Joseph's Egyptian name, transcribed as Zaphnath-paaneah, presents a puzzle for which many have proposed a solution. I enjoy all such efforts sufficiently to wish to put my own hand into the game.
The Book of Abraham likewise presents names purporting to be Egyptian: Onitah, Olimlah, Enish-go-on-dosh. For all of these, not having the hieroglyphic Vorlage, we enjoy broad scope for speculation. And a latter-day Joseph invites "the world" to give it a go: to "find out these numbers" (Explanation for Book of Abraham Facsimile 2).
Genesis 41:41-45 reads:
41 And Pharaoh said unto Joseph, See, I have set thee over all the land of Egypt.
42 And Pharaoh took off his ring from his hand, and put it upon Joseph's hand, and arrayed him in vestures of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck.
44 And Pharaoh said unto Joseph, I am Pharaoh, and without thee shall no man lift up his hand or foot in all the land of Egypt.
45 And Pharaoh called Joseph’s name Zaphnath-paaneah; and he gave him to wife Asenath the daughter of Poti-pherah priest of On. And Joseph went out over all the land of Egypt.
As these verses show, accession to office requires 1) a new vesture (and a ring), 2) a special name, and 3) marriage into an official priestly inheritance. Clothing, naming, marriage, office, and priesthood here make up a single Heliopolitan constellation. And as every reader notes, accession also signals a reversal of fortunes. Potiphar, master and jailer, meets Joseph anew as the priest Poti-phera, a man from whom Joseph inherits all things. The name Zaphnath-paaneah must then, somehow, also speak to accession or reversal or both.
"The meaning of the name Zaphnath-paaneah is a problem that has much preoccupied the commentators," says Josef Vergote (Joseph en Egypte (1959), 142; for the full discussion of Zaphnath-paaneah, Aseneth, Poti-phera, see 141-152; see also Jan Assmann, "Aseneth," in Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, 616-18).
Which interpretation is the best? (Who gets the golden chain?)
Kenneth Kitchen, who tags earlier attempts "weird and wonderful," opts for metathesis: Zatnap for Zapnat. (Kitchen borrows the idea from Rex Engelbach.) "Zatnap corresponds precisely to Egyptian djad(u)-naf, 'who is called...,' introducing a second name after the first--for example, 'Ankhu djad(u)-naf Hedjeri' means 'Ankhu called Hedjeri'" (Kenneth Kitchen, "The Joseph Narrative (Genesis 37, 39-50)," Bible and Spade, Winter 2003; Reginald Engelbach, "The Egyptian Name of Joseph," JEA 10, October 1924, 205). Here, Hedjeri is clearly the nickname, what the Egyptians call the Little Name (rn nDs--or later, and perhaps euphemistically, the Beautiful Name, rn nfr)--while Ankhu (Lives) is the Great Name (rn a3). Such formulations go back to the Old Kingdom: "His great name is Neferherenptah; his little name is Fifi" (see Pascal Vernus, "Name," in Lexikon der Aegyptologie IV, 320-26). The change from Hebrew Joseph to courtly Zaphnath-paaneah, or even Pa-Aneah, partakes of something more significant than the contrast between the Great Name and the Little Name.
The reading most widely accepted, and thus most carefully critiqued, is that of Georg Steindorff (via J. Krall): "God speaks (or has spoken) and he lives" (Dd-nTr-jw.f-'nx). Understood, though unstated, is also the possibility, "the goddess speaks" (Dd-nTr.t). For many, such a reading is too generic: the record does attest the name formula, which marks a safe birth, but only with mention of a specifically named god or gods. Donald Redford resolves the matter by positing "Ipet and Neith speak and he lives" (Dd-Ipt-Nt-jw.f-'nx: A Study of the Biblical Story of Joseph, 230-231). Here the p fits the goddess Ipet; Neith (nat? neit?) easily replaces neter (the god).
The (Krall)-Steindorff-(Redford) reading yields a name that denotes a safe birth; it perhaps also answers to the idea of restoration or renewal--a rebirth. Yet already in 1901, the Jewish Encyclopedia names the weakness: "This has become popular, and is philologically possible; however, it does not convey the allusion to Joseph's office or merits which we should expect." For Redford, the author of the Joseph story, who cares nothing about context or meaning or even translating the name, merely picks an Egyptian name out of the air, "for an air of authenticity" (Donald Redford, Joseph, 231).
That's no fun. Neither does it match the evidence. Poti-phera, "Given of the Sun," date the name how you may, does fit the priestly Heliopolis, City of the Sun. Asenath, as Neith, divine mother of Egypt, also hits the mark. Consider the famous Joseph and Aseneth novella: "Then there is the roman a clef; the author has realized that the Egyptian name Aseneth means 'belonging to Neith.' Many almost inperceptible details of the story can only be explained as referring to the goddess of Sais" (Marc Philonenko, Encyclopaedia Judaica 11:419). Besides, the idea of Joseph and his wife both bearing Neith names hardly sustains the argument for no authorial intent. The author of Genesis 41, however unlikely it may seem, assumes an audience capable of both cultural and linguistic code-switching.
Back to the "weird and wonderful."
Josephus heads the list of those proposing an explanation; the following students have continued the game (Vergote, 151-52):
Df3 nD p3 anx "nourishment, savior of life" (A. Harkavy, 1870)
p3 snts n p3 anx "the founder of life" (A. Wiedemann).
Weidemann's solution, which derives from the Greek Septuagint version of the name, meets with W. F. Albright's approval: p3-snT-n-p3-anx, 'the sustainer of life' (JBL 37 , 132, cited in Redford, ibid., 230 n. 2)
D(d) Mnts.w iw.f anx "Montu speaks and he lives" (J. Krall, 1888)
T-s-n-t, i.e., Ts.(t) n.t p(r) anx "the head of the school of learning, of the sacred college," (E. Naville, 1903)
it n.t pr anx "(member of?) college of the House of Life" (A. Erman, 1883)
D(d) p3 nT(r) iw.f anx "the god has spoken and he lives" (G. Steindorff, 1889, as cited in Vergote, 143; Steindorff follows Krall)
Df3 n t3 pdi anx "Nourisher of the Lands, Lebensspender" (E. Mahler, 1907)
Dd.w n.f p3 anx And Pharaoh (to him) "qu'on appelle (aussi) Le Vivant": "He whom men (also) call the Living One" (R. Engelbach, 1924)
di.t xpr nt3 X.t n p3 anx "And Pharaoh nominated Joseph 'to procure the way of life'" (H.F. Lutz, 1945)
K. Miketta (1904) critiques all--and rejects all.
If we don't take ourselves too seriously (and how could we, after looking over the notes of Naville and Erman?), we can still try our hand at the puzzle. Yet since we face the stern eye of Miketta, it bodes well to prefer originality over success. I accordingly play a verb which does not appear in the scholarly tally: Db3 (clothe, adorn, put on insignia, provide with, equip with, restore, replace, give retribution, recompense, pay back).
If Zaphnath derives from Db3 nTr or Db3 p3 nTr, the name signifies "(the One whom) the god (or goddess) shall so clothe" (that is, with office, honor, endowment, dignities). Or as Professor Redford suggests, the element nath may signal the goddess Neith: Db3 nt, Db3 Neith: "May Neith (the goddess of weaving) clothe him"; "May Neith give him recompense and restore him to his rightful honors." As previously mentioned, the name of Joseph's bride, Asenath, likely derives from ns-nt, "belonging to Neith." Does her name belong to a era postdating the Patriarchal? The name pattern, "belonging to such-and-such a divinity," is well attested in the Old Kingdom, though wildly popular in the Late Period.
That Joseph should be clothed by Neith need come as no surprise: as Genesis closes, we read of Joseph's mummification. And what goddess prepares and winds the mummy bands? Neith. Whether Zaphnath refers to Neith or not, it is yet that same divine mother of Egypt who weaves the insignia of his office--and who also (symbolically) weds him (see Jan Assmann, "Neith"). Asenath, here, officiates as Neith by endowing the king or priest with authority of office. Neith might even appear in one of the Book of Abraham's puzzling names: Onitah (perhaps from '3 Nit, "Great is Neith"). Onitah "one of the royal descent," is known for his three daughters, who are, by default, daughters of Neith, as is every princess of Egypt (Abraham 1:11). Onitah also calls to mind First Dynasty ruler, Anedj-ib; '(n)Dj, the Sound of heart; Sound or Hale is also an attested Middle Kingdom name.
Joseph is, after all, one whom God clothes, or endows, with honor of office. The expression "arrayed him in vestures" answers to the Egyptian expression Db3 mnx. Clothing in robes connotes the endowments and honors of office. First in order comes the ring or seal, Db'.t, which again recalls Db3. The Hebrew consonantal sequence tz-p-n-t matches Db3 + p3 nTr, Db', Db, Tb, etc. Db'.t, a nominal form, suggests reading Zaphnath-paaneah as "the seal of God, the Living One," or, as a verb (Db'), "the god (or goddess, or Neith) will seal (place his seal on, claim ownership of) the Living One." Joseph, with his seal, evokes Solomon.
The first hurdle for any interpretation of Zaphnath-paaneah is whether that interpretation can be readily rendered back into Egyptian. The second, poses the question of whether any such name or naming formula in fact occurs in the Egyptian record--so far as we can ascertain such things. Again, does the name somehow match the themes and imagery of the narrative, or correspond to the other Egyptian names found in the narrative?
The Egyptian record indeed attests the personal name Db3, Djeba, which frequently occurs as a male name in the Middle Kingdom (H. Ranke, Die Aegyptischen Personennamen I, 406, 5). We also find the names Db3-nfr and Db3-snb (Good successor, Healthy successor), which both suggest the idea of the replacement of the father with a goodly son. The names suggest payback, that is, repayment for some good deed.
Db3 carries the sense of something restored, repayment; Db3 nfr thus bespeaks beautiful repayment, beautiful replacement, perfect replacement (he succeeds to his father's honor and office, as a sound replacement). Compare the jdn principle by which the sun god finds manifestation and visibility, substitution and replacement, through the agency of the solar disk. The jtn, or disk, becomes the jdn, or replacement, for the hidden, transcendent Amun-Re (see David Klotz, Five Hymns to Amen-Re from Hibis Temple). Db3 (Djeba) "repayer" signifies "he will repay his parents" by attaining to honor. The feminine name, Db3tysj, likewise suggests "she who will pay back": she will be a good daughter that will repay through her worth, and so graces the parents who took pains to raise her well. Db3 snb is the "healthy repayer," but also he "who repays health"; he is the one who gives back health and soundness to the parents who raised him; he repays them with perfect things: beauty and goodness (nfr).
We discover a pattern:
Who repays in health and soundness.
Who repays in goodness and perfections.
She who is to repay.
He whom the god repays or replaces or restores to honor, that is, Joseph restored to honor and to dignity--and from death to life.
The one who has been given back, re-placed in his fit standing; re-stored to his rightly position; and, therefore, fit as a re-placement for the king. He is re-clothed, or re-dressed--and re-dressed.
One whom the god has restored to grace; recalled into grace; put back into honor.
Joseph had lost everything and descended below all; now he is restored, given retribution many times over, provided and equipped with power and authority. He stands the worthy replacement, substitute, likeness of the king himself, clothed and endowed with power. Restored to his dream-destiny, chosen Joseph thereby qualifies to marry the princess, the daughter of the "One given of Re," the high priest of Heliopolis. She now "belongs to you" (to evoke Kitchen's analysis of the name Asenath).
To read Zaphnath-paaneah in light of the rich Egyptian verb Db3 does indeed "convey the allusion to Joseph's office or merits which we should expect."
I do not believe anyone has suggested--perhaps tossed out?--such an interpretation of the name, but it works. Here are three tries--though, alas! no charm:
And Pharaoh called Joseph's name Zaphnath-paaneah, which is, being interpreted, the god shall clothe the Living One with honor of office (or restore the Living One).
The sentence Db3-p3-nTr [or nTr.t]-p3-anxy signifies the action of naming--the pronouncement of the name--it is also the name itself, for naming and name make up a whole, with Paanchi being what might be called the name within the name, the quintessence of being: And Pharaoh pronounced [vayyiqra' = spoke out, pronounced, called] Joseph's name, as follows: May the god clothe with honor of office--the Living One.
And Pharaoh called Joseph's name Zaphnath-paaneah, which, being interpreted, is, May Neith, the Living One, clothe (or Neith shall clothe the Living One) with honor of office.
And Pharaoh called Joseph's Name Zaphnath-paaneah, which, being interpreted, is, May the god so seal the Living One [P3 Ankh or Pi-Anki, Ranke, 103, 1 and 2: p3 anx and p3 anx.i; cf. Book of Mormon Onomasticon, "Paanchi," q.v.]
Reading -paaneah as the Living One, puts both Naville and Erman back into the game; for, as any student familiar with Professor Derchain's edition of papyrus Salt 825 knows, the mysterious character standing at the center of the House of Life (the pr anx) is the "Living One" (p3 anxy). The Living One of the House of Life, the resurrected Re-Osiris, not only personifies the House of Life as a building, he thus also personifies its fourfold ceremonies--the inner temple--that give Life its continuance. Joseph has also been restored to life, symbolically raised from the dead. And it is Hugh Nibley who notes how the Living One, in the Ritual of the House of Life, standing in the midst of the four houses that make up that great library-temple, also evokes four-faced Kolob at center of the Egyptian hypocephalus (Improvement Era, August 1969 = An Approach to the Book of Abraham).
Facsimile 2 of the Book of Abraham, a hypocephalus, links the word Db3 with Heliopolis (Heb. On): "I am the Djebabty in the House of the ben-ben in Heliopolis." The sentence describes the Kolob figure, or the Transcendent Amun, at the center of all things. By marrying the daughter of the priest of Heliopolis, Joseph becomes the lieutenant of Poti-phera's priestly honor just as surely as he is the king's own lieutenant. He has a priesthood. He may not exactly be an Egyptian priest, but he does stand as a beneficiary of that priesthood and acts under that authority, while retaining his own divine office. Joseph in Heliopolis now becomes what we might call the Db3.ty (the One belonging to or pertaining to the Db3) in the temple of Heliopolis.
Joseph marries the priesthood, meaning its rites and privileges, its honors and dignities. Note how the text does not link any of this to idolatry. After all, "She belongs to you": all that Aseneth inherits now, "and without compulsory means," belongs to Joseph. Great Egypt yields to the true priestly authority of God. The Egyptian priesthood, its rites and privileges, are but the shadow of the true: in the persons of Abraham and Joseph, then, Egypt is swallowed up in the true kingship.
Clothing, marriage, priesthood, Heliopolis: Is it Abraham Facsimile 2 or Genesis 41 we have to do with here? The Book of Joseph merges with the Book of Abraham.
For more on Josephus, Lepsius, and Steindorff, see
Edouard Naville, "The Egyptian Name of Joseph," JEA 12 1/2
For more on Joseph and Aseneth see Marc Philonenko, Joseph et Aseneth and Hugh Nibley and Michael Rhodes, One Eternal Round, 413-420.