September 10, 2014

Bathsheba Bath-shea; why do OT names change?

by Jesse Johnson

Why do names change between the books of Samuel/Kings and Chronicles? For example, in 2 Samuel 11:3, David looks from his window and sees a beautiful woman bathing in an adjacent house. He inquires of her name, and finds out: “Is this not Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam?” And from there it becomes your typical king-meets-wife-of-deployed-soldier, affair-pregnancy-murder-cover-up kind of story, and ends up costing David his kingdom.

But this story can become confusing when you read in 1 Chronicles 3:5 that David had four children “by Bath-shua, the daughter of Ammiel.” So what gives? Why is Bathsheba’s name spelled differently, and was her father named Ammiel or Eliam?

This question is not just simply an issue of missing the forest for the trees—although if you ask this question, please don’t neglect the larger issues of what God wants you to learn from David’s sin and how that ended up dividing the kingdom. But if you spend any time reading Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, you will find loads of examples of this same problem. Names are changed. People have one name in one book, and another name in another book. Why is that?

There are two main reasons:  

Pronunciations change over time

Hebrew as it was originally written didn’t have many of the pronunciation aides that English speakers take for granted (we call them vowels). The consonants were all there, and the annunciation of the words was all well known. At risk of overly simplifying the issue (and Hebrew geeks will probably point out that this is an oversimplification) imagine seeing a sentence about brthrs and sstrs who fght like cts and dgs; it wouldn’t take effort to figure it out, but in a few generations it might not be that easy.

This is the kind of change that happens in the Bible. The consonants JSH mean Joshua (Exodus 17:9), but 1,000 years later they are pronounced Jeshua (1 Chron 24:11), and then of course ultimately Yeshua.

There is the additional issue that sometimes the pronunciation of consonants themselves change over time. I have on my office wall a page from a 16th-century English Bible, and 2 Timothy 3:1 says, “This I know alfo, that in the laft dayes fhall come perilous times.”  Four hundred years later, orthographical conventions result in the f becoming an s.

People have more than one name

CNN’s Larry King is actually Larry Zeigler. He changed his name for the purpose of his show, but there is no telling how (or if!) he will be known 100 years from now. This same dynamic is at work in Israel. Uzziah, Jehoahaz, and Jehoiachin were all kings, but when they ascended to the throne they took the names Azariah, Shallum, and Coniah (respectively). Kings, Jeremiah, and Chronicles use both sets of names.

Does he look like President Chet, or President Chester?

You see this even in the relatively short time span of the USA; while in office we have had Presidents Chet Arthur, Jack Kennedy, and Bill Clinton. Only later in history are they referred to as Chester, John, and William. In one sense, you could call Chet, Jack and Bill their Samuel names, and Chester, John, and William their Chronicles names—but only if you were ok making jokes only seminary students would understand.

With that in the background, how do we explain Solomon’s mother? In the 500 years between Samuel and Chronicles, Bathsheba got shortened to Bath-shua. The final b got swallowed over time, as the annunciation moved further down the word, and three syllables became two.

Meanwhile her father suffered a different kind of fate.  Eliam in Samuel becomes elongated to Ammiel in Chronicles. Over time it appears that the way his name was pronounced involved a lengthening of the first letter (an aleph became an ayin), and this caused the m and the l to swap places. It is essentially the same consonants, they just moved around a bit. While it could have simply been a copy error (a scribe swapping two consonants), because the history of David and Bathsheba would have been so well known, that is very unlikely. It is more likely that the name’s pronunciation simply shifted over time.

So confession time: have the shifting names ever caused you to stumble over scripture? Is this something you have noticed on your own?

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • vinas46

    A very good explanation. It was much helpful. Thanks.

  • elainebitt

    Very interesting Jesse! Thank you!

  • James

    Jesse thanks!!!! This is helpful for apologetic purposes in particular when evangelizing. Do you know of any book or Bible Dictionary that addresses the variations of names? Thank you again!!

    James or Jim or Jimmy

    • Well its not helpful in evangelism (simply b/c its big) but the Eastman’s Bible dictionary has good stuff on biblical names. When there is variation, they usually have an entry for each one, and a sentence that explains thier take on the change.

      • James


  • 4Commencefiring4

    If I were a committed Bible critic, I’d say: “Names, shmames. I’d rather know how a colt in Mark and Luke became a donkey AND a colt in Matthew.” But, I’m not…

    • Ha. Names Shmames would have been a way better title too.

  • Josh

    Love discussions on these kind of nuances, both for interpretive help as well as apologetic value. Thanks for this post!

  • Frank

    Might be helpful to state the dates of when the four books (1&2 Samuel vs. 1&2 Chronicles) were written to support the first point.

    Just a thought.

    • Yeah Frank, you are right. I put 500 years between Samuel and Chronciles, and 1000 years between Exodus and Chronicles. Here is why: Samuel was written in Solomon’s reign, and Chronicles was written after the exile. 400 years between those, plus 70 (at least) for the exile, gives 470. the Return was around 400 BC, so that makes Samuel written around 870 BC. Meanwhile, Judges was probably 400 years long, which puts Exodus at 400 + 40 + 870, so around 1350 BC, or roughly 1k years before Chronicles. But I didn’t want to give dates in the post because that opens the door to competing theories about dating, exile, Red Sea crossing, and stuff about Pharaohs that I know not of. So I took the wimpy way and just said 500 and 1000.

      • Frank

        Ah. I must have read too fast and missed the “1000 years” and “500 years.”


  • tovlogos

    Actually Jesse, the Aleph becoming an Ayin doesn’t sound correct; but I’ll check. I know the ayin in ancient Hebrew (similar to today’s Sephardic Hebrew, in contrast to Ashkenazi Hebrew) was very difficult to pronounce even for native speakers. The aleph was designed to take on what ever vowel sound was attached to it. Thai is my understanding. However I will wipe the dust of some old books and check.

    • Sweet. I’ll be here all night 🙂
      I got that from a Bible Dictionary on Hebrew names (Easton’s?). I’m also open to better theories if you have any.

      • tovlogos

        Hey Jesse – I remember that neither letter has a particular sound; but the ayin, which actually means, “eye,” was a heavy guttural. Neither can take a dagesh; but the ayin was once pronounced. My (Israeli) teacher once tried to pronounce how he felt it may have sounded — the deepest throaty guttural sound I have ever heard. The ayin is similar to the aleph in that neither, today, is pronounced; but the ancient aleph didn’t have any sound that I learned of. However, you are right in that changes came about to suit the ergonomics if the tongue, and the comfort of speaking. I was trying to reach him in Israel, today; but I will continue to try. If he gives me any feedback I will immediately tell you. The Ashkenazi, or European influenced pronunciation is not where I would look since even the chet and the chaf are the same letter in modern hebrew. Only the tav, and the thav have become the same in the modern Sephardic; but in biblical hebrew the sounds are in tact.

        • Sweet. Thanks man.

          • tovlogos

            You have no idea what you have done by this post. I haven’t studied hebrew for 8 months. It’s been nagging me like my wife. Now, by this post, it’s in my face. I am going to continue as a result of your post. Thanks. God works through you guys.

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