🔼The name Ben-oni: Summary
- Son Of My Strength, Son Of My Sorrows, Son Out Of Egypt
- From (1) the noun בן (ben), son, and (2) the noun און ('wn), either trouble or vigor.
🔼The name Ben-oni in the Bible
🔼Etymology of the name Ben-oni
The name Ben-oni obviously consists of two parts, the first one being the common Hebrew word בן (ben), meaning son:
The noun בן (ben) means son, or more general: a member of one particular social or economic node — called a "house", which is built upon the instructions of one אב ('ab), or "father" — within in a larger economy (hence: the "sons of the prophet" are the members of the prophet-class; the prophets). This noun obviously resembles the verb בנה (bana), to build, and the noun אבן ('eben), stone.
Our noun's feminine version, namely בת (bat), means daughter, which resembles the noun בית (bayit), meaning house. Sometimes our noun is contracted into a single letter ב, whose name beth comes from בית (bayit) and means "house" as well. As a prefix, the letter ב (be) means "in." The word for mother, אם ('em), is highly similar to that of tribe or people, אמה ('umma).
The second part of the name Ben-oni comes from the remarkable root group און (wn), meaning either to have much sorrow or vigor:
The verb און ('wn) appears to mean to experience a lot, to be subject to much. It doesn't occur in the Bible but in cognate languages it's either negative and means to be tired and troubled, or it's positive and means to be at rest and enjoy a life of plenty.
Nouns און ('awen) and תאנים (te'unim) are of the first category, and mean trouble, sorrow or toil. Noun און ('on) is of the second and describes an surplus of vigor or wealth and specifically of reproductive powers.
The added letter י (yod) turns the word און ('on) into אוני ('oni), meaning my on.
Traditionally — and subscribed to by Jones' Dictionary of Old Testament Proper Names, BDB Theological Dictionary and NOBSE Study Bible Name List to list a few — the name Ben-oni is said to mean Son Of My Sorrows, taking the meaning of און ('awen) meaning trouble.
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 און ('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 spent 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.
instead, 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 און ('on).
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 און: '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 און ('awen) is a completely different word than און ('on).
The traditional pronunciation of the name Ben-oni strongly suggests that it was derived from 'on and not from 'awen, and that און 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).
🔼I called my son
Also note that no one in the original audience would have missed the link with the Egypt city of On, which housed the dominant wisdom tradition of Egypt, which in turn dominated the entire region at that time. The Bible is not in the least interested in the political history of the Levant but rather in the natural evolution of the wisdom tradition, from the earliest flickers of information technology to the rise of language and script to the veneration of the scientific method and ultimately the dawn of the Internet and blockchain technology.
Jacob's son Ben-Oni also very strongly reflects one of the earliest tributaries of the wisdom tradition that will ultimately embody the very Word of God: Out of Egypt I called my Son (Hosea 11:1, Matthew 2:15). Later main tributaries that the Bible obviously acknowledges are the Phoenicians, Persia and ultimately Greek scholars such as Homer.