Joseph’s Egyptian wife Asenath bore him two sons in Egypt. He called the firstborn son Manasseh מְנַשֶּׁה (menasheh). Joseph said: “God has made me forget (כִּי־נַשַּׁנִי אֱלֹהִים) completely my hardship and my parental home” (Genesis 41:51). The name Manasseh is connected to the verbal root נשך (nashach), which refers to forgetting and letting go. A very common usage of נשך describes someone being “relieved from debt.” This positive meaning is a better parallel to the second sons’ name, Ephraim (אֶפְרָיִם), which means “made me fruitful.”
When naming Ephraim, Joseph said: “God has made me fertile (כִּי־הִפְרַנִי אֱלֹהִים) in the land of my affliction” (Gen 41:52). As seven fruitful harvest years came to an end, it became obvious that Joseph was not a lunatic and that Pharaoh had been wise in appointing him to the task of setting aside massive quantities of food. When the people of Egypt thought of Joseph, they naturally thought of wealth and prosperity.
The meaning of these names has everything to do with Joseph’s awareness that it was God who set him free and made him fruitful. In Hebrew, Egypt (מִצְרַיִם) is a place of “confinement” and “limitation” where one cannot prosper. God’s faithfulness to Jacob’s children is best seen in Joseph’s ability to survive and thrive against all odds in that land of “confinement” and “limitation.” Centuries later, Israelites who came out of Egypt heard these stories and were strengthened by knowing that the same God who took take care of Joseph would take care of them as well.