🔼The name Pi-hahiroth: Summary
- House Of [Unknown]
- Edge Of The Hollows, Rudiments Of Nobility
- From the Egyptian noun pr, house, and an unknown second element.
- From the Hebrew nouns פי (pi), mouth, and חור (hur), cavern or hollow.
🔼The name Pi-hahiroth in the Bible
The name Pi-hahiroth belongs to an enigmatic place where Israel, fresh on their Exodus and with Pharaoh's army hot on their trail, was told to "return" to and camp "before" (Exodus 14:2). Doing so would place them "between" Migdol and the sea and "in front" of Baal-zephon, opposite to it, by the sea (which would be Yam-sup or the Sea of Reeds). The idea of this appears to have been that Pharaoh would conclude that Israel had no idea what they wanted to do, and chase them confidently where they went, which would lead to YHWH being honored. The army overtook them as they were camped beside Pi-hahiroth and in front of Baal-zephon (Exodus 14:9), and we all know what happened next.
Most of us moderns agree that slavery is a hideous crime against humanity but the problem of slavery is devilishly hard to solve. When primitive mankind began to gravitate toward common centers of culture (entirely identical to a cosmic dust cloud that contracts upon a common center of gravity to form a star), folks within city walls enjoyed a much higher degree of safety and security than their feral brethren who were still afield and exposed to predators and the elements. Slavery began when wildlings voluntarily reported at the city gates and begged to be let in by the folks who had built it (again, identical to how dogs joined mankind). Since the wildlings rather obviously had no city building skills (or else they would have built one) they were rather reasonably expected to form the working class to the builders' elite. When culture waxed and wealth increased, the whole of it remained supported by the efforts of the working class.
Now imagine what would happen if every worker in the US would suddenly walk out of their work place, pick up their family and head for the Nevada desert. Every company and industry would immediately stop functioning and the entire economy of the US would come to a halt, no matter how many managers, bankers and stock holders would urge otherwise. In the Nevada desert, meanwhile, millions of men, women and children — whose lives have always been filled with the proud provision of service, and who know little else — all of a sudden would have to pan for themselves. But they're in a desert, surrounded by millions of hungry, tired and doubtful colleagues.
Setting slaves free or letting them walk out, just like that and without some deep planning, would have two certain effects: (1) the slaves would be forced back into the wilderness, whose ways they had forgotten and who dangers would quickly kill them, and (2) the host society would lose its productive foundation and come crashing down within days. The question of slavery is not about human rights but about who's going to do the work. A society with only middle and upper classes can not exist, and bold and radical manumission is not virtuous but means certain death for everybody.
When Pharaoh noticed that his working class had no real idea what to do with themselves and realized that without them his empire would certainly collapse, he gave chase. Perhaps he realized that the only solution to slavery is to make slavery bearable — provide safety, security and dignity to those upon whose backs all of society stood — and come up with as many machines as possible to perform the labor so that the slave class could indeed become lower middle class. But perhaps Pharaoh was just as dumb a bully as modern critics of AI who "fear" that robots will take the jobs of humans. Neither Pharaoh nor those critics obviously ever had to work an assembly line themselves.
A large majority of humans desire a life that's partly spent on duties and partly enjoyed in freedom. Only very few people chose a life with no freedom at all and only servitude, and only very few people chose a life with only freedom and no duties (because that means being no part of any kind of organized collective). When a society's working class collectively decides to leave, the middle and upper classes are thoroughly diseased and will collapse anyway. The only way for that working class to survive is to rapidly self-organize and produce a functional middle and upper class. Our name Pi-hahiroth appears to tell of that very first organic self-organization of Israel, which in time would be fortified by the organizational insights of Jethro, the father of Moses' Midianite wife Zipporah. Immediately after that, Israel received the Ten Commandments and began to produce a formal government and priestly class.
The book of Numbers also tells the story of the return to Pi-hahiroth (Numbers 33:7), but calls this station Hahiroth upon Israel's departure from it (Numbers 33:8; NIV and KJV ignore this detail and speak of Pi-hahiroth).
🔼Etymology of the name Pi-hahiroth
It's not clear whether our name is Egyptian or Hebrew (or Arabic, for that matter). The place was located on the Egyptian side of the Sea of Reeds, so the chance is excellent that the first part of our name is the same as the first part of Pi-beseth, and that of Pharaoh. In that case it comes from the Egyptian word pr, which means house in the sense of economic realm. It's the Egyptian equivalent of the Hebrew word בית (beth) and the Greek word οικος (oikos).
The second part of this name is harder to connect to an Egyptian root, which suggests that our name may in fact be Hebrew. If our name Pi-hahiroth is considered to be Hebrew, the first part would coincide with the word פי (pi), meaning mouth or edge (of a sword) or even cliff or ridge:
The verb פאה (pa'a) means to cleave or break apart (what one does with a sword) and the derived noun פאה (pe'a) means corner or side.
Apparently related to the above is the otherwise inexplicable noun פה (peh) or פו (po) or פי (pi), meaning mouth. This word has a somewhat greater compass than its English counterpart, and also includes the edge of a sword (hence the sword protruding from the white horseman's mouth; Revelation 19:15). This word may also be used to mean extremity or end, which brings it in close proximity to the noun פאה (pe'a), corner or side.
A second word of similar form is the adverb פה (poh), which means here or hither. This adverb is alternately spelled פו (po) and פא (pa').
The second part of our name starts with the letter ה (he), which serves as the definitive article or an article of approach. The final part of our name is a plural form of a noun חור (hur) or חר (hor), which denotes a tribal center: either the tribal nobility, its central industry or its central fire (i.e. its knowledge, science, technology and culture):
The root חרר (harar) describes a society's central and enclosed source of heat. It thus may express a geographical depression, but more so a being hot and ultimately a being a ruler (whether by might, political clout or wisdom).
Verb חרר (harar I) means to be hot, burned or charred. Noun חרר (harer) denotes a parched place and noun חרחר (harhur) describes a violent heat or fever. The unused verb חרר (harar II) means to be free in cognate languages, which is the opposite of being a slave. Noun חר (hor) means noble or nobleman. The unused verb חרר (harar III) appears to refer to the enclosure of kilns and ovens, as the first ones were most likely build in natural hollows. The nouns חר (hor) and חור (hor) mean hole or cavern, but obviously relate to the previous word in that freemen surround themselves with walls and armies.
Verb חרה (hara) means to burn or ignite (in the Bible solely in an emotional way: to get angry). Noun חרון (haron) describes the burning of anger. Noun חרי (hori) refers to a general burning.
Verb חור (hawar) means to be or grow white (like ash or baked bricks). Nouns חור (hur) and חורי (huray) refer to any white stuff, including garments and linen, and noun חרי (hori) describes white bread or cake.
Verb נחר (nahar) looks very much like a passive or reflexive version of חרר (harar) or its participle. This verb isn't used in the Bible but nouns נחר (nahar) and נחרה (naharah) describe the vigorous snorting of a horse, and noun נחיר (nahir) means nostril (which in turn reminds of a cavern).
The most literal translation of the name Pi-hahiroth would be something like Mouth Of The Caverns or Edge Of The Hollows, presumably in some kind of reference to the terrain, but it obviously also alludes to the most rudimentary formation of some sort of governmental structure within a crowd of 600,000 men and their families: fathers who take responsibility for their own families, counsels formed within clans, greater counsels for tribes and ultimately the beginning of a national leadership under Moses.
For a meaning of the name Pi-hahiroth, NOBSE Study Bible Name List reads The Place Of Meadows, which misses the point somewhat. Jones' Dictionary of Old Testament Proper Names goes with a literal Mouth Of Caverns. BDB Theological Dictionary doesn't offer an explanation and declares the "site unknown".