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In a number of places, the English Standard Version uses a phrase like "wept on his neck," e.g.

Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin's neck and wept, and Benjamin wept upon his neck. —Genesis 45:14

Is this a Hebrew idiom? What does it mean? My best guess is that it means that he cried while he hugged him (in which case, ESV, bad translation!) To fall upon someone's neck sounds to me like you are hanging off it, but that's obviously not what's happening.

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3 Answers 3

up vote 10 down vote accepted

It appears to refer to a hug in which the hugger buries his face in the neck of the huggee. Another use of this is in Gen 33:4:

וַיָּרָץ עֵשָׂו לִקְרָאתוֹ וַיְחַבְּקֵהוּ, וַיִּפֹּל עַל-צַוָּארָו וַיִּשָּׁקֵהוּ; וַיִּבְכּוּ.

And Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him; and they wept.

A rabbinic midrash from Midrash Rabbah (search here for "and kissed him") holds that Esav tried to bite Yaakov, but Yaakov's neck was miraculously hardened so he couldn't. In order for that to happen his mouth would have had to have been near his neck. Of course, midrash is not biblical text; I bring this to show how the rabbis commenting at the time understood "falling on (one's) neck".

Please note: This answer was written for a neutral, academic audience and is not intended to be interpreted in the context of a religious belief or doctrine.

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The rabbinic there was once pointed out to me as an example of vampirism. I did not justify that with a response. –  Frank Luke May 9 '12 at 20:40
@FrankLuke, um, yeah... (Besides, if so, it was a foiled vampire!) –  Gone Quiet May 9 '12 at 21:40
that was my response exactly. –  Frank Luke May 10 '12 at 14:51

The complete list from the OT:

  1. Gen 33:4
  2. Gen 45:14
  3. Gen 46:29

The expression is not found in Hebrew outside the OT (and indeed only in Gen.) and is not used in modern Hebrew except when intent is mock Biblical.

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Now I'm curious. Do you have any sources for research done on this topic or examples of the mocking use you mention? Do any commentators knowledgable of its non-use in other Hebrew sources speculate as to how it came to be used in Biblical Hebrew? Could it have been something specific to the era (since we don't have other comparable written sources dating back to that time) –  Caleb Sep 25 '13 at 10:44

This is only a small addition to previous answers, which have dealt well with the main issue.

Act 20:37 And they all wept sore, and fell on Paul's neck, and kissed him

The idiom is not restricted to Hebrew: Here a Gentile author is writing about a group of predominantly Gentiles saying goodbye to the apostle to the Gentiles. It is possible that Luke was influenced by the Old Testament, the scripture of the early church, and was therefore led to use this expression.

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