What does Joseph’s Egyptian name “Zaphenath-paneah” actually mean?

Byline:  Dec. 18, 2009–4:00 PM

41:45 וַיִּקְרָא פַרְעֹה שֵׁם־יוֹסֵף צָפְנַת פַּעְנֵחַ  — Pharaoh then gave Joseph the name Zaphenath-paneah — Like other foreigners, Joseph assumes an Egyptian name so that he would better fit in Pharaoh’s court and be better accepted by the Egyptian people. The meaning of this Egyptian name is remains unclear and the certainty of its meaning has eluded scholars since the time of the Septuagint and rabbinic tradition.

For example, the some early exegetes think the name means, “revealer of secrets” [1]. More correctly, R. David Kimchi and Ibn Ezra  (ca. 13th century) observe that  Zaphenath-paneah is really an Egyptian name. Some suggest that  the name Zaphenath-paneah is a Hebrew transcription of an Egyptian name meaning “the god speaks and he lives.” [2]

Professor Kenneth Kitchen, points out that  Zaphenath-paneah was originally Zat-en-aph, for in ancient Egyptian was pronounced Djed(u)en-ef (‘he who is called’). This point, he asserts, is a familiar phrase to all Egyptologists. Furthermore, it is an example of where the letters ‘t’ and ‘p,’ became reversed. Such orthography illustrates the common (but unintentional) practice whenever difficult words and names  are transferred  from one language into another. A Hebrew scribe most likely slipped into the use of a common Semitic root zaphan while writing zaphenat, for the unfamiliar vocalization of Joseph’s Egyptian name. The second part of the name, “Paneah,” may be derived from the Egyptian word,  “aneah” ankh or ankhu (signifying ‘is alive’). The initial “Pa” or “Pi,” corresponds to the Egyptian word Ipi or Ipu. Therefore, “Zaphenath pa’aneah” means, “he who is called Anakh.”[3]

Lastly, Yoshiyuki Muchiki proposes yet another possible rendering, “My provision is god, the living one.” [4]

[1]  See Onkelos,  Rashi, Septuagint and Josephus’ Antiquities 2:6:1. Kimchi also suggests, “Revealtor Occuti” – “revealer of hidden things.”

[2] Other suggestions worthy of consideration: In the Septuagint, we find: Ψονθομφανηχ (Psonthomphantech), “the one who furnishes the nourishment of life” or “healer of the world” (Vulgate).  Some scholars propose that in the Coptic language, it signifies a “revealer of secrets,” or, “the man to whom secrets are revealed,” or, “The man who  knows all things” (Vergote). This name may also  mean “The Nourisher of the Two Lands, the Living One”; or possibly, “savior-of-the-world, or -land”;  or “sustainer of life” (Albright) In any case, the name suggests that it was through Joseph life in Egypt had been preserved

[3] K.A. Kitchen, “On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 345-346.

[4] Yoshiyuki Muchiki, Egyptian Proper Names  and Loanwords in North West Semitic (Society of Biblical Literature Dissertation Series  173) Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1999, pp. xxv, 326-327.