What’s in a Name?

name tag Dog smallIn our own western culture the connection between names and meaning is rather slight. I know this, in part, because I am one of those annoying, but well meaning, people who goes about attempting to engage others in witty conversation, only to discover 7 times out of 10 that the object of my attention is… (How can I say this delicately?) …disconnected. They’re weak in history, literature, movies, music older than a week, or anything about their own language, whether vocabulary or grammar. I would kill them at Trivial Pursuit. And the one thing that I’ve discovered is that almost nobody knows the meaning of their own names… unless they are famous people who get cool nicknames… like Mailman (he delivers), Boom Boom Mancini (Boom! Boom! Out go the lights), or the Butcher of Hannover (He didn’t sell cutlets that’s for sure). Though I bet even The Rock, doesn’t know what Dwayne Johnson means. [pssst… Dark Son of Yaweh’s Favored… which sounds way more awesome than Dwayne Johnson]

The emotional content of names changes radically when the names a society gives to individuals cease to be normal words in society. The connection shifts to sentimentality, family connection, ethnic connection, personal connection (Dear ol’ Uncle Phil). The names still have meaning, drawn usually from languages other than those of the name user, but the bearer doesn’t hear that meaning in the pronouncement of the name. The retention of common meaning happens so rarely, that we westerners get a kick out of names that do; trust me… my last name is Sargent… I’ve been saluted more in life than any real live military man ever dreamed possible, and my wife’s name is Melodie… “Making melody in my heart.” I call her Melodious One.

Most Biblical names had plain meaning on the street. Daniel means My-God-is-judge. Elijah means My-God-is-Yahweh. Jonah means Dove. The emotional feel would have been like us naming a child Dove. Granted husbands and wives might use the name all cuddled up for the night, but it’s not likely to go over big with bullies in any given high school. These names would be like us calling out to a neighbor, “Hey! My-God-is-Judge, did you see the game last night?” Naming a child Nathaniel would have the same emotional impact of getting a birth notice reading, “We would like to invite you to celebrate with us the birth of our son, Gift-of-God.”

Of course they didn’t always work out so well, especially if your papa was a prophet and felt compelled to make a theological statement every time he had a kid. Not so bad if you’re the boy that gets, Jezreel. (Hosea 1:4) You can tell your friends that you are named after a great slaughter that took place there, one YHWH intends to avenge—Perhaps making it the local equivelant of naming your kid Boston-Strong. I know I think it’s pretty cool to be named after James Dean… “Andrew Dean Sargent is my name… that’s right, Dean… as in James Dean… want an autograph?” But we might very well hang our heads for a moment of silence in memory of dear Lo-ruhamah or as her friends thought of her, Merciless… try getting a date to the Prom with that one. (Hosea 1:6)

Some names are quite telling. Saul has two sons who prove important for the story of David. David’s closest friend, heir to the throne, was named Jonathan. So his father called him Given-of-Ya… as in Yahweh. Saul, however, named his brother, actual inheritor of his throne, Eshbaal. (1 Chronicles 8:33) He looked down on him as a baby and called him Man-of-Baal. Now, there is some disagreement as to the intention behind the name, Baal is both a pagan deity and a word meaning Lord or Master. One finds reason enough, however, in the life of Saul to suggest that he kept his religious options open—one foot in the YHWH and Baal camps. One might consider that his house is full of idols, one of which David disguises as himself in bed, in order to give him time to escape the clutches of Saul once he determines to kill David. (I Samuel 19:13) You will read this son’s name as Ishbosheth in the Samuel stories. (2 Samuel 2:8) The scribes seem to have changed his name to Man-of-shame or Man-of-the-shameful-one over the indignity of saying the name of Baal in association with a King of Israel. They drew the correlation from Jeremiah 11:13—the shameful idol.

The important thing, as a student of Scripture, is to never ignore the meanings of the names, whether for places or people. Bible Dictionaries may help… so might Wikipedia. You never know when you will discover something that native readers knew already by dint of being Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic speakers. It may be part of an author’s meaning.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

%d bloggers like this: