The name Ephraim seems to commonly be given two etymologies, one referring to an "ash heap" and the other referring to "fruitfulness". Example I can understand the fruitfulness etymology linking אֶפְרַיִם back to פָּרָה, but where does the etymology of "ash heap" come from? Are these competing etymological theories, or are they somehow compatible?
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I'm not sure this is a answer, certainly if it is, it is speculative. However, it isn't clear why "ash heap" is an option here, because the word clearly derives from the word for fruitfulness. But as we know, words are a lot more than their etymology. They are a network of associations tying together different ideas based on the context in which they are used. Just a a pineapple is neither a pine cone nor an apple, the word stands on its own meaning, and own usage.
However, a couple of points worth considering. First, it is more commonly used of the place name Bethlehem Ephrath. This is the place where Joseph's mother Rachel was buried, Jacob's beloved one. Perhaps the place was named "Fruitful" originally but then became associated with the mourning for Jacob's beloved Rachel -- especially at that time, so close the actual event. Hence the two meanings, originally the literal, later the associated meaning of sadness. Of course ash heap is strongly associated with mourning in the Abrahamic tradition.
The best parallel I can draw is our English word Columbine. The columbine is a beautiful flower found in the woodlands of high altitude states like Colorado. However, now in English when we hear the name we think not of the flower but the tragedy associated with the school of that name. Beauty and terror in one word. Were your name Columbine, what would you think? How would you feel?
Another point that I think is pretty interesting is the context of the verse. The name is given, and its meaning is ambiguous, with the two possible meanings being almost opposites. The name is first given in Gen 41:52, occurring right in the middle of the Egyptian crisis (see the following few verses), seven years of plenty (fruitful), seven years of famine (ash heap.) In the seven years of plenty, and seven years of famine, which did the LORD make Jacob, plentiful or mourning? The fruitful and ash heap ambiguity seems quite poignant in that light I think.
I looked up אפר in BDB, which led to three references in torah (and more in the rest of tanakh that I didn't chase):
I think the connection to fruitfulness (פָּרָה) is more likely, but perhaps these verses are what support the alternate "ashes" explanation.
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.
Both fruit and ash come from the two-letter sub-root פֶר .
Sub-roots are not words, though some are occasionally used as such. They are primarily metaphoric concepts which are narrowed by the intersecting ideas of the letters which are added to them.
פֶר means young bull. As such it is the metaphor of the young bull. It is viril (fruitful) and it is the sacrifice (ash heap).
The aleph (אֵ) represents separation (see the heavens and the earth separated by the firmament), so the separated bull is the ash heap. The yud (י) represents the initial spark of creation and when added to the bull becomes fruitfulness.
It is made plural with the suffix. The metaphoric meaning of doubling is that the thing happens in heaven and on earth.
Pardon me for inserting my less than scholarly conjectures.
Due to the Hebrew words for
In my own words
Conjecture #2 is less plausible because a pual form might be more appropriate - I am caused to bear fruit - I am fruitful -> I am doubly/multiply fruitful.
Therefore, I vote for conjecture #1 - Plurality of stuffs that have been made into or appear as ash. Which would collide with all the good things biblical/rabbinic scholars have said about the tribe of Ephraim.
Someone with good biblical hebrew could please critique my conjectures.