αβιμελεχ and αχιμελεχ are transliterations whose meanings in Greek are simply the names Abimelech or Ahimelech. However, a translator would also continue to know the original meaning behind each name:
- Abimelech אֲבִימֶלֶךְ - transliterated as αβιμελεχ - "My father is king"
- Ahimelech אֲחִימֶלֶךְ - transliterated as αχιμελεχ - "My brother is king"
- Elimelech אֱלִימֶלֶךְ - never transliterated - "My God is king"
The misuse of these names is found in Ruth, 1 Samuel, 1 Chronicles, and Psalm 52. However, only in Ruth is the use of the "wrong" name consistent. Elsewhere the treatment varies: sometimes Ahimelech is rendered as Abimelech, others it is unchanged, and Abimelech is almost always rendered correctly, yet once it is rendered as Ahimelech.
Since there is no satisfactory textual explanation for the anomalies, I see the most plausible explanation that the translator intentionally changed the name (or title - see below) to Abimelech.
There are reasons a translator might see this as both necessary and acceptable:
- An attempt to translate or transliterate "God" into a Greek name could be considered as profaning the name of God.
- A translator will have a more developed understanding of the importance of the book of Ruth within the Davidic Covenant: it establishes the ancestral record of David, the future and eternal king of Israel. Replacing a name whose meaning is "My God is king" hides the contradictory fact Elimelech and his sons die so a distant relative may establish the line of David. The change also mimics the historical reality Israel demanded a king to replace YHVH, their divine King.
I suspect both reasons entered into the decision. Any attempt to correctly write "Elimelech" will raise the issue of how to do this in a way that could not be construed as misusing the name of God. Also Boaz, whose exact ancestral connection to Elimelech is never explained, is the key figure, regardless of how Naomi's deceased husband is identified. Finally, the death of Elimelech and his sons lessens the need to correctly record his identity.
As shown below, both αβιμελεχ and αχιμελεχ are used, suggesting a translator had a choice between either when addressing the issue inherent to the name Elimelech. The Hebrew meaning seems to be the determining factor in choosing to use Abimelech over Ahimelech. It is Boaz who is asuming the role of Mahlon's brother when he marries Ruth. Calling Elimelech, who is Mahlon's father, αχιμελεχ, (My brother...) misstates his familial relationship. Thus, αβιμελεχ (My father...) is the wrong name yet better embodies Elimelech's relationship to Boaz within this narrative.
The anomalous use of the name Abimelech is not limited to Ruth; elsewhere it is used selectively to replace Ahimelech. While it is possible to see these as scribal or manuscript errors, if Elimelech was purposely changed, it seems prudent to consider whether all changes should be viewed in that light.
Here is a comparison of the names in those books where the treatment is inconsistent:
MT (KJV) LXX Change Died before Saul
1 Sa 21:1a Ahimelech αβιμελεχ (Abimelech) Replaces Ahimelech Yes
1 Sa 21:1b Ahimelech αβιμελεχ (Abimelech) Replaces Ahimelech Yes
1 Sa 21:2 Ahimelech -------- ---
1 Sa 21:6 --------- αβιμελεχ (Abimelech) -------- Yes
1 Sa 21:8 Ahimelech αβιμελεχ (Abimelech) Replaces Ahimelech Yes
1 Sa 22:9 Ahimelech αβιμελεχ (Abimelech) Replaces Ahimelech Yes
1 Sa 22:11 Ahimelech αβιμελεχ (Abimelech) Replaces Ahimelech Yes
1 Sa 22:14 Ahimelech -------- -------- ---
1 Sa 22:16 Ahimelech αβιμελεχ (Abimelech) Replaces Ahimelech Yes
1 Sa 22:20 Ahimelech αβιμελεχ (Abimelech) Replaces Ahimelech Yes
1 Sa 23:6 Ahimelech αβιμελεχ (Abimelech) Replaces Ahimelech Yes
Psalm 52:1 Ahimelech αβιμελεχ (Abimelech) Replaces Ahimelech Yes
2 Sa 11:21 Abimelech αβιμελεχ (Abimelech) -------- Yes
2 Sa 11:22 --------- αβιμελεχ (Abimelech) -------- Yes
Psalm 34:1 Abimelech αβιμελεχ (Abimelech) -------- Uncertain
1 Ch 18:16 Abimelech αχιμελεχ (Ahimelech) Changed to Ahimelech No
1 Sa 26:6 Ahimelech αχιμελεχ (Ahimelech) -------- No
1 Sa 30:7 Ahimelech αχιμελεχ (Ahimelech) -------- Yes
2 Sa 8:17 Ahimelech αχιμελεχ (Ahimelech) -------- No
1 Ch 24:3 Ahimelech αχιμελεχ (Ahimelech) -------- No
1 Ch 24:6 Ahimelech αχιμελεχ (Ahimelech) -------- No
1 Ch 24:31 Ahimelech αχιμελεχ (Ahimelech) -------- No
As shown, in these books there is one "translation philosophy" which if followed will explain most of the decisions on how a name is to be recorded:
- A person who dies while Saul was reigning as king is identified as an Abimelech otherwise the person is identified as an Ahimelech.
Behind the Greek αβιμελεχ and αχιμελεχ is the meaning of "My father is king" or "My brother is king." However, αχιμελεχ is not simply a name, it is a concept within the Law:
“When you come to the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you possess it and dwell in it and then say, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,’ you may indeed set a king over you whom the LORD your God will choose. One from among your brothers you shall set as king over you. You may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother. (Deuteronomy 17:15-16 ESV)
The LXX is most selective on how Ahimelech, "My brother is king" is used. That name is reserved for individuals who served David as sole king of Israel. That is, for the LXX translator αχιμελεχ not only transliterates the name Ahimelech, it conceptualizes "One from among your brothers you shall set as king over you." It is a word which represents the hope of all living in post-exilic times: the Davidic Covenant will be fulfilled and David (their "brother) will rule over the kingdom of Israel.
Here are the two places in which this "rule" was not followed:
Pertaining to Dauid. When he changed his face before Abimelech, and he let him go, and he went away. (Psalm (33)34:1) [NETS]
And Dauid said to the priest, Abiathar son of Achimelech, "Bring the ephoud." (1 Samuel 30:7) [NETS]
In the first, Abimelech likely was alive when Saul died. However, the decision to make an exception to the rule can be justified if the translator understood Abimelech as Achish (1 Samuel 21:10-15), the Philistine king who would not meet the criteria of a brother. Some see the Psalm's use of "Abimelech" as a royal title not a proper name:
The psalm heading names the king Abimelech, not Achish, suggesting that the tradition is confused on this point. However, perhaps “Abimelech” was a royal title, rather than a proper name. See P. C. Craigie, Psalms 1-50 (WBC), 278.
In fact, that is how Abimelech is consistently handled throughout the LXX: it is a royal title given to those like Elimelech who are not in the position to say of David, "My brother is king."
The one clear violation of the rule occurs in 1 Samuel 30:7 where Abiathar is correctly identified as the son of Ahimelech, who Saul had killed. This exception could be deemed necessary to ensure Abiathar's correct ancestry is preserved somewhere in the narrative.
The decision to change Elimelech's name, which likely was done of necessity creates ancillary ripples in the flow of Israel's history as it is presented as a Greek narrative:
- Elimelech is removed from the record just as My God [YHVH] is "removed" as king.
- Abimelech is marginalized and becomes a title, not a name.
- Ahimelech takes on greater meaning:
- Boaz assumes the role of Mahlon's brother in the key event in David's ancestry.
- Deuteronomy 17:15-16 is fulfilled.
- When YHVH, whom the people rejected as King, promises David he will rule forever, the people have the hope they will see the day they can say, "My brother is king."
- By not following the rule, the translation is faithful to the Hebrew text.
- Notes NET Bible