Names in the Bible
Variety in Bible names

In the introduction, on page 6, I mentioned that the same name is often used for different people. As this study has progressed it has become obvious that the usage of names in Bible times is completely unlike the situation today. In the western world we use names merely as sound labels to identify someone. Though we have a wider range of names in use today than was the case in England 150 years ago we still use the same sound label for many people.

This is not so in the Bible. At the stage when I am writing this note I have 1200 different people listed while 972 names have been used. About 200 names have been used for more than one person, more than 700 are found only once . If different names with similar sounds or slightly different spellings as considered as the same, it is still at more than half of the names that are used once only.

By contrast I listed all the names of children baptised in an English parish between 1780 and 1910. There were over 3,000 individuals, but they used less than 250 names between them.

Meaning of names

Probably the reason for this is that in Bible days names were not just sound labels but actual words from the everyday language. If a name is checked in the Bible Commentary it is usual to find the etymology of the name. In some cases various languages are looked at to obtain the derivation, but in all cases the commentator expects to find a word or phrase from which the name is taken.

A few examples would be:

David - - Beloved (or maybe Chieftain or commander)
Ishmael - - God Hears
Jedidiah - - Beloved of Yahweh (alternative name for Solomon)
Saul - - Asked (of God) or lent (to God)
Solomon - - Peaceable
Paul - - Small or Little (a Roman name not a Hebrew one)
Change of names

In line with this meaning of names, is coupled the change of names.

One of the problems of Bible names is that a person is referred to by different names in different places. Modern translations often attempt to eliminate this. For example in the KJV we find the New Testament using different names from the Old (Elijah - Elias, Joshua - Jesus, etc) whereas the NRSV tries to use the original Hebrew form in the New Testament rather than the Greek form. In some cases it may be a spelling difference, but it many cases there is a completely different name for the same person.

Some quick examples of three different types are:

1. Where God changed a person's name to illustrate an enhanced spirituality or aim in life.

Abram - - the father of a multitude
Abraham - - the father is exalted
Jacob - - he supplants
Israel - - God contends or God rules
Simon - - Hearkening (of prayer)
Cephas or Peter - - a stone (Hebrew & Greek)

2. Where a king changed a name away from a name related to the true God to one linked to that of his Gods (though it is suggested that in the case of the youths in Babylon, they carefully distorted their names so that they do not say what they were meant to).

Daniel - - God (El) is my Judge
Beltshazzar - - Bel protect his (the king's) life
Hananiah - - Yahweh is gracious
Shadrach - - Maybe from the God Marduk but unclear
Mishael - - Who belongs to God?
Meshach - - unclear
Azariah - - Yahweh helps
Abednego - - servant of Nabu

In the case of Joseph he was given a name that has not been found in Egyptian records but an Egyptian phrase has been found for his name, which may relate to Joseph's God rather than Pharaoh's

Joseph - - May he add
Zaphenathpaneah - - The God speaks and he lives

3. Where people who worshipped God, replaced a part of a name containing the name of a heathen deity with the word for "shame".

Ish-Baal - - Man of the Lord (Baal)
Ishbosheth - - man of shame
Mephibaal - - hero of Ball ( or Baal is an advocate)
Mephibosheth - - he who scatters shame

Stories in Bible Names

Some Bible names have good stories to tell. Perhaps we could get a lot more out of genealogies if we looked for more of these stories. Three good ones can be mentioned here.

In Genesis 35:18 it tells the story of the Birth of Rachel's son, at whose birth she died. She called him "Son of my sorrow" that is Ben-oni. Jacob took a different view and changed the name to Benjamin or "Son of my right hand."

Another mother who died at the birth of her son, when she was told of the death of the father and father-in-law gave a meaningful name to the son. In 1 Sam.4:22 the story is told. His mother is not named in the story but his father was Phineas, one of the sons of Eli the high priest. The two sons of Eli were killed in battle and Eli fell backwards and broke his neck when he heard the news. The more important factor however, was that the ark of the Lord had been taken captive by the heathen Philistines. The new born baby was named by his mother "the glory has departed" or Ichabod. A name that would bring the shameful events to everyone's mind each time he was named!

The most significant names are found in the first chapter of the book of the prophet Hosea, whose life was an acted parallel of God's love for his people. His first child was a boy and God told him to name him Jezreel which is "God Sows." Hosea was living when four of the previous five kings of Israel had taken the throne by assassinating their predecessor. Jezreel was also the name of a place where Jehu had destroyed Jezebell and where she had previously had Naboth killed so that Ahab could take over his vineyard. In the coming years the people would reap what they had sown, but God wanted them to reap His sowing.

The story continued a few years later when a sister was born to God Sows and God said her name should be "No Mercy" (Lo-ruhamah). As soon as she was weaned another boy was born and this time the name given was "Not My People" (Lo-ammi). However in giving these names God said that he intended to have mercy and make the people the children of the living God.

At the end of the first chapter of Hosea God promises to call his people to Himself again and says, "Great shall be the day of Jezreel (God's sowing?). Then it continues, and the NRSV makes it singular, "Say to your brother Ammi (My People) and to your sister Ruhamah (Mercy). If the names are translated without an understanding of their meanings the play on words between names and messages is lost.

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