Genesis 41:43 contains a verse describing Joseph riding in one of Pharaoh's chariots and being proclaimed as a leader. Since I began reading Tanach more than a decade ago, the grammar of this verse has dumbfounded me, leaving me wondering what the Hebrew text is actually saying. Here is the Hebrew for the verse, followed by the English translation:

וַיַּרְכֵּב אֹתוֹ בְּמִרְכֶּבֶת הַמִּשְׁנֶה אֲשֶׁר לוֹ וַיִּקְרְאוּ לְפָנָיו אַבְרֵךְ וְנָתוֹן אֹתוֹ עַל כָּל אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם

And they made him to ride in the chariot second to him (Pharaoh) and they called before him (Joseph) "bow!", and he placed him over the entire land of Egypt.

The word אַבְרֵךְ is difficult, mainly because there does not appear to be any grammatical construct in Biblical Hebrew which results in a translation which agrees with the standard English translation or even makes any sense.

One possible translation of אַבְרֵךְ can be made if we assume that this is the verb ברך in the first person imperfect hiphil form. But there are problems with this. First, ברך mainly appears in the piel form throughout Tanach. I am unsure as to what hiphil meaning it would have. And even if we accept a hiphil for ברך, we would be forced to use a first person translation, which doesn't make any sense.

Another possible translation of אַבְרֵךְ is that it could be the Aramaic aphael (Aramaic version of the Hebrew causative hiphil). In this case, it could either be first person imperfect, which again doesn't work. However, it could also be singular imperative, which might work. It would work if we assume that the Aramaic aphael of ברך means "bow" in a non-causative sense. But this raises the question as to why an Aramaism would appear in a section of the Torah surrounding events happening in Egypt.

The commentators did not seem to shed much light on this mystery. Rashi cites the Targum which attempts to render the word as אַבְ + רֵךְ (patron of the king), with רֵךְ meaning "king." This is ironic, since the full four letter word already is an Aramaic verb which might fit the context. Rashi also cites the Aggadah, which expounds that אַבְרֵךְ connotes the meaning of אׇב (father, in the sense of wise) + רַךְ (tender, in the sense of young).


1 Answer 1


Having received no answer from the community, I reached out to Dr. Gary Rendsburg, my former mentor, who currently serves as chair of the Jewish studies department at Rutgers University. It turns out that I was heading in the wrong direction by assuming that the troublesome word is either Hebrew or Aramaic, because it appears to belong to neither language. Dr. Rendsburg writes:

There are two solutions to 'abrek in Gen 41:43, neither of which has anything to do with Hebrew or Aramaic grammar.

Option one: The term is to be analyzed as Egyptian ib r.k, literally, 'heart to you', in the sense of 'hail unto you'.

Option two: The term derives from Akkadian 'abarakku, 'steward, housekeeper, administrator, and (during the 1st millennium) high state official, perhaps even chief steward'.

Since the setting is Egypt, I prefer the former option, especially given the presence of other Egyptian names and terms in the Joseph story. But there is much to commend the second option as well.

With regard to the possibility of an Aramaism or Persian influence, he wrote:

While many, and perhaps even most, biblical scholars date the story to the Persian period, this is utter nonsense. We know what Persian-period texts look like, such as Ezra-Nehemiah, Esther, and Chronicles, with Persian loanwords, Aramaic influence, and internal Late Biblical Hebrew developments to be seen throughout. But all of that is missing from the Joseph story and indeed from the entire Torah, which has not a single Persian loanword.


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