The geographical names of Palestine are not so often susceptible of interpretation as the personal names, which frequently form regular sentences referring to divine action (see Names). The majority of place-names, probably, preceded the Israelitish conquest, as is shown by the fact that several of them have already been identified in the name-list given in the Egyptian and Assyrian monuments (see map,
Some of the names of places bear evidence of the existence of shrines of local deities; thus, Bethshemesh and En-shemesh were devoted to the worship of the sun; Beth-anath and Beth-dagon to Anath and Dagon respectively. Ashtart seems to have been the local deity of Ashteroth Karnaim, and it has been suggested that the various place-names containing "rimmon" (En-rimmon, Gathrimmon, etc.) indicate a deity of that name, though "rimmon" itself means pomegranate." In a few cases the indefinite term "el" is used, as in Beth-el, Penuel, and Jezreel. It is uncertain whether these places were named in honor of the Israelitish god or of some Canaanite local deity.
In addition to such theophorous names there are many which are derived from plants, as Beth-tappuah (the apple-tree); Hazezon-tamar (the city of palm-trees; another name for Jericho); while Elim and Elon imply the oak. Similarly, place-names are derived from animals, as from the stag (Ajalon), the gazel (Ophrah), the wild ass (Arad), the calf (Eglon), and the kid (En-gedi). Bird-names are more rare, Beth-hoglah (the partridge) being the best known. The place Akrabbim was probably named after the scorpions which abounded there (for a fuller list see Jacobs, "Studies in Biblical Archæology,", pp. 101-103).
Some of these names occur in plural or in dual form, as Eglaim, Mahanaim, Diblathaim; in the vocalized text of the Bible, Jerusalem also has this form. Inthe majority of cases, it appears this refers to some duplication of objects—in the case of Jerusalem, to the twin hills upon which it is situated. There are a certain number of compound names conveying information as to the localities, as those compounded with "en" (spring), e.g., En-rogel, En-gedi; with "beer" (well), e.g., Beer-sheba, Beeroth; with "hazar" (village), e.g., Hazar-gaddah; with "ir' (town), e.g., Ir-nahash; with "kir" or "kiryah" (city), e.g., Kir-Moab; and with "gath" (wine-press), e.g., Gath-rimmon.
Natural features gave names to other places, as the predominant color in Lebanon (white), or Adummim (red). The size of a town gave rise to the names Rabbah (great), and Zoar (small), while its beauty is indicated in Tirzah and Jotbah. The need of defense is indicated by the frequency of such town-names as Bozrah, which means literally a "fortified place," Geder, a "walled place," and Mizpah, a "watch-tower."
Perhaps the most frequent component is "beth," implying, as a rule, a sacred shrine. This, however, is sometimes omitted, as is shown in the case of Bethbaal-meon, which occurs also as Baal-meon, though sometimes the second component is omitted and the word reduced to Beth-meon. It has been conjectured that the name of Bethlehem is connected with the Babylonian god Lahamu. Especial interest attaches to the place-names Jacob-el and Joseph-el, which occurred in the Egyptian hieroglyphics, and are supposed to throw light upon the names of the Patriarchs.
Altogether, there are about fifteen hundred place-names occurring in the Old Testament and Apocrypha, the majority of which still need philological inquiry. Many names relating to places occur in the Old Testament with specialized meanings which are not adequately represented in the English versions, as Shefelah (the maritime plain of Phenicia); so with Negeb (southern Judea).
- G. R. Gray, in Cheyne and Black. Encyc. Bibl.:
- G. Grove, in Stanley's Sinai and Patestine, pp. 479-534.