In a previous Hebrew related post, I wrote about a number of Hebrew names and their meanings and how they are related to other Biblical Hebrew (BH) words. In this post, we will look at place names, and their meanings. Before we look at specific place names, it is worth noting that often the meanings of BH place names are somewhat hidden in English translations. Translators of English Bibles usually transliterate BH place names or personal names into a phonetically similar sounding English word. Often when this happens, a “J” in English is transliterated from the BH Yud (“y” sound); “S” in English can be transliterated from the BH Shin / Sin (“sh” or “s” sound), Samech (“s” sound), or sometimes even Tsade (“ts” sound); “K” in English can be transliterated from Kaph (“kh” sound), Quph (“q” sound), or even Hhet (gutteral “h / ch” sound); “Z” in English can be transliterated from Zayin (“z” sound) or Tsade (“ts” sound); “H” in English can be transliterated from Hey (‘h” sound) or Hhet (gutteral “h / ch” sound). So even when we look at a transliterated name in English it is best to check the actual BH spelling in a concordance or (if you can read Hebrew) a Hebrew Bible. When this is done, it can clear up mis-understandings about the meaning of passages or concepts.
For example, based on the statement that Jesus was a Nazarene, it is sometimes assumed that Jesus had taken a Nazarite vow and couldn’t cut his hair or do certain other things. It is easy to think this based on the similarity of “nazarene” and “nazarite” as they are very similar sounding words in English. However, knowing the place name in the original spelling and what their meanings are may tell a different a story. Consider this passage from the Gospel of Matthew:
“ But when he [Joseph, Mary’s husband] heard that Archelaus did reign in Judaea in the room of his father Herod, he was afraid to go thither: notwithstanding, being warned of God in a dream, he turned aside into the parts of Galilee:  And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene.” (Matt 2:22,23).
This text mentions a place called Nazareth:
It should be stated here that the word “natsrat” from which Nazareth is derived is probably NOT Hebrew, but Aramaic. But Aramaic and BH have a lot of similar spelt words meaning basically the same thing. So even if “natsrat” is Aramaic, it could be derived from a related BH word. The word “nazarene” (natraya’ [נָצרָיָא] in Aramaic, as indicated in the Aramaic English New Testament, published by Netsari Press) that is used to refer to Jesus is closely related to the Aramaic word Natsrat (נָצרַת), which is transliterated as Nazareth, the town where He grew up. The name “Nazareth”, which means “place of the branch” is related to the Hebrew word “netser” (נֵצֶר) which means “a branch / new shoot as something that grows out of a tree or bush, something very noticably green”. There appears to be an interesting link between the town of Nazareth and the branch (BH: “netser”) mentioned in Isaiah 11:1. The phrase “Jesus of Nazareth” appears around 20 times in the New Testament, firmly linking Jesus with Nazareth, the place of the branch. The word Nazareth is never used in the writings of the Old Testament, not even once! But settlement of the area later called Nazareth goes back to around 1500BC or earlier. But when someone made a Nazarite vow (from BH “naziyr / nazir” [נָזִיר / נָזִר], which means “consecrated / separate”) in Old Testament times it is NOT related to the Hebrew word “netser” or the city of Nazareth as the Hebrew word for a Nazarite is not related to the idea of a branch. Some try to link the Nazarite vow with Jesus being called a Nazarene, but this does not fit the original languages and there is no record that Jesus ever took a Nazarite vow! Instead Jesus being called a Nazarene is specifically referring to Jesus as someone who lived in Nazareth, the place of the branch.
Another example where transliteration into English may cause confusion is in the proper noun Rahab:
This proper noun is used to describe Egypt, and means “boaster”. In our English Bibles, this is spelt exactly the same as the name Rahab, the name of the woman who helped the two spies escape Jericho in the time of Joshua. However, the name of the woman of Jericho in Hebrew is Rahhav (רָחָב), Unlike “naziyr / nazir” and “netser”, though, Rahav and Rahhav can actually mean the same thing, although “Rahhav” is more to be proud in the sense of being broad, large or wide, whereas Rahav is more to be boastful, insolent. Even though the meanings can be similar, the differences in the meaning of the two words still highlights the need to check what BH word the English transliteration is derived from.
The next place name we will consider is Bethlehem:
בֵּית לֶֶחֶם (beyt-lehhem)
Most if not all place names that start with “Beth” include the meaning of the BH word “beyt” in it. The BH word “beyt” is closely related to the BH word “bayit” (בַיִת) which means “a house (in a broad sense), a family, a household” but is usually translated as “house”. The word “beth” means “house / family / household (of)”, although it is usually translated “house (of)”. So whenever we see a place name starting with “Beth” in English there is a good chance it means “house of (something / someone)”. Other BH place names which include “beyt” (English: “beth”) in their names include:
Beyt-El (“Bethel”), meaning “house of God”.
Beyt-Eden (“Beth-Eden”), meaning “house of pleasure”.
Beyt-Shemesh (“Beth-Shemesh”), meaning “house of (the) sun”.
The word “Bethlehem” is actually comprised of two BH words: “beyt” and “lehhem”. Lehhem means “bread, food”. This word “lehhem” is related to the BH verb “lahham” (לָחַם) which means “he fed on”, and is also used in a number of other BH constructs.
“Kikrot lehhem” (כִּכְּרוׂת לֶחֶם), meaning “loaves of bread”, or bread that is round in shape.
“Lehhem paniym” (לֶחֶם פָּנִים), meaning “the bread of faces / sides”, but normally translated as “shewbread / showbread”.
“Shulhhen lehhem hapaniym” (שֻׁלְחָן לֶחֶם הַפָּנִים), meaning “The table of showbread”. Some believe that the phrase lehhem hapaniym (לֶחֶם הַפָּנִים) indicates bread that had a unique shape – that they had no ‘bottom’ surface / side, but that the top and bottom looked the same.
BH place names, like BH person’s names, have meanings attached to them. Beth-lehhem means “house of bread”. In the book of Ruth, Beth-lehhem is one of the major locations mentioned, specifically that there was a famine in the land, and that Elimelek (a man of Beth-lehhem) moved to Moab. It would seem that Beth-lehhem, the “house of bread / food” was suffering a food shortage along with other places in land of Israel. This Beth-lehhem was also ancestral town of the Davidic royal line (see 1 Samuel 16). Beht-lehhem is important for the Christian, or believer in Jesus the Messiah, as Jesus was born in Beth-lehhem and claimed to be the bread of life.
“And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger“ (John 6:35).
This concept of Jesus as bread of life, when understood in the BH sense, shows the idea of Jesus as spiritual bread or food that the believer feeds on, to overcome hunger and to nourish the soul, and satisfy our spiritual needs.
The next place name is really a geographical region or feature, the Jordan river and valley:
The name “Jordan” (יַרְדֵּן) means “a descender, one that descends”. When we think of a river, we understand that all rivers descend to the sea, or maybe another large body of water. So why would the Jordan be singled out as a river that descends when all rivers descend? There could be various theories why the Jordan has this distinction. And I would like to add mine. When we look at a map with elevations on it, or search the Internet for the lowest elevation of earth, we find that the place with the lowest elevation on earth is actually the Dead Sea (see World Atlas ). The Jordan river descends into the Dead Sea. The Jordan river descends through part of the Jordan Rift Valley (also called the Syro-African Depression) which is an elongated depression which includes the entire length of the Jordan River – from its sources, through the Sea of Galilee, the Lower Jordan Valley, all the way to the Dead Sea. The Jordan Rift Valley then continues through the Arabah depression, the Gulf of Aqaba, until it reaches the Red Sea proper at the Straits of Tiran. If the person who named the Jordan river understood that it descended lower than any other river in the known region, then it could have been named to indicate that. This river has a very ancient name, the first Biblical mention of it being in Genesis 13:10 when Lot beheld the plains of Jordan and the cities of the plains surrounding it. If Moses used the common name of the river extant when he wrote Genesis then that would mean that the name goes back to at least 1500BC. The first recorded use of the name outside the Bible appears as “Yardon” in the Anastasi I papyrus, an Egyptian document that is believed to date to the time of Rameses II (c.1303-1213BC).
Another interesting place name is:
בְּאֵר שֶׁבַע (be’er sheva)
This word is rendered as “Beer-sheba” in English Bibles. Like Beth-lehhem, it is actually the combination of two BH words: “be’er” (בְּאֵר), meaning “well or pit”; and “sheva'” (שֶׁבַע), meaning “seven, seven times, seven fold”. The meaning of Beer-Sheba and the particular event that happened there and resulted in it’s name is of particular interest.
“022 And it came to pass at that time, that Abimelech and Phichol the chief captain of his host spake unto Abraham, saying, God is with thee in all that thou doest: 023 Now therefore swear unto me here by God that thou wilt not deal falsely with me, nor with my son, nor with my son’s son: but according to the kindness that I have done unto thee, thou shalt do unto me, and to the land wherein thou hast sojourned. 024 And Abraham said, I will swear. 025 And Abraham reproved Abimelech because of a well of water, which Abimelech’s servants had violently taken away. 026 And Abimelech said, I wot not who hath done this thing; neither didst thou tell me, neither yet heard I of it, but to day. 027 And Abraham took sheep and oxen, and gave them unto Abimelech; and both of them made a covenant. 028 And Abraham set seven ewe lambs of the flock by themselves. 029 And Abimelech said unto Abraham, What mean these seven ewe lambs which thou hast set by themselves? 030 And he said, For these seven ewe lambs shalt thou take of my hand, that they may be a witness unto me, that I have digged this well. 031 Wherefore he called that place Beersheba; because there they sware both of them. 032 Thus they made a covenant at Beersheba: then Abimelech rose up, and Phichol the chief captain of his host, and they returned into the land of the Philistines. 033 And Abraham planted a grove in Beersheba, and called there on the name of the LORD, the everlasting God” (Gen 21:22-33).
When we see the words “seven”, “swear” or “sware” in this passage it is either the BH word “sheva” (שֶׁבַע) or a closely related word with a very similar meaning. To swear something is to make an oath, hence the meaning of Beer-Sheba: “well of the seven / oath”. It is also interesting that Abraham set seven lambs aside, and requested that Abimelech take them as a witness of the oath, and that Abraham named the place Beer-Sheba specifically because it was there that he swore an oath, witnessed by seven lambs, at that well. Without taking into account the various BH words in this passage we can fail to see the intended richness and beauty of meaning of the passage.
There are so many place names in the Bible, that it would take years to cover each one. But hopefully the example given above show that using a concordance and looking up the Hebrew words in a passage, or reading them in a Hebrew Bible, and considering the original meanings of the words can only add to our enjoyment and understanding of God’s inspired word.