The term Volksetymologie has frequently been applied to the etiological passages of the Hebrew Bible and occasionally to such passages in Mesopotamian literature that explain the origin of the name of a person, place, or thing. Originating in mid- nineteenth century German Sprachwissenschaft, the term generally assumes that the authors of such passages were possessed of a considerable philological ignorance and naïveté. These etymological narratives are thus regularly brushed aside as childish though charming. Alternatively, they are often understood as interesting aesthetic devices, related to paronomasia and punning.
It is becoming increasingly evident, however, that the activity of parsing a name is linked to broader interpretive methods employed by scribes in the ancient Near East. Indeed, our developing understanding of intellectual practices in Mesopotamia and among the Bible’s tradents has demonstrated that Babylonian and Judean scribes could employ rather sophisticated hermeneutics. This fact has significance for our evaluation of biblical etymological passages in many ways including, for example, the methods employed by ancient authors to interpret names within narratives and their motivation for doing so.
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