In this parasha, Miketz, which tells the center section of the Joseph saga, and leaves us with one of the great biblical cliffhangers, as we wait to learn the result of Joseph setting up Benjamin as the fall guy for a missing goblet, we also get an example of a word phenomenon. The scholarly term for it is hapax legomenon – a word that occurs only once in a body of literature. This makes pinning down the true meaning of a word quite difficult.
When Joseph is appointed as Pharaoh’s second in command, he is paraded around town in a chariot (shades of Purim here)
41:43 He had him ride in the chariot of his second-in-command, and they cried before him, "Abrek!" Thus he placed him over all the land of Egypt.
The work “abrek,” (alef/patakh-vet/sh’va-resh/tsere-khaf sofit/sh’va, pronounced “a-brake” ) is one of about 70 hapax legomena in the Torah. This is a subject of some debate. There are probably about 1,500 words in the Tanakh that are candidates for being unique words, however more than two-thirds of such words have an etymology that can fairly readily be derived from some existing word or shoresh (root) leaving somewhere between 400-500 true hapax legomena in the Tanakh (of which some 67 or so are in Torah.)
As a brief sidebar, I am also curious as to why this word is transliterated as “Abrek” when, at least according to the vowelization of the Masoretes the second letter has no dagesh and would be pronounced as a “v” sound, and the final letter, khaf, even though the added sh’va sharpens and shortens the sound, would still not make it a true “k” sound but more of an abrupt “kh” sound.
Enough digression. As a true hapax legomenon, we cannot be sure of the word’s true meaning. We can make a lot of decent guesses based on the context – it is likely a word of honor rather than one of derision, and it is quite likely a word one would use to show obeisance.
We can certainly speculate. For one thing, some scholars argue that this word, too, is not a true hapax legomenon, and is easily derived from the Hebrew root “bet-resh-khaf” – the root that means “knee” and “to bend or bow” from which we eventually derive the words for “blessing.” Yet our context is Egypt, and this is a word that Egyptians would use for their leaders, making a Hebrew derivation somewhat suspicious (or not, depending on your views about where Hebrew actually comes from.) Strong’s Concordance says it is likely an Egyptian work meaning “kneel” (which makes it suspiciously like the Hebrew.) The venerable BDB (Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon) says the meaning is “dubious” and HALOT (Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament) says its meaning is uncertain but seems to buy into the connection to the Hebrew root. Of course these are resource works compiled mostly (but not exclusively) by Christian bible scholars.
The Septuagint (the Greek translation of Torah created by comparing the work of 70 (actually 72 in the original legend) elders of the Jewish community who separately translated the Torah into Koine Greek, each arriving, through G”d’s assistance, at the same translation) translates the word “Abrek” as “herald.”
Rashi suggests it could mean “father of the King” or, buying into the Hebrew root hypothesis, “bend the knee.” Modern scholar Nahum Sarna prefers thinking of it as an Egyptian term of uncertain meaning.
In his article on “Genesis and Ancient Near Eastern Literature” that appears in the Plaut commentary, William Hallo seizes on the word “abrek” as a perfect way to illustrate how important the use of context can be in biblical exegesis. Hallo provides a wonderful exploration of the topic. He suggests that the Alexandrian Jewish elders who created the Septuagint would be likely to understand the word. He then goes on to cite recent evidence of an Akkadian origin of the word meaning “chief steward” and a later Assyrian meaning specifically designating a high official in an administration. Hallo then takes off on a great discourse on what significance may or may not be attributable to the presence of an Assyrian word in the context of this part of the Torah. I commend it to you.
Now I hear you asking “so what?” When the Torah has so much to say, so much to teach, why waste time and such an insignificant and seemingly unimportant word that hardly does much to contribute to or advance the narrative?
The rabbis would have us believe that every word in Torah is carefully chosen, and every jot and tittle matters. Hallo (and many other scholars) argue that we must consider the interconnectedness of the Torah and other Ancient Near Eastern texts. The various texts inform and shape each other (Hallo reminds us that we must not see the Torah as only a recipient of influence from other ANE texts.)
So, what do I argue for in this case? Simple. It’s just another mystery in the Torah put there to do just what it is doing. Causing us to wonder about it.
Were you expecting something more, something deeper? Dear reader, you know me better. This has all been one giant shaggy dog story of a pun to connect the title of this musing with its last words:
Shabbat Shalom and Khag Urim Sameiakh,
©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on the parasha:
Miketz 5771-What's Bothering...Me?
Miketz/Hanukkah 5769 - Redux 5763 - Assimilating Assimilation
Miketz/Hanukah 5768 Learning From Joseph and His Brothers (revised from 5757)
Miketz 5767-Clothes Make the Man?
Miketz 5766-Eizeh Hu Khakham?
Miketz 5757& 5761-Would You Buy A Used Car From This Guy?
Miketz 5763/5764/5765-Assimilating Assimilation