What's in a Name?
Updated: Dec 5, 2017
When we were deciding on names for our four children, we consulted name lists online and in books, wrote down our favorites, and argued over them for weeks and months.
When we finally settled on a name, people always asked me, “Why did you pick that name? Does it have a special meaning?” Sheepishly, I replied, “No, we just like the way it sounds.” (We actually got the name of one of our kids from a contestant on the show Survivor.) Names are funny things, though. With time, our kids’ personalities began to match their names – so much so that we couldn’t imagine them with one of the “runner-up” names on our list. (This is a picture of my now-9-year-old daughter. Isn't she tiny and beautiful?)
In Bible times, parents were much more concerned with the meaning of a child’s name than how it would sound when uttered or how it would fit with their last name. “Names were regarded not only as labels but also as symbols, magical keys, as it were, to the nature and essence of the given being or thing.”* Sometimes children were named after the first impression they made when exiting the womb. Esau was named such for his hairy red skin. Jacob means “holding onto the heel” which is exactly how he came out. Sometimes children were named to symbolically represent the era in which they were born. Poor Hosea’s kids were named Lo-Ammi (“not my people”) and Lo-rahamah (“not pitied”). Old Testament parents obviously didn’t take into account the future teasing a child might suffer.
Sometimes, God would name a child before it entered the world--a sign of the special purpose the child would have on earth. A prophet or an angel would proclaim, “You will call his name _______”, and the parents would have no choice in the matter. An angel told Joseph that he was to name his son “Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” Zecharaiah was also informed by an angel that he would call his long-awaited son’s name John, which means “YAWEH is gracious.”
There are examples in Scripture of people’s names being changed after significant events. Naomi changed her name to Mara (“bitterness”) after her husband and sons died. God changed Abram to Abraham (“father of a multitude”) after promising him a fruitful, eternal lineage. He changed Jacob’s name to Israel (“God contended”) after wrestling with him all night, and he changed Saul to Paul (“little”) when he knocked him off his horse and called him to lead a revolution.
All of these examples show us that in the Bible, names are important to the character and identity of the person named. What about the very first people? What do their names reveal about them, and by extension, all of humanity?
God created humans differently from everything he had previously made in two ways. First, he created them “in his image.” (Genesis 1:27) Nothing else in all of creation can claim that distinction. Humans were made to look and act like their Creator. Second, unlike everything else which he spoke into existence, he intimately sculpted mankind “from the dust of the ground,” (Genesis 2:7) which is actually what the name Adam means: “from the earth.” So, woven into the DNA of every human being are two very important “names” – the #ImagoDei which confers upon us dignity and nobility, and Adam, which marks us with humility. (By the way, the root of both human and humility are “earth.”) We have been named Noble and Humble. This is who we are.
If you are a Christian, you have been twice-named. You are not only Human, with all the grandeur and modesty that name implies, but when you placed your hope and trust in Second Adam (Jesus) for your rescue, you also became Child of God. “To those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” (John 1:12) Being named Child of God means you are loved without condition, accepted without requisite, valued without performance. You are simply God’s child. This is your second name. This is who you are.
Knowing, really knowing who you are is foundational to everything you think and do. Notice how many of Paul’s letters to the churches begin with identity before moving to praxis. In I Corinthians, he calls them saints before calling them out on their bad behavior.
In Ephesians, he spends 3 chapters reminding them who they are (sanctified, chosen, forgiven, included, etc.) before telling them how they should act. In Colossians, he recounts all the spiritual blessings of being rooted in Christ before cautioning them against damaging false philosophies. Paul understood how imperative it is we get this identity thing right before moving past belief to motive and from motive to action.
If we forget our divinely given names – Human and Child of God – we might try to name ourselves, or allow others to name us. In my next blog post, I’ll discuss the natural human quest for #identity, and all the different dead ends we go down trying to find it.
* (Ephraim A. Speiser, Genesis: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, Anchor Bible, volume 1, 1964)