🔼The name Hamath: Summary
- From the verb חמה (hmh), to protect or surround.
🔼The name Hamath in the Bible
Hamath (not to be confused with Hammath, which is spelled the same but pronounced slightly different) is the name of a city that is among the most frequently mentioned places in the Bible. It's a city of proverbial wealth and prosperity. The prophet Zechariah mentions her along Tyre and Sidon (Zechariah 9:2), and Amos refers to this city as Hamath the Great (Amos 6:2).
Hamath was situated in Aram (= Syria), just north of Israel's northern border, but according to 2 Kings 14:28 it also belonged to Judah at some point, and was recovered by king Jeroboam, together with Damascus.
We hear first of Hamath through a reference to its inhabitants: the Hamathite, who was born from Canaan according to Genesis 10:18 (most scholars today view these particular genealogies as allegories of how the Hebrews saw their world, and particularly the international relationships and developments). When the spies investigated the promised land, they went as far as Rehob at Lebo-hamath, although the classical translations (KJV, JSP, ASV, Darby, Young) translate the lebo-part, and speak of "the entrance to Hamath" or "the going into Hamath" or something to that extent (Numbers 13:21; note that NAS and NIV speak of Lebo-hamath, except 1 Kings 8:65 and 2 Kings 14:25, where NAS inexplicably speaks of "the entrance of Hamath").
There is also a Hamath-zobah, which apparently was close to Hamath. In 2 Chronicles 8:3-4 we read that King Solomon laid siege to Hamath-zobah and overcame it, and began to build storage cities in Hamath. Hamath-zobah isn't mentioned again in the Bible but Lebo-hamath is mentioned quite a few times more in the sequential scriptures. The actual city of Hamath does not appear until 2 Samuel 8:9 tells us about king Toi of Hamath, who heard that David had defeated the whole army of Hadadezer (as far as Hamath — 1 Chronicles 18:3) and swiftly acted according to his best interest.
When the king of Assyria captured Israel and exiled the Israelites, he peopled their cities with folks from all over his realm, including Hamath (2 Kings 17:24). And that brought much theological contamination, as the author of the book of Kings grimly notes. The men of Hamath, in particular, made and worshipped a deity called Ashima (2 Kings 17:30), but the Assyrian spokesman Rabshakeh rightly proclaimed his doubt that any of these gods would help its people, including the Ashima of Hamath (2 Kings 18:34, Isaiah 36:19).
When king Jehoahaz ruled wickedly in Jerusalem, Pharaoh Neco initially imprisoned him at Riblah, in the land of Hamath, but later took him to Egypt (2 Kings 23:33). A while after that, Nebuzaradan, captain of the Babylonian guard, brought an unfortunate delegation of king Zedekiah to his king, Nebuchadnezzar, at that same Riblah in the land of Hamath (2 Kings 25:20, Jeremiah 39:5-6, Jeremiah 52:27).
🔼Etymology of the name Hamath
Scholars appear to agree that the name Hamath derives from an unused root חמה, which probably meant something like to surround or protect:
The verb חמם (hamam) means to be hot and is sometimes used to describe mental agitation. Nouns חם (hom) and חמה (hamma) mean heat. Adjective חם (ham) means hot. The noun חמן (hamman) denotes a kind of mysterious small pillar (perhaps a device?).
The verb יחם (yaham) also means to be hot, but mostly in a mental sense: to be exited or angered. The noun חמה (hema) mostly refers to a severe mental "burning": anger or rage.
The verb חמה (hmh) is not used in the Bible, but in cognate languages it means to surround, guard or protect. Perhaps this verb has nothing to do with the previous and only accidentally looks similar, but perhaps it ties into the fact that natural open fires aren't very warm and smelting metals require sophisticated ovens. Noun חם (ham) means father-in-law and its feminine equivalent, חמות (hamot), means mother-in-law — and note that the Trojan theme of the "girl" kept in the city of her forceful lover is very common in classical literature. Noun חומה (homa) describes a protective wall.
The noun חום (hum) describes a color or pattern of coloration of sheep and goats. It's not clear whether this pattern resembled sparks, fire or enclosures, or perhaps that this word in not related to the previous.
Noun חמת (hemet) means waterskin and may derive from a wholly different verb. Still, the verb נהר (nahar) means both to flow (of water) and to shine (of light) and a waterskin filled with water is not unlike a kiln containing a very warm fire.
For a meaning of the name Hamath, NOBSE Study Bible Name List reads Fortification. BDB Theological Dictionary derives our name via חומה (homa), meaning wall, to Fortress. Alfred Jones (Dictionary of Old Testament Proper Names) derives the name Hamath from the same root, and renders it the meaning Defence, Citadel. A Hebrew audience, on the other hand, would surely have noticed the obvious similarity between our name Hamath and the noun חמת (hemet), meaning Waterskin.