, because Aaron had previously lost his two eldest sons Abihu and Nadab from doing something similar. Moses warned everybody about the seriousness of the situation, and it seems that On made a quiet retreat. Only Korah, Dathan and Abiram (and their wives, children and households) are reported to have descended alive into Sheol. The 250 supporters were incinerated, but On is mentioned no more.
🔼Etymology of the name On
According to How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs by Mark Collier and Bill Manley, the Egyptian city of On was known in script by a single hieroglyph, which depicted a little pillar without a base and with a narrow vertical line sticking up from the top, like a stylized un-lit mini-fire cracker. We have no idea how the Egyptians pronounced this hieroglyph for the sad reason that we have no sound recordings from those days. We only have phonetic transcriptions of this name in languages that used letters, and although these lettered words are also beyond the reach of 8-tracks, it's possible to try to construct sounds from comparing transcriptions of various languages and clambering down the etymology tree talking out loud.
Collier and Manley state that our little-pillar-hieroglyph sounded like "Iunu," and the Encyclopedia Britannica adds that it also might have been "Onu". In a footnote in the tome History of Herodotus, George Rawlinson writes, "The name of Heliopolis was ei-n-re, "the abode of the Sun," from which the Hebrew On or Aon — corrupted into Aven (Ezekiel 30:17) — was taken, and which translated Beth-shemesh, "the house of the Sun".
There is considerable variation between the various opinions, and the attempt of some to distill the proper pronunciation from the Hebrew און is also doomed to fail, since we have also no idea how to pronounce און. Even the Masoretic pronunciation symbols that were added to the text in the Middle Ages only grand a hint at what the Masoretes thought it should have sounded like (as if they knew) because, alas, we have no sound recordings from that period either.
What is probably much more fructuous than trying to figure out how the ancient languages sounded, is contemplating why the Hebrews transliterated the pillar-shaped word of the Egyptians with their און, since that already meant something:
The name of the Egyptian city named Pillar meant, well, Pillar. But the Hebrew transliteration of it, and especially the "corrupted" or perhaps rather the "adjusted" version, meant both Trouble, Sorrow, Wickedness or Idolatry and Vigor or Wealth.
The various sources we routinely consult all interpret the Egyptian On as Heliopolis. Alfred Jones (Dictionary of Old Testament Proper Names) figures that the human On was named after the city On, and boldly translates both names with "sun", which is quite undefendable.
NOBSE Study Bible Name List translates the name On as Stone, but why is a mystery. Does NOBSE mean an erected stone, a pillar-like stone? Or is it assumed that the name אן is a contraction of the word אבן ('eben), which is the regular word for stone? In either case, reading "stone" for On is an unnecessarily big leap away from more obviously associable words.
BDB Theological Dictionary explains (under אן) that the city On was really known as "An," or perhaps even as "Unu" by the Assyrians. BDB treats the Reubenite On under the root און II, says that it is identical to the noun און ('on), meaning vigor or wealth, and translates our name with Vigor.