Then Pharaoh gave Joseph a new Egyptian name, Zaphenath-paneah. He also gave him a wife, whose name was Asenath. She was the daughter of Potiphera, the priest of On. So Joseph took charge of the entire land of Egypt. (Genesis 41:45)
Relate: Names mean something. Well, maybe they don’t mean all that much anymore but they used to. It is rare to hear about a significant name change in our world today. A couple big exceptions are Malcolm X (formerly Malcolm Little and later El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz) and Martin Luther King Jr (born Michael King Jr but his father changed both his own name and his son’s after a trip to Germany) For most of us these days, our name is simply something our parents thought sounded nice when we were born or perhaps it is the name of a significant relative or friend. By the way, Beejai means “victory” in Hindi and a similar pronunciation in Kurdish means “forever”.
Names might not mean much in our time but they were huge in Biblical times. This is especially true when a name is changed or added in a person’s adult life. Joseph (Yosef) means “He will add” or “He will do again.” So what does Zaphenath-paneah mean? It was clearly significant for the Egyptians. Joseph was, to them, the representation, the ambassador of the one true God. What impression did he make? If you’re reading from many versions of the Bible (KJV, NKJV, NIV, ESV, RSV, etc) there is no footnote to help out even though you will find one explaining the kids names just a couple verses later. The NASB and NLT do say that it probably means God speaks, He lives (NASB) or God speaks and lives (NLT). That probably is an awfully big word and for me, it’s not good enough.
So I did a little digging. The problem of the name is that it is an Egyptian name transliterated into Hebrew and then more than a couple millennia passed by before anybody bothered to start thinking seriously about what it might mean. True, when Jewish scholars first translated the Tanach into Greek (the Septuagint) they used a Greek transliteration basically meaning “the one who furnishes the nourishment of life” and the Latin Vulgate played off this to use a name meaning “healer of the world”. The Coptic (Egyptian Christians who trace their heritage all the way back to Solomon) claim the name means “the man who knows all things” or “the man to whom secrets are revealed”. Considering that their language would, to a degree, be descended from that ancient Egyptian, that at least deserves a bit more consideration than the other two.
The reason why we think the name probably means something along the lines of “God speaks, He lives” is because Egyptologists believe Joseph’s Egytian name is a combination of two ancient words, “Zat-en-aph” (pronounced DJED-un-ef) and “Aneah”. The first of these means something along the lines of “He who is called” or “He who calls”. The second “life”. It is the same word from which ankh is derived, It is the most famous of Egyptian symbols and still represents immortality. If these Egyptologists and Biblical scholars are right (and they’re all a lot smarter in this than I am) the Joseph’s Egyptian name, Zaphenath-paneah, means, “He who calls is life.” Or, more simply, “God speaks, He lives.” Or even, “God speaks life.”
React: God still speaks life today. Even if, someday this best of theories as to what Joseph’s name means is blown out of the water, God still speaks life. He is still speaking to hearts and lives today that many might be saved from death. Are we listening? Are there Josephs out there today with the fate of tens of thousands in their hands who are ignoring His words? Am I?
He who speaks still lives. What He has said, His commands and precepts, His promises, are all still just as relevant for us today as when they were first put down in writing. They are just as valid as when the original prophets and apostles recorded them. Jesus’ sermons on the hillsides still live on in the hearts and lives of His followers today. Do they live in mine?
He who calls still promises life eternal. Where He calls, what He calls us to might not be easy. He still promises to us a future loaded with impossibly good as well as horrendously bad. He still demands from us the use of both wisdom and action. Are we using them? The living God is still speaking today. Are we listening? Am I?
You still speak. You still live. In and through my life, let this be evident to all. When people look at me, when they hear what I say, when they see how I live, let them say like they did around Joseph. The God who speaks is alive. Let my every breath bring glory to You.