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Name changes throughout the Bible are pretty significant.

Numbers 13:16 says that "Moses changed the name of Hosea son of Nun to Joshua."

What is the significance of this name change? What are the Hebrew meanings/spellings of each name? Are there any commentaries about this (i.e., Rashi)?

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4 Answers 4

The aggadic interpretation shared by many Jewish commentators is that the basis for the name change is that Moses prayed for Joshua. Indeed Rashi explains that he prays he be saved from the counsel of the spies.

Why he didn't pray for Caleb as well is a question many commentators who take this line have great difficulty understanding (see the Kli Yakar). Another problem with this line of explanation is why he couldn't simply pray without changing his name - not every prayer for someone involves changing a name (see the Or Hachaim). It's obvious that there are vastly more prayers said than names changed in the tanakh.

There are a whole host of alternate explanations regarding the details of the name change. The Tosfot quote Midrash Tanchuma explaining that Moses saw Caleb taking his portion of the land of Israel, and Joshua taking the portion of the remaining ten spies (the added letter having numerical value ten). Another opinion brought is that it's the numerical sum of the additions made to Abraham's and Sarah's names (ה to each makes two fives = ten). A slightly more literal explanation is proffered by Sforno, that Joshua will be saved and will save others - the new name being the future tense "he will save", without funny number stuff.

While these all seem like a nice story, I find this incredibly tenuous as a biblical understanding. A much more solid answer to this question is given by the Rashbam, who explains that the name change was traditional in the appointing of a second-in-command. He points to Genesis 41:44-45, and Daniel 2,4 for equivalents. This cross-references well and explains the significance here. It doesn't explain the meaning of the name change, although the Sforno's explanation above seems more than plausible even in this case.

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+1 interesting insights! –  Emi Matro Sep 7 '13 at 18:11

I believe the name change symbolizes a task ahead.I believe like Abraham who's name was changed to align with his future duties,Moses not knowing was led to change the name of Joshua who later led the Israelite's to the promised land instead of Moses.

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We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

This is a very interesting start to an answer - I'd love you to flesh it out. –  Jack Douglas Jun 16 at 8:34

Hosea means "salvation". Moses changed his name to Joshua because it means " Jehovah is salvation". Moses in Numbers 20 when he was told by Jehovah to speak to the rock and water would come out for the Israelites to drink. Forgot that it was Jehovah who gave him the power and instead gave himself (Moses) the glory. And that's why he was not aloud to enter into the promise land. I think that is significant because by Hosea's name being changed to Joshua (meaning Jehovah is salvation) gave Joshua a constant reminder of who is in charge. And maybe that's why God chose Joshua to lead the people to the promise land. Because God knew Joshua's heart and mind would give God the praise for delivering the Israelites into the promise land! Think about all the great things Moses did for God. A lot of times it's hard to stay humble when God allows or blesses you to be great!

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While there is nothing explicit given regarding the change, the significance appears to lie in the meanings themselves. However, this topic is possibly the most important onomastic study of all time. No exaggeration.

Numbers 13:16 reads: “אֵלֶּה שְׁמֹות הָאֲנָשִׁים אֲשֶׁר־שָׁלַח מֹשֶׁה לָתוְּר אֶת־הָאָרֶץ וַיִּקְרָא מֹשֶׁה לְהֹושֵׁעַ בִּנ־נוְּן יְהֹושֻׁעַ” First, we must identify the original name, phonologically speaking. The vocalizations (vowel markings) reflected above date to about 850 C.E., when the Masoretic system of vowel pointing was completed. These merely preserved the pronunciations from the reading tradition then practiced in the synagogues. Sometimes, we can do better. The original form of the name /Hôšēaʿ/ (Hosheaʿ) was /Hawšēʿ/ before contraction of /aw/ > /ô/. The ʿayin /ʿ/ is a pharyngeal (throaty) sound. The patach furtive ( ַ ) is there to assist with these sounds. This original spelling is confirmed from the eight century B.C.E., where Hoshea, King of Israel, is written in cuneiform as a-ú-se-aʾ in 732 B.C.E. (S. Cole, “Awsēa’” in The Prosopography of the Neo-Assyrian Empire [ed. K. Radner; Helsinki: University of Helsinki, 1998], 1:238). The [aw] is pronounced as in “auto” not as in “cow.” This is the so-called Hebrew diphthong. The Septuagint (c. 250 B.C.E.) also confirms the ancient pronunciation, where Num 13:16 reads: “ταῦτα τὰ ὀνόματα τῶν ἀνδρῶν, οὓς ἀπέστειλεν Μωυσῆς κατασκέψασθαι τὴν γῆν. καὶ ἐπωνόμασεν Μωυσῆς τὸν Αυση υἱὸν Ναυη Ἰησοῦν.” Again, the spelling Αυση reflects a Hebrew *הַוְשֵׁע.

The form *הַוְשֵׁע indicates a causative imperative masculine singular of the verb wšʿ (> yšʿ) [IPA wʃʕ]. It means “Save!” or “Oh Save!” This was the meaning of the original name. But in context this would apply to the events before the Exodus, with the oppression and a cry: “וַיְהִי בַיָּמִים הָרַבִּים הָהֵם וַיָּמָת מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם וַיֵּאָנְחוְּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל מִנ־הָעֲבֹדָה וַיִּזְעָקוְּ וַתַּעַל שַׁוְעָתָם אֶל־הָאֱלֹהִים מִנ־הָעֲבֹדָה” (And in those many days the King of Egypt died and the children of Israel sighed because of the labor and they cried, and their cry went up to Elohim because of the labor, Exo 2:23). The response was given in 3:8, “וָאֵרֵד לְהַצִּילֹו מִיַּד מִצְרַיִם וְּלְהַעֲלֹתֹו מִנ־הָאָרֶץ הַהִוא אֶל־אֶרֶץ טֹובָה וְּרְחָבָה” (I have come down to deliver them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up from that land to a good and broad land). That name seemed to typify the sentiments in bondage.

Moses is written as performing the change while at Kadesh, in the wilderness of Paran, when they went to spy out this land of Canaan. He introduced the Israelites’ Supreme Being into it, Yahweh. He changed *הַוְשֵׁע (Hawšēʿ) to יַהְוְשֻׁע (Yahwšūʿ), but not יְהֹושֻׁעַ (Yĕhôšūʿ) or יֵשׁוּעַ (Yēšûʿ). These latter two trace to the later Hellenistic period and exemplify religio-linguistic machinations designed to avoid a form too close to Yahweh, i.e. yahwthe only long pre-exilic abbreviated form of the name at the end and also at the beginning of personal names compounded with the name Yahweh. For the abbreviated form yahw, see David Noel Freedman and Michael P. O’Connor, “יהוה YHWH,” in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, ed. G. J. Botterweck and H. Ringgren (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 5:501, 512 and David Noel Freedman, Francis I. Anderson, and A. Dean Forbes, Studies in Hebrew and Aramaic Orthography (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1992), 173–74. Also from the Akkadian side see Ran Zadok, “Old Iranian Anthroponyms and Related Material in Late Babylonian Sources,” Revue d’assyriologie et d’archéologie orientale 98 (2004): 7 n. 7; and “Jehu,” Nouvelles Assyriologiques Brèves et Utilitaires 1 (1997): 20. Regarding Yĕhô, William Albright commented (rather strongly) that: “In the same way they [Masoretes] found the spelling יהו with the pronunciation . There was one way out of the difficulty—to point the initial yôd with šewâ, which they promptly did. . . . At all events, their system forced them to create an anomalous punctuation which presently became a literary pronunciation, and has been responsible for gallons of wasted ink in recent times.” (William F. Albright, “Further Observations on the Name Yahweh and Its Modifications in Proper Names,” Journal of Biblical Literature 44 (1925): 160). Albright refers to the Greek transcriptions of the initial element exclusively with Ιω, with no [e] before the ω. Nevertheless, while the previous authors understood the original correct form (yahw), it is not certain how they understood the precise chronological development. The spelling of compound names with Ιω is a regular late ideological change after the fourth century B.C.E., but יֵשׁוּעַ (Yēšûʿ) (with no abbreviated name) is an anomaly witnessed already at Mt. Gerizim at about 200 B.C.E. See Y. Magen, H. Misgav, and L. Tsfania, Mount Gerizim Inscriptions: Volume I The Aramaic, Hebrew and Samaritan Inscriptions (Jerusalem: Israel Antiquities Authority, 2004), 20. Our own recent investigation has greatly clarified the development, but must be left for another question. See my preliminary studies here and ideological developments about Yahweh here. For now, we can say positively that the form Yahwšūʿ is the original form of this name and meant “Yahweh is salvation,” but has a very long history.

Thus he changed Hawšēʿ (Oh Save!) to Yahwšūʿ (Yahweh is salvation). It seems that Moses utilized the change to remind the Israelites just before they were to enter the land of their moment of distress at the Red Sea when Moses said “אַל־תִּירָאוְּ הִתְיַצְבוְּ וְּרְאוְּ אֶת־יְשׁוְּעַת יְהוָה אֲשֶׁר־יַעֲשֶׂה לָכֶם הַיֹּום” (Fear not, stand still, and see the salvation of Yahweh that he will work for you today). Yahweh did save them, as seen in Exo 14:30 “וַיֹּושַׁע יהוה בַּיֹּום הַהוְּא אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵל מִיַּד מִצְרָיִם וַיַּרְא יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת־מִצְרַיִם מֵת עַל־שְׂפַת הַיָּם” (And Yahweh saved Israel in that day from the hand of the Egyptians and Israel saw the Egyptians dead upon the edge of the sea).

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