🔼The name Ephraim: Summary
- Two-fold Increase, Doubly Fruitful
- Exhausted, Ashes
- From the verb פרה (para), to be fruitful.
- From the verb אפר ('pr), to be depleted.
🔼The name Ephraim in the Bible
The name Ephraim is assigned a few times in the Bible, although all later occurrences obviously stem from the original.
- The half-tribe Ephraim (Joshua 16:5).
- The hill country in Palestine (1 Samuel 1:1).
- A forest where Absalom was killed (2 Samuel 18:6).
- One of the gates of Jerusalem (2 Kings 14:13).
- A town to where Jesus withdrew after the Pharisees decided to kill him (spelled Εφραιμ; John 11:54). This town isn't mentioned anywhere else in the Bible and it's not clear where it would have been situated. The church historian Eusebius believed it was about fifteen kilometers north of Jerusalem, but Jerome stated that it was a twin town with Bethel, about thirty-five kilometers north of Jerusalem.
We would expect the people from Ephraim to be called אפרימי (Ephraimites), but that word does not occur in the Bible. Instead, the Bible mostly speaks of בני אפרים; sons of Ephraim (Numbers 1:32, Joshua 16:5, 1 Chronicles 9:3). But on occasion, the Ephraimites are referred to as אפרתי (Ephrathites), for instance in Judges 12:5, where the men of Gilead capture strongholds opposite Ephraim (אפרים), arrest fugitives of Ephraim (אפרים) and asks them if they are Ephrathites (אפרתי). And 1 Samuel 1:1 introduces Elkanah of Ephraim (אפרים), who was an Ephrathite (אפרתי).
All this may indicate that the names Ephraim and Ephrath(ah) were used interchangeably. In Hebrew the difference between these two names lies solely in the ending, which are both standard extensions comparable to the "-ers" of New Yorkers and the "-ians" of Brazilians. If some creative author would speak of New Yorkians and Brazillers, very few readers would assume an origin other than New York and Brazil.
🔼Etymology of the name Ephraim
The meaning of the name Ephraim is somewhat debated:
Jones' Dictionary of Old Testament Proper Names and NOBSE Study Bible Name List go after Genesis 41:52, "...For [...] God has made me fruitful..". and take the name from the Hebrew verb פרה (para), meaning to bear fruit or be fruitful:
The verb פרר (parar) means to split, divide and usually make more, expand or multiply. This root belongs to an extended family that also contains פרץ (paras), to break (through), פרש (paras and parash), to spread out or declare, פרס (paras), to break in two or divide, and פאר (pa'ar) means to branch out or to glorify.
The Bible is not concerned with political goings on and only with the evolution of the wisdom tradition, and thus with the rise of information technology (from cave paintings to blockchain). That said: our word "science" comes from the Greek verb σξιζω (schizo), which means to split, divide and make more.
Verb פרה (para) means to bear fruit or be fruitful. Noun פרי (peri) means fruit in its broadest sense. Noun פר (par) means young bull and פרה (para) means young heifer. Note that the first letter א (aleph) is believed to denote an ox-head, while its name derives from the verb אלף (alpeh), to learn or to produce thousands. The second letter, ב (beth) is also the word for house (or temple or stable). The familiar word "alphabet," therefore literally means "stable of bulls" or "house of divisions" or "temple of fruitful learning".
Noun פרא (para') is a word for wild donkey. The young bovines were probably known as fruits-of-the-herd, but donkeys in the Bible mostly symbolize lone wanderings and humility.
Noun פור (pur) means lot (hence the feast called Purim). Noun פורה (pura) denotes a winepress and פרור (parur) a cooking pot.
BDB Theological Dictionary and HAW Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, on the other hand, state that the name Ephraim may be narratively connected with פרה (Genesis 41:52), but list it under the Hebrew root אפר ('pr):
It's not clear what the unused verb אפר ('apar) might have meant but it's clearly not very positive and possibly has to do with being exhausted or depleted of inner strength and inherent merit.
Noun אפר ('eper) means ashes, which is what remains when all useful energy is extracted from a fuel. Noun אפר ('aper) means covering or bandage, which is what is applied over a limb when its inherent strength is broken.
Jones' Dictionary of Old Testament Proper Names reads Two-fold Increase. NOBSE Study Bible Name List reads Doubly Fruitful.
Taking the aleph from the Qual imperfect first person singular would yield a meaning of I Am Twice Fruitful.
It's true that the aleph is quite a weak letter which is applied often without essentially changing the meaning of a word. But it's perfectly conceivable, and perhaps even preferred, that father Joseph casts a wry word play in the naming of his sons.
He names his first born Manasseh (Making To Forget), because, "God has made me forget all my toil and all of my father's house". When his father's house finally shows up, it becomes clear that Joseph had a hard time forgetting them and was in fact happy to see them. His second son he names Ephraim, a name with a strong connection to the word fruitfulness but equally so to the word for ashes, the symbol of worthlessness and grief.
Perhaps Joseph was not at all happy for having been made to forget his father's house, and deemed 'fruitfulness in the land of affliction,' the golden bars of a still dismal cage. Perhaps the duality of the name Ephraim does not denote a double portion of the same, but rather as a reminder that the coin of his wealth and status had two sides.