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What is the meaning of Zaphenath-Paneah in Genesis 41:45?

Question: "What is the meaning of Zaphenath-Paneah in Genesis 41:45?"

Genesis 41:45 says, “Pharaoh gave Joseph the name Zaphenath-Paneah and gave him Asenath daughter of Potiphera, priest of On, to be his wife.” The exact meaning of Zaphenath-Paneah is unknown, and there is no general agreement among scholars as to its meaning. It is thought that paneah probably refers to “life” or “support of life.” Zaphenath is more difficult.

Pharaoh gave Joseph this Egyptian name after he interpreted the king’s dreams and gave him advice as to what should be done about the upcoming famine (Genesis 41:25–36). As part of entering the service of Pharaoh, it was important that Joseph have an Egyptian name, since he had the highest-ranking job apart from king of Egypt (Genesis 41:46).

Multiple translations of Zaphenath-Paneah have been proposed. A popular view is that the name means “the god speaks and he lives” (Strong’s Concordance). Variants abound, following similar lines. According to The Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, Zaphenath-Paneah “is most likely a Semitic form of an original Egyptian name meaning ‘says the god, he will live’” (vol. 2, W. A. Elwell, ed., Baker Book House, 1988, p. 2,178). Translating Zaphenath to mean “god speaks” or “says the god” seems to go along with Pharaoh’s acknowledgement that the wise Joseph had the “Spirit of God” within him (Genesis 41:38).

Another view of the meaning of Zaphenath-Paneah is that the name refers to Joseph’s wisdom in interpreting dreams. In Antiquities of the Jews, the historian Josephus states that Pharaoh “called him Psothom Phanech, out of regard to his prodigious degree of wisdom: for that name denotes the revealer of secrets” (II:6.1). Joseph, of course, gave all the glory to God for his ability to discern Pharaoh’s dreams. “I cannot do it,” he told Pharaoh, “but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires” (Genesis 41:16).

Although the exact definition of Zaphenath-Paneah is uncertain, the name is Egyptian in origin. As Nebuchadnezzar did with Daniel and his friends in Babylon (Daniel 1:7), Pharaoh provided Joseph with a new name as part of his assimilation into the culture and society of Egypt. These biblical heroes prove that a king can change your name, but he can’t change your character.

Despite having been assigned an Egyptian name, Joseph separated himself spiritually from the pagan Egyptian culture. The fact that the name Zaphenath-Paneah is mentioned only once in Scripture seems to support Joseph’s continued identification with his Hebrew heritage and his continued worship of the Lord God.

Recommended Resource: Genesis - NIV Application Commentary by John Walton

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Related Topics:

Who was Joseph in the Bible?

Was Joseph the same person as Imhotep in Egyptian history?

Who were the priests of On? Was Joseph wrong to marry the daughter of a pagan priest (Genesis 41)?

What is the story of Joseph and his brothers?

What is the story of Joseph and Potiphar?

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What is the meaning of Zaphenath-Paneah in Genesis 41:45?

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