🔼The name Ephrathah: Summary
- From the verb פרה (para), to be fruitful.
- From the verb אפר ('pr), to be depleted.
🔼The name Ephrathah in the Bible
The name Ephrathah is a bit of a troubler. It appears to be applied to one lady and up to three different Biblical locations. The lady named Ephrathah is the wife of Caleb, son of Hezron, whose son Salma founded Bethlehem of Judah (1 Chronicles 2:50 and 4:4). In 1 Chronicles 2:19 her name is spelled without the final ה (he): Ephrath.
The locations named Ephrathah are the following:
- The first Ephrathah we come across is a place near Bethel, which was situated directly north of Jerusalem. It's where Benjamin was born and subsequently where Rachel died (Genesis 35:16). The problem is that in Genesis 35:19 the text reads: "Ephrathah, that is Bethlehem," and Bethlehem of Judah (to distinguish from Bethlehem of Zebulun) was situated directly south of Jerusalem, about twice the distance that existed between Jerusalem and Bethel to the north. In Genesis 48:7 Jacob recounts the horrible event of losing his wife in childbirth, and calls the place Ephrath (אפרת). And again it is stated that Ephrath is Bethlehem. But 1 Samuel 10:2 locates the tomb of Rachel in the territory of Benjamin, near a place called Zelzah, which strongly suggests that Ephrathah was situated indeed close to but north of Bethel, even further away from Bethlehem than Bethel itself.
- And to make matters even more confusing: the name Ephrathah is indeed associated to Bethlehem. In Micah 5:1 the prophet speaks of Bethlehem Ephrathah "too little to be among the clans of Judah," and goes on to predict that the Messiah would come from there (see Luke 2:4). Micah's statement probably doesn't mean that Ephrathah wasn't in Judah, but that this settlement was too small to merit the status of sub-clan. When Jesus' ancestor Boaz acquires his bride Ruth through the stipulations of levirate law, his hearers wish him all the best, and add "may you achieve wealth in Ephrathah and become famous in Bethlehem" (Ruth 4:11). Some commentators equate this Ephrathah with Caleb-ephrathah, mentioned in 1 Chronicles 2:24, which was also situated in Judah.
- In Psalm 132, David contemplates building the Temple of YHWH, "for He has chosen Zion" (Psalm 132:13), and Zion pretty much equates to Jerusalem. But in 132:6, David tells that he heard people in Ephrathah express the wish to go to the Lord's temple. For some reason, commentators propose that this time the name Ephrathah covers a large region (the whole of Palestine, says NOBSE Study Bible; a district on the border of Judah and Benjamin, says BDB Theological Dictionary), but others, probably more impressed with the rather obvious contextual connection between this Ephrathah and Jerusalem, declare this Ephrathah to be the same as the previous one (The Oxford Study Bible, for instance).
All this is quite awful. Why does the Book of Genesis twice say that the Ephrathah north of Bethel is the same as the Ephrathah south of Jerusalem? Alfred Jones (Dictionary of Old Testament Proper Names) solves this problem by boldly declaring all instances of the name Ephrathah to refer to Bethlehem of Judah, and evenly boldly ignoring the textual problems this generates. BDB Theological Dictionary assumes an even stouter stance by proclaiming the "that is Bethlehem" statements of Genesis 35:19 and 48:7 to be so-called glosses (= "a word inserted between the lines or in the margin in order to explain a foreign or otherwise difficult word in a text," according to the Oxford Dictionary). A third way to solve this conundrum is to assume that either the names Ephrathah or Bethlehem or both were applied not only to the familiar towns but also to larger regions (like, say, New York city and state) that were either the same or else overlapped. The problem with this solution is that there is very little, if any, textual support for this, apart from the names having corresponding meanings.
But the plot thickens even more. People from Ephrath(ah) would be known as אפרתי (Ephrathites), and sure enough, Jesse of Bethlehem (the father of David) is called an Ephrathite (1 Samuel 17:12), and so are Elimelech and Naomi and their sons (Ruth 1:2). But the ethnonym אפרתי (Ephrathite) is also applied to men of Ephraim: the fleeing sibboleth-sayers (Judges 12:5), Elkanah, the father of Samuel (1 Samuel 1:1), and possibly Nebat the father of Jeroboam (1 Kings 11:26). This indicates that the names Ephraim and Ephrath(ah) may have been used interchangeably.
🔼Etymology of the name Ephrathah
The name Ephrathah probably comes from the verb פרה (para), meaning to be fruitful or to bear fruit:
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.
But our name also has a striking resemblance to the 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.
The name Ephrathah appears to mean Fruitful, but just like Bethlehem that means either House Of Bread or House Of War, the name Ephrathah has a strong connotation of Worthlessness. For a meaning of the name Ephrathah, Jones' Dictionary of Old Testament Proper Names reads Fruitful and NOBSE Study Bible Name List has Fruitfulness. BDB Theological Dictionary doesn't interpret this name.