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Thursday, March 25, 2010

What's in a Name?

As I think I've mentioned before, I have a college degree in English.  One of the areas of study was linguistics, and if you know me personally, you know that I tend to reference linguistics topics all the time in common conversation (I'm always afraid it's getting annoying, so I try to keep to a minimum!).  Linguistics is by far my favorite study,  particularly language history.  If I had the time, I would read the entire Oxford English Dictionary, but of course I don't.

Anyway, I thought I'd put this fascination with word origins and root meanings to good use today by turning my attention to the Bible.  If you've ever looked closely at it, you will notice a pattern of names that have significance--both people and places.  What I find particularly fascinating is the number of names that are spectacularly fulfilled by the individual's life choices, or are fulfilled in miraculous ways many years later in Israel's history.  I couldn't possibly cover all of them in one post (or even a million!) but there are some that stick out more than others, and I couldn't resist talking about a few of them today.


  •  Abram/Abraham and Sarai/Sarah-- God renamed both of them, so we should give special focus on this when we study Genesis 17Abram meant "exalted father," and was changed to Abraham, "father of many," because God planned to make his descendants into many nations of peoples.  The meaning of Sarai is unclear, but the meaning of Sarah is generally thought to be "Princess," or "Lady." This suggestion of high honor in her name was probably an acknowledgment of her status as the mother of the child of promise, Isaac.
  • Isaac--His name means, "He laughs."  How he earned that name has long been my favorite of those sort of stories.  When Abraham heard from God that Sarah was going to have a son, the Bible says that "he laughed to himself," (Genesis 17: 15-17 NIV).  Then, when Sarah hear the news from the three heavenly visitors in the tent, she laughed to herself also, although she denied it later when confronted about it (Genesis 18: 10-5 NIV).  So when Sarah had a son as predicted, she and Abraham named him Isaac.  I've always seen it as an acknowledgment that God had the last laugh on the whole situation.
  • Jacob/Israel and Esau/Edom-- Jacob was born clinging to his brother's heel, which was a figurative image at that time, meaning "deceiver."  So, his name was Jacob, which means "he grasps the heel/ deceiver," and he fulfilled that part of his name by tricking his brother out of his birthright in exchange for a pot of soup.  Later, God renamed Jacob Israel, which means, "He struggles with God."  This is both a reference to the night he spent wrestling with God, and the behavior of his descendants, the nation of Israel, who have been locked in a struggle to obey or disobey God throughout their history.  Esau meant "hairy," which must have been a pretty good description of the man, since Jacob could wear goat skins and deceive his blind father into believing he was Esau.  His later name, Edom, meant "red," and was possibly a reference to the red soup he got in exchange for his birthright.
  • Moses--An Egyptian, not Hebrew name, meaning "drawn out; born."  It was a pun, of course, since he was drawn out of the waters of the Nile in the basket his mother had hidden him in.  It is interesting, looking at his history, that God used him to "draw out" the newborn nation of Israel from among the people of Egypt.
  • Joshua-- Originally named Hoshea, or "Salvation," Moses changed his name to Yehoshua, or Joshua, which meant "Jehovah is Salvation." Significantly, his name in a Greek derivation is Jesus.  Joshua's name change reflects a personal change.  Perhaps he was once devoted to saving himself or trying to save the people around him, but he came to know that God was his deliverer, and he relied on God to save his people.  Joshua led his people into the Promised Land, just as Jesus later made the way for all believers to enter into God's rest, which is God's presence in the New Jerusalem.

Place Names

  • Bethel--Means, "House of God," lit. Beth--house (dwelling or family) + El--God.  This is where Jacob first confirmed the Abrahamic covenant with God, that he and his descendants would serve God.  Later, it was associated with the tribe of Benjamin, and was a temporary resting place for the Ark of the Covenant.  Jeroboam installed a golden calf there for worship after Israel was divided, and the mixing of calf-worship with the worship of God that continued there until king Josiah's time caused Hosea to prophecy against the city, calling it "Beth Aven," lit. "House of wickedness." 
  • Bethlehem--Means, "House of Bread." It was possessed by the tribe of Judah, and was the home of Ruth and Boaz, and later David (so it was known as "The City of David").  Jesus was born here, fulfilling the name because He called Himself "the Bread of Life." Bethlehem was considered the last stop on the way to Egypt, and was a tiny spot on a main highway, even in Roman times. From Bethlehem Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt to hide from Herod.
  • Nazareth--Probably derived from the word netser, or shoot, as from the roots of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1): Jesus, a descendant of Jesse, fulfilled God's prophecy there.  This was Mary and Joseph's hometown, in a valley near Galilee.  Apparently it had a bad reputation morally in Jesus' times (John 1:46), but Jesus changed that, because Nazarath or Nazarine became a title of honor among His followers.
  • Jerusalem--A name that shows up in quite a few languages, both before and after Israel named it as their capital.  Jerusalem means "The City of Salem," that is, "The City of Peace."  Salem means "Peace," as evoked in the greeting, "Shalom," or "Salaam," in Hebrew and Arabic, respectively.  Jerusalem has been the sight of many wars because of its historical significance, but God chose it to be the place where He would establish His peace with humankind, through Jesus, and intends later to set up His kingdom there at Christ's Second Coming.
I could keep going, but I have other duties requiring my attention today.  However, the name research doesn't have to end here.  This time I thought I'd leave you with two "take away" questions.  I look forward to your comments!

  1. Do a little research on a place name or a person's name from a passage you have recently read in your Bible, and share what you learned in the comments section.  I would suggest using a Bible dictionary if your Bible doesn't contain annotations.
  2. Do you know what your name means, and does it seem to have any significance in your own life?


Keith said...

I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on names. To share a brief story on my own name. Keith came about 2 ways, my mom and dad both prayed and found out my name without telling the other. A preacher named keith prayed with my father that he would have a son. My mom read psalms 1:1-3 and the same day read a baby book that listed keith as meaning "like a tree". I have always stayed close to that verse. If I remain planted close to the living water of the world, I will never perish in times of drought!

Rachel said...

Thanks for the comment, Keith. That's a great story about your name! I don't worship trees, but I love how they keep cropping up in Biblical sybolism. Another great verse is Isaiah 65: 22. Trees stand to glorify their Creator for many generations.

My name happens to mean "Ewe lamb," which is an ironic inside joke, considering the name of my blog. The name of the blog came from other sources, especially because I can't say I'm an exceptionally savvy sheep. I'm just happy to have such a caring Shepherd. Thanks again for the comment. I've put your blog in my sidebar because I think you have things to say that my readers need to hear. Keep up the good work! :)

Keith said...

It is great to hear your humility. You are right the key to being a savvy sheep is to stay close to the savvy shepherd. I believe if Satan can't make you believe a lie, he will turn a half truth into pride. As for myself, I know that God has given me certain gifts, but I willed not put the creation above the creator :)

I will check back on you from time to time. Have a blessed day!

Isaiah 40:31

Keith said...

Fyi. added you to my short list of links! You should feel honored, jk :)

Keep writing and stay grounded in faith, hope and love!