My fruit is better than gold
The Prophet Joseph Smith in his New Translation of the Bible at times makes the tiniest of changes. And no change is more wee that that of Ophir to Ophar (Gen. 10:29), which rings in one-vowel-net-weight of change, and nothing more--not a gram.
Of all the wildly archaic names in the Tables of Nations (Genesis 10), why this one? and only this one? Why did it matter to him? and is there any philological evidence for the change? Old Testament Manuscript 1 of the Joseph Smith Translation reads: "and Sheba and Ophar and Havilah and Jobab," and Ophar persists in Manuscript 2.
All traditional commentators follow the only lead ever followed (with one exception: V. Christides), and "simply" connect the name with an unknown gold-bearing locale in Arabia, East Africa, Zimbabwe, India, or "Eldorado" (Anchor Bible Dictionary, V, 26: David W. Baker). The etymology of the name may not be clear to all (Fruitful Land seems likely--metals were sometimes seen as organic in growth and nature by the ancients), but etymology sometimes gets trumped by the swirl of th'event: Ophir registers gold in Biblical Hebrew any way you slice it.
Ophir as place name appears elsewhere in the Old Testament, but there it differs in spelling (in Hebrew) from the personal name Ophir, and this difference is what causes Christides to reject the identification of the place Ophir with the personal name found in Genesis 10. The place name demands the i-vowel, given the yod added to the root after the stop p (the ph reflects the later post-exilic pronunciation); all assume the personal name follows the same pattern of vocalization--yet who's to say for certain? Variant readings of ouphir in LXX Gen. 10:29 yield: oupher (long e), oupher (short), and ioupher (long again), and ioupheir, some of which reflect Opher or Ophar rather than Ophir.
The consonantal base of Ophir is Aleph-Peh-Resh, a root, or root homonym, that conveys more than one meaning in Hebrew and neighboring Semitic languages. One outcome is "soil" or "dust", hardly a name for an Arabian patriarchar ; far better is the reading fruitful, in light of the paronomasia on the name Ephraim found in Genesis. Joseph called him Ephraim because God had made Joseph and Asenath fruitful by adding to them a second son. "Most scholars consider this to be the correct derivation, and hold that the name means 'fertile land'" (Encyclopaedia Judaica, 6:456).
Ephraim and Ephrat (and Ephratah) seem to derive from the same root as Ophir or Ophar. The only difference lies in the postfixes. For Proto-Semitic, students posit an original nominative case-ending for both nouns and personal names in -m; -ay(i)m seemingly answers to a locative ending (indicating place). Others, noting there is no real evidence for such a locative form, read the ending -ay(i)m as a marker of the dual (see James E. Hoch, Semitic Words in Egyptian, 190). The name Ephraim, at any rate, remains a prime example of mimation, a phenomenon not well understood later on: "In non-Hebrew words, mimation, which was no longer understood, was vocalized as a plural ending [as with Urim and Thummim]" (Anton Jirku, "Die Mimation in den Nord-Semitischen," Biblia 34 (1953), 80 = Nibley, One Eternal Round, 450 n. 119; see also discussion in Lehi in the Desert and the World of the Jaredites). Ephraim, or Epar[a]/Epra, is not then a "Hebrew" name but one belonging to an older stratum within, or even without, the family of Semitic languages.
A longtime puzzler starts to become clear: if Ephraim is an archaic name, no wonder that the Jaredites, for whom mimation was the rule (so Nibley), should have a Hill Ephraim (the Bible also attests such a place name). In Ether the hill Ephraim was a fruitful mine of iron ore. To modern eyes what an eyesore: Why Ephraim long before Joseph in Egypt? Might it have been for Jaredites a rather typical name--with mimation in the case, or dual, ending? For many, the Hill Ephraim is a place name in Moroni's linguistic and geographic landscape that slips into his translation of the Jaredite record. Hugh Nibley thought so and it is a sound conclusion. As far as fruitful hills are concerned, the Book of Mormon also gives us the Hills Comron and Cumorah. The root k-m-r denotes a ramp or rampart; it also connotes a place of fertile black soil. In Syria we find the Gath Kumara, the fertile black soil of the wine-press. Hills are for planting, for the fencing in and protection of the press and the vineyard. (The reading Comron--not Comnor--comes thanks to Royal Skousen's sleuthing.)
Now for the brick wall. The latest scholarship (Anchor Bible Dictionary, II, 551: Siegfried Herrmann) tells us "The original etymology of the name Ephraim is unknown"--indeed that it never can possibly be known! A guess is a "derivation of 'eper in the sense of 'region' (cf. Akk 'eperu')." Such a determination seems to flow from two facts or notions. First, the Biblical lexicon attests no productive root Aleph-Peh-Resh (and without such a root and its exploitation, what can we know?). Second, any "derivation from Hebrew prh, to be fertile, is based on a popular etymology." And how do we know that? Because it comes from a Bible story and, as everybody knows, Bible stories are just stories. Now Latter-day Saints may not be exactly fundamentalists when it comes to reading the Bible, but we are believers. If Joseph of old was said to have named his son Ephraim as a response to God's making him fruitful, then he did name his son Ephraim for that reason. The name might not mean fruitful in its ultimate etymological outcome, and it is all together possible that the ending -ayim "indicates a place or geographical name" to begin with, yet it clearly connoted fruitfulness to Joseph, a real prophet of old. And that Latter-day Saints, who consider themselves in goodly measure of the tribe of Ephraim, should wish to understand his (their) name, comes as no surprise.
Indeed the older founts of scholarship do draw from the Biblical reading of the name. The Koehler-Baumgartner Lexicon (1953) says that Ephraim is "commonly derived from parah" and means Fruchtland, or corn-land (like Fruitland, Utah in the "mountains of Ephraim"), or Weideland, pasture-land, or pasturage. That Ephrat and Ephrata should derive from the same root as Ephraim is a given for the lexicographers. Thus Bethlehem Ephrata is the Fruitful Place of Bread (lehem); its inhabitants are indeed known as Ephraimites. That other doughty lexicographer, Gesenius, in light of the possible dual value of -ay(i)m, reads Ephraim as double land or twin land (fruitful on both sides of the valley?), a sort of comment on the notion of fertility and fruitfulness. He further compares the dual form of the name to Mitzraim, Egypt as the Two Lands. Indeed it is Mitzraim and her lovely daughter, Asenath, that spells the fruitful land(s): Mitzraim for Joseph becomes Ephraim. The notion is interesting because Ephraim thus becomes a rival, even a superior to Mitzraim: Joseph prevails. For Latter-day Saints the true heritage of Ephraim and Manesseh lies "over the wall" and across the waves by the side of the "everlasting hills": And are not the Americas a "double land"?
Joseph and Moses (and whatever other pre-exilic editors there were) were clearly as content with Ephraim as fruitful land and the root p-r-h (parah: to be fruitful) as is Koehler-Baumgartner. (There must have been an earlier or synonymous root: likely Aleph-Pe-Resh.) For derivatives of parah, we have, above all, peri, which means fruit or a fruit tree, a word also found in Egyptian (pr.t = fruit, seed, divine offspring).
Only traces of the root appear in Egyptian and Akkadian and Arabic--it must be old indeed, as old as the hills called Ephraim. Arabic does give us '-b-r: abara, which means, primarily, to prick or sting; but also to pollinate (ibra is a needle). It is a bee word, and a fruitful lead is on; for if Asenath, as Nibley notes, is a bee lady (see his Abraham in Egypt), why should not her children inherit her beehive fruitfulness? Ephraim also points to the resurrection from the dead. And was not Joseph raised from the darkness of the prison cell and exalted above all men? All typifies Christ, His birth in Bethlehem Ephrata and His resurrection.
For words signifying fruit, fruit trees, and sexual attractiveness or energy, Akkadian yields inbum, or plural (and collective) inbu, for which inib is the construct form in genitival phrases (Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, VII, 144-6.) But how can inbum relate to Ephraim or Opar? To begin with the noun appear as a personal name. A good name for a woman is Inba (Fruitful). And who can forget Inib-Shamash (Sun Fruit) or Inbu-Mama?
Inbum, which later becomes a loanword for fruit into Semitic languages, doesn't come from the Proto-Semitic root Aleph-Pe-Resh but from Aleph-Nun-Bet, the same root that blossoms into waving fields of Hebrew grain: Abib (see Stephen Kaufman, The Akkadian Influence in Aramaic, p.58; Koehler-Baumgartner-Stamm Hebrew Lexicon). But, then, Akkadian also attests niprum or nibrum, which signifies sprout or seed (Spross and Nachkommen: von Soden, Akkadischen Handwoerterbuch II, 792). While not fruit, niprum is our root, plus the reflexive n- prefix. The n- is clearly a reflexive infix upon a root, that is an infix with reflexive or ingressive meaning: becoming fruitful, bearing fruit in itself, etc.
To add to the picture, we turn to Egyptian where we find npr or npri (n + prj), the name of the grain god, the god of the fruited plain, who something recalls Mama Inbum. Hans Bonnet, Reallexikon, 517-8, assures us the name is to be pronounced Neper not Neperi (the vowels are open to argument); a feminine variant Nepit recalls Nep-hi (as Nibley somewhere observes).
What then is the ultimate root behind all these Akkadian and Egyptian nouns and names, if any? It is: Aleph-Peh/Bet-Resh, with the resh dropping in Akkadian inb-, inbum and with the i representing what remains of the aleph. In Egyptian the aleph also all but disappears, though we presume that Neper is Inpar or Inpra, or perhaps just Napar or Nepr. The Egyptian word for fruit or seed, again, is pr.t, which is Coptic appears as ebra. And Ebra matches Opar (how Ophir would have originally been pronounced) and Ephraim (Epr-aym).
The Joseph Smith Translation sets us thinking, even about details. We can trace roots only so far, but what I find intriguing is the touch of authenticity, something no one can fake. Even the spelling of the name Ophar typifies and attests the birth and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
We do find Epher on a Hebrew jar, but that name likely begins with an ayin, as does the Epher found in 1 Chronicles. (Epher: H. Nibley, Lehi in the Desert, 32, citing R.A. Stewart Macalister in "The Craftsmen's Guild of the Tribe of Judah," in PEFQ, 1905, 333.