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I've heard that Methuselah's name was given to him by Enoch in response to a prophecy concerning the flood. Since he seems to have died in the year of the flood (according to the Masoretic and Samaritan texts), it's not surprising that interpreters would search for evidence for a deeper meaning to his (record-breaking) life. But there's very little to go on other than the meaning of his name. Here is the sum of the biblical account of his life:

When Enoch had lived 65 years, he begot Methuselah. After the birth of Methuselah, Enoch walked with God 300 years; and he begot sons and daughters. All the days of Enoch came to 365 years. Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, for God took him.

When Methuselah had lived 187 years, he begot Lamech. After the birth of Lamech, Methuselah lived 782 years and begot sons and daughters. All the days of Methuselah came to 969 years; then he died.—Genesis 5:21-27 (NJPS)

The two interpretations I've seen are:

  1. "man of the dart" (or possibly "spear")
  2. "he shall send his death" or more provocatively "when he is dead it shall be sent"

See, for instance this answer, which references Gleanings from Genesis and this article, which also references Dictionary of Old Testament Proper Names.

Do these definitions of the name "Methuselah" stand up and, if so, what is the significance to our interpretation of Genesis 5?

  • 1
    R.S.R. Hirsch has an interesting take on the names of both antediluvian lines, referring to stages of deviation from and return to God’s will, and the attitudes of the leaders towards the hoi polloi. If I can find a copy handy I’ll write this up as a full answer, but from what I recall Hirsch translates Methuselah as “casting aside [shelaḥ] the ignoble masses [methu]”; i.e., while some in that generation were righteous, they ignored their responsibility to teach others. – J. C. Salomon Oct 10 '12 at 22:10
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Long Hebrew names are made up of smaller words.

The two-letter subroot 'Meth' means death.

I believe Hirsh interprets the dead to be the 'ignoble masses' rather than unpack it from the name.

Strong sometimes interprets it to mean 'man' but most of the time in translation it is referring to a 'few men' and often to a few men who were doomed, or apparently doomed though they survive it. The words 'doomed' can often be substituted for 'men' (Meth) and still have a sensible narrative.

The vav at the beginning of a word is used for 'and' with Methushalach being a compound word we can use it as 'and' in the middle too.

The two-letter sub-root 'Shl' us used to ease-off the sandal, or to let fall some of the sheaves so that Ruth could pick them up.

The addition of the 'Ch' to the sub-root adds an emphasis or completeness in purpose which can be taken to be more of a 'thrusting' or 'sending out'. It is from this that the word SHalach takes the meaning of spear or dart.

In my opinion, 'man of the spear' is a secondary option since neither 'man' nor 'spear' are the primary meanings of the underlying sub-roots.

'Death and sent' or 'death and let-fall with purpose' best summarize the sub-roots. Sub-roots are not words. They are similar to hieroglyphic ideas such that the words made from them will contain the metaphors presented by the sub-roots.

"At his death [something] was sent' falls within the practice of interpreting sub-roots and the hieroglyphics of the letters.

But if we miss the connection, God gave us a second meaning so that those who interpret his name the other way also have a warning:

Methuselah means 'man of the spear' and since 'Cain' means 'possessor of the spear' Methuselah is parallel type to Cain as the one who brought death into the world.

So both meanings can be derived from the name, and both are fruitful in meditating upon the scriptures. It is probable that both meanings were intended by God.

2

If we split the name מְתוּשֶׁלַח into two parts, we have מְתוּ+שֶׁלַח

Possibilities for מְתוּ

From Akkadian mutu meaning husband, warrior, or man.

Although מְתוּ could be related to the word for death, I would prefer the Akkadian cognate (husband, warrior, or man), especially in view of another name that shares this root in Gen 4:18: מְתוֹשָׁאֵל

This name is best understood as meaning something like “man of God” and HALOT analyzes it thus: מתוׂ + שֶׁ + אֵל

Possibilities for שֶׁלַח

There are a range of possibilities for שֶׁלַח given in HALOT, all derivatives of שלח, to send. Here are a few of them:

a. the river of the underworld which is effective as a harbinger of trouble

In Job 33:18, crossing over the שָּֽׁלַח seems to be a metaphor for dying:

He spares a person’s life from corruption, his very life from crossing over the river
(שָּֽׁלַח). (Job 33:18 NET)

b. The name of a deity (that is, the deified river of the underworld)

c. a place name

d. from שׁלח to let loose, give free rein to; or to cause water (a spring) to flow; aqueduct, canal, water channel

e. missile, javelin

Thus “man of a, b, c, d, or e” are all possibilities.

Options a, b, and d, all having something to do with water, sending forth water in the form of a river, channel, or spring, or a deity related to such, could potentially relate his name to the flood that occurred in the year of his death.

If we split מְתוּשֶׁלַח into מְתוּ+שֶׁ+לַח as HALOT does for the name מְתוֹשָׁאֵל, it should be noted that לַח is likely derived from לחח, meaning “to make moist,” also an interesting possibility.

  • Richard S. Hess also reads mutu based on wide appearance in names in the region. I think he also settles on the deity for the second half but expresses uncertainty. See Studies in the Personal Names of Genesis 1-11 for more (sadly out of print but available in some university libraries...) – Luke Sawczak Jul 28 '18 at 14:33

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