A few weeks ago I was bathing an elephant in northern Laos, when she suddenly decided to toss me headlong into the murky waters of the Mekong River. My encounter with Ms. Snuffleupagus got me thinking about the Hebrew word for elephant, which is PIL פיל. This word does not appear in the Tanakh, simply because the Hebrew Bible had no occasion to speak about elephants. However, the word did exist in ancient Hebrew and later appears in the Mishnah and the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Hebrew word PIL is probably the source (via Phoenician) behind the Greek word ELEPHAS, from which the English word “elephant” is itself derived (via French).
The switching of the letters PH פ and L ל is called “metathesis.” PIL became LIPH in Greek and eventually elephas. [Greek adds the -as ending to many words; the "e" at the beginning could have been added in certain Hebrew or Phoenician dialects through what linguists call "prosthetic aleph."] What all this means is that when you say “elephant” in English you are actually speaking Hebrew! This shouldn’t be such a surprise. Many animals unknown in ancient Europe have exotic names, such as Camel from the Hebrew Gamal גמל or Giraffe from some African language.
Believe it or not, the noble elephant can teach us something important about the name of Yehovah! Specifically, the rather silly claim that Yehovah יהוה comes from the Hebrew word HOVAH הוה meaning “disaster.” As I have explained in the past, this would be like saying that the word “assume” comes from the English words “ass,” “you,” and “me.” I call this “Hovah-logic,” which is defined as “knowing just enough Hebrew to be a disaster to yourself and others.”
In reality, Yehovah comes from the root HYH היה, meaning “to be,” whereas the word HOVAH (disaster) comes from the root HVH הוה. The two words only sound similar to someone blissfully ignorant of Hebrew grammar. For those who actually know Hebrew, Hoveh is a perfectly normal word meaning “he is” and Hovah is the feminine form meaning “she is” (both from HYH). Yehovah comes from Hoveh/ Hovah (“he/ she that is”). Neither has anything to do with the word “HOVAH” meaning “disaster” (from HVH).
My Laotian friend provides another example from Hebrew of how disastrous Hovah-logic can be. The Hebrew word for elephant, “PIL” פיל, sounds similar to “PILegesh” פילגש, meaning “concubine.” Using Hovah-logic, you could come up with some bizarre explanations. You might break down the word PILegesh into two words: PIL “elephant” and the verb GESH meaning “approach!” You could then say that ancient concubines were immensely fat and their paramours would shout at them, “Pil, Gesh!” “Approach, elephant!” As silly as this sounds, it’s actually more plausible than the name Yehovah having anything to do with the word for “disaster!”
So what is the source of the word PILegesh (concubine)? Anyone who knows Hebrew grammar immediately identifies PILegesh as a foreign loan-word. The dead giveaway is the fact that it has four (or possibly five) root-letters, rather than three. In reality, the Hebrew word PILegesh is most likely derived from the Greek word pallakis, meaning “young girl” (so according to Brown-Driver-Briggs).
Technically, the source of the word PILegesh might not be Greek, but some other related Indo-European language that no longer exists. Either way, it’s part of a handful of foreign loan-words in Hebrew that terminate with Indo-European “case-endings.” [Other examples include the names of the two Gittites Achish אכיש and Goliath גלית. Both of these names terminate with SH/ TH reflecting Indo-European case-endings. Another famous example is the word Apiryon אפריון ("chariot" in the KJV) in Song of Songs 3:9 containing the Indo-European case-ending "-on."]
If you don’t know what a case-ending is, don’t worry about it. It just means that there was trade, travel, and invasions across the eastern Mediterranean and as a result Hebrew and Greek swapped a few words with each other. The concept of a “concubine,” what we might call in English a “mistress,” was alien to the original Hebrew language. From the Garden of Eden, Hebrew had the concept of a “wife” ISHAH אשה, but it had to look to Greek to express the perverse idea of a “mistress.” That’s how the word PILegesh (concubine) came into the Hebrew language. On the other hand, the Greeks were unaware of camels and elephants and had to borrow words for these creatures from Hebrew. To translate all this into modern terms, the Greeks gave us Marilyn Monroe and Monica Lewinsky, whereas the Hebrews gave us Dumbo and Babar. It was worth getting thrown into a polluted river by a cantankerous pachyderm just to learn all this.