Wednesday, September 03, 2008

BARACK OBAMA meets Hebrew epigraphy and the Old Testament Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha. Sort of.
Barack, Thy Name is Biblical (Washington Post)

Vilifying Barack Obama's name has become a favorite blood sport in the 2008 presidential campaign. Recent examples range from repeated mentions of "B. Hussein Obama" by conservative pundit Ann Coulter to four allusions to Obama's "Muslim sounding middle name" by Republican strategist Cheri Jabobus on MSNBC in defense of similar language. Time correspondent Mark Halperin predicts that the McCain campaign will likely continue to "emphasize Barack Hussein Obama's unusual name," despite McCain's repudiation of this tactic. Obama himself warns supporters that his "funny" name will be targeted.

The actual lineage of Barack Obama's name, however, extending back to a revered biblical namesake, befits his status as a Christian of rich ancestral influences. Obama's first name, Barack, means "blessed" in the African languages of Luo and Swahili, both spoken widely in his deceased father's birthplace of Kenya. The African "Barack" originates from the Arabic word "baracka." Barack and "baracka" mean the same as the Hebrew word "baruch," as Obama himself noted in his 1995 memoir, "Dreams from My Father," and at recent campaign appearances.


Barack Obama shares with past American presidents, including Abraham Lincoln, Zachary Taylor, and Benjamin Harrison, the distinction of a notable biblical namesake. Baruch Ben Neriah was a scribe and friend of the prophet Jeremiah and also the reputed author of the apocryphal Book of Baruch, a canonical biblical book for Roman Catholics. He is the subject of Jewish and Christian religious lore from the Talmud to the writings of fourth-century church father Jerome and is portrayed as a righteous sage granted a tour of heaven itself.

Baruch Ben Neriah makes a fascinating appearance in recent archeological finds, as detailed by J. Edward Wright in his book, "Baruch Ben Neriah: From Biblical Scribe to Apocalyptic Seer." Showing up also, indirectly, in these finds is Ebed-Melech, a black Ethiopian who is identified with Baruch Ben Neriah in some ancient rabbinic commentaries and who rescued Jeremiah after the prophet was imprisoned by three ministers of King Zedekiah (Jeremiah 38:1-13). The names of Baruch Ben Neriah, "the scribe," and of two of these royal ministers all appear in ancient Hebrew inscriptions on clay seals, the first on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and the others unearthed in dramatic recent finds by archeologist Eilat Mazar in Jerusalem just this July and in August 2005.

Some think that the Baruch bulla is a forgery, but this is debated.

There are three or four ancient books of Baruch. In the OT Apocrypha, 1 Baruch. In the OT Pseudepigrapha, 2 Baruch (preserved in Syriac, a Greek fragment, and an Arabic translation of the Syriac), 3 Baruch (preserved in Greek and Slavonic), and the Paraleipomena of Jeremiah, which is also sometimes known as 4 Baruch.

The only Arabic rendering of the name Baruch which I can find (in the Arabic version of 2 Baruch and in the United Bible Society translation of the Bible) is Bārūxa (بآرُوخّ), with x for k. Curious. The Arabic name Mubarak is from the same root and has the same meaning - "blessed."

UPDATE: Robert Schwartz e-mails:
Obama’s given name may be from the Arabic word that is cognate to the Hebrew baruch. Or it may be from the word that means lightning (e.g. Ehud Barak אֵהוּד בָּרָק). Without knowing the Arabic spelling of his name (something that could probably only be garnered from his late father’s papers) I do not think that we can know which it is. I believe that he has cited both possibilities.
Likewise, Richard Bauckham also wrote to suggest it is the same name, which comes from the Barak (or Baraq) in the Judges 4-5. Could be; it sounds plausible. But the name seems to have been mediated through Luo or Swahili, and I don't know what changes that might have involved.