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I am new to this site, so if someone has asked this, please accept it as a newbie move and denigrate not. (lol)

Caleb חלב means dog. How did Caleb know he was being called a human name, and not a dog (slur)? Helev חלב means milk. How did Helev know he was being called a human name, and not a beverage? Nabal נָבָל means fool. How did Nabal know his name was being used and not an epithet?

What Hebrew prefix or word (etc. I am not a linguist) was attached to indicate a human name was being used when using that name, rather than simply the word (eg. dog or milk)

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    Often, if not invariably, Hebrew names are slightly different from the noun from whih they are derived. Context determines.
    – Nigel J
    Mar 19 at 15:16
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    Good question (and a couple of good answers). Proverbs 18:10 says "the name of the LORD is a strong tower; the righteous run to it and are safe." This made me think of my Gaelic name which literally means "grey tower or fortress". In times of trouble I remember Psalm 31:1-3 where David likens the LORD to "a strong fortress to save me" and I turn to Him. Names are significant and full of meanings. Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics.
    – Lesley
    Mar 19 at 16:34
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    @Andy Really? There are many examples of English-speakers with names like Rose, Grace, Amber, Clay, Ruby, Cliff, Glen, Joy, ad nauseam who somehow get by with their proper noun also being a common noun. Mar 20 at 4:39
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    ...not to mention the common idom in many American English dialects of actually calling your close friends "dog".
    – T.E.D.
    Mar 20 at 19:07
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    Why do you think this is specific to biblical names? Names in most languages have meanings, although in many cases the meanings have been lost to time. But my grandmother's name was "Rose" -- there was never any confusion over whether someone was referring to a real flower.
    – Barmar
    Mar 20 at 21:15

2 Answers 2

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Hebrew is complex, and there are several possibilities here that must be considered.

Hebrew Grammar

In Hebrew, there is no case distinction and no special way of indicating a name. Hebrew names do not have the article "הָ" (ha), for example, because names are already definite. Context informs the reader whether or not a Hebrew word is a name. Some Hebrew "names" are actually full sentences in Hebrew, such as "Melchizedek," which means "My king is righteous." If you have a sentence like "My king is righteous, king of Salem, brought forth bread and wine" (Genesis 14:18)...obviously, the grammatical context shows that this "sentence" should be considered as a name.

Hebrew Names

In Hebrew, names always have a meaning. The meaning usually is important to the story, and fits the character or role of the one so-named. This hand-in-glove fit is often so nearly perfect as to inspire multiple theories of interpretation as to the reason for this.

One theory which scholars hold is that the writer of the story cared less about the actual names of the persons involved, and focused, instead, on their roles--essentially giving them names that would best fit the historical record. Proponents of this theory assume that the original names are unimportant, and that the author of the story chose names that were better suited to the storyline.

Another theory holds that the actions, character, or events that took place during the lifetime of the biblical characters involved determined the meaning of their names afterward. For example, to this day we associate Jehu with driving insanely fast because he was known for this. We also associate Samson with strength--and brand names like "Samsonite" may well be exploiting this image. When, for example, the sons of Naomi died early, it becomes an interesting question of whether she or their father would really have given them the names "sick" and "pining" or whether these were just the meanings that those names came to be associated with ever after. (Personally, I lean toward this latter theory.)

Caleb

In Caleb's case, the article is not prefixed to the word. He being a righteous man, seems exceptional in terms of his name. However, the word spelled as "כָּלֵ֛ב" (Caleb) is never translated as "dog". The similar word "כֶּ֣לֶב" is. These are spelled differently, with the name "Caleb" having a patach as its first vowel, whereas the word "dog" has a segol. There are other differences as well, though certainly the three root letters are the same for both, and the original Hebrew did not have these added vowel pointings (so whether or not there was any difference in the original pronunciation is debatable).

Nabal

In Nabal's case, the word does appear in Job 30:8 where it is translated as "fools" ("sons of fools" instead of "sons of Nabal"). As with Caleb, there is no definite article to distinguish "Nabal" as a name where it is used for the husband of Abigail. However, in other places where "fool" is used, it may occur as a separate word root, or it may take a different form, such as appearing as the adjective "נָבָ֖ל" (foolish) in Deuteronomy 32:6, or as "הַנְּבָלִ֖ים" (the fools, plural) in 2 Samuel 13:13.

Context is always very important with interpreting Hebrew, and often more than one meaning may be simultaneously accurate and/or intended.


UPDATED after consultation with my Hebrew professor: Names never need the article in Hebrew.

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    Thank you for the excellent reply. You used the נְקֻדּוֹת‎, (nikkud) which is part of modern Hebrew. As I said, I am new to the study of Hebrew and though I can understand (somewhat) the difference between "כָּלֵ֛ב" and "כֶּ֣לֶב" when using the nikkud. How would I know this if I were reading Hebrew without the nikkud? I mean other than adding "ה" before the word. In that case where the word "the" is the article that functions as both an adjective and an adverb, do you mean to say we have to rely on context? Thank you. Hope I made sense here. Thanks again.
    – DrRamon
    Mar 20 at 16:06
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    @DrRamon The vowel pointings were not part of the original Hebrew--we know that much. However, some may argue that the Masoretes who added them were providing us a way of remembering how the Hebrew should be pronounced, and were not inventing the pronunciations themselves. Though widely accepted, their contributions are sometimes questioned. In places, vowels can change the meaning of the root letters completely. The "הָ" prefix is added to adjectives where necessary to match the definiteness of their nouns--otherwise one would have a nominal sentence. I'm not clear on your question, though.
    – Biblasia
    Mar 20 at 19:39
  • You have it as I meant it. And from the context of the answers in toto I believe I have a better understanding. Thanks for helping.
    – DrRamon
    Mar 20 at 22:13
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With regard to biblical hermeneutics, it is the biblial meaning of names that are to be examined. Using Young's Analytical Concordance to the Bible, there appears to be no idea that 'Caleb' means 'dog'. It is given as the name of three different men in the Hebrew scriptures, and once as the place-name of Caleb Ephratah. This is said to have been located near to Bethlehem-Judah, named after Caleb who was married to Ephratah.

As for the name, Caleb, its meaning is given as 'bold, impetuous'. No mention of it meaning a dog.

The word Helev does not appear anywhere in the Concordance. The name of Heleb (meaning 'fat') is synonymous with Heled. Heleb was one of David's valiant fighting men, mentioned twice in the Hebrew scriptures (the second time as Heled.) Yet even if the word you give is biblical and means 'milk', there would be no slur in also using it as a person's name.

The only name you list that means something derogatory is Nabal, which means 'fool, projecting'. He was a rich man in Mahon who insulted David, and died of fright. The man had a terrible reputation and seems, indeed, not to have been liked and to have been very foolish. But the Bible is perfectly clear in 1 Samuel chapters 25 to 30 that he was named Nabal while alive, so that it could not have been an epithet.

Sometimes different meanings to names can attach in later centuries. Perhaps that is what happened with the first two examples you gave. There are cases in history where a once oft-used name stopped being used after a particularly notorious person caused it to become undesirable as a person's name. It is not clear when the idea of 'dog' and 'milk' began to attach to those two person's names, so if some facts about that could be supplied, the question could get a more fulsome answer.

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    Anne, the three root letters for the word "Caleb" in Hebrew, kaf, lamed, bet, are the very root letters used for "dog." Look at the Hebrew. The vowel pointings were not added to the Hebrew until between AD 500 and AD 1100. In other words, Moses, Joshua, etc. would have written "Caleb" and "dog" with identical spellings. If therefore the word is said to mean "bold, impetuous," it must be considered the attribute of dogs.
    – Biblasia
    Mar 19 at 22:36
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    @Biblasias Thank you for that; I shall look further into it. I have long supposed that because of the small number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet it would be inevitable that a multitude of words could share several root letters, and that context would be critically important to get the meaning. I'd already upvoted your superior answer!
    – Anne
    Mar 20 at 12:51

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