What’s Your Name? – Names and Naming of Persons in the Bible and Its Cultural Context

            Names are something very interesting. As we are having three sons now, it is exciting to look back to the process of naming. What schmeered even more joy for us to this experience was to find names which were meaningful (not that this has to be the case!) and could be pronounced by our German family!
            In the following posts, I will not be talking about my sons names, but I want to explore three aspects which we encounter in the Bible (specifically in the Old Testament context): (1) the significance and value of a name, (2) the practice of naming children and (3) changing of names.
            The study of names and naming of persons in the Bible and the ancient Near East gives a further insight into the custom and manners of the Israelites and their surrounding neighbors. Names had much more significance in understanding of identity and awareness of other individuals. Douglas Stuart states:
Personal names in the OT are of special interest for what they tell of the religious and philosophical views of the ancient Israelites. The naming of persons in the OT times obviously went beyond a concern for a convenient means of providing individual designation. Naming intended to capture in some way the essence of an individual, expressing actual identity rather than merely identification.[1]
And Horsley explains further:
The ancients were much more sensitized to the etymological significance of names than     we are, and it is clear that names must often have been carefully selected in view of the meaning they conveyed. The choice of a theophoric name implies the expectation that the god whose name is used will protext [sic] the individual.[2]
But Horsley goes on in stating that this should not be “pressed too far” because it also appeared that people had theophoric names without giving attention to their etymological origin. It also occurred that many changed their name because of religious, national, ethnic, or socio-economic reasons.
            Again the posts will be divided into three parts: (1) the significance and value of a name, (2) the practice of naming children and (3) changing of names.  
           
The Significance and Value of a Name
            The significance and the value of a name are seen in many cultures and empires of the ancient Near East. We find that throughout the Scriptures names do have meaning (but one needs to be careful not to overstate a meaning of a name in a narrative if the author himself does not really stress this point). “Scholars have long recognized.” Russel Fuller writes, “that both          for ancient Israeland the ancient Near East as well as for the early Judaism and Christianity, the name of a person, place, or thing was somehow connected to and             descriptive of its essence and/or personality. Thus names of individuals expressed their personality and status or nature.”[3]  
            A beginning of a poem from the Akkadian literature serves as an example to demonstrate how valuable and precious names were to the people.
O my god, my lord, who created my name,
Guardian of my life, producer of my progeny,
O angry god, may your heart be calmed,
O angry goddess, be reconciled with me.[4]
It is seen here that the poet values the name as created by his god (gods). A different scenario with a similar value of the name is found in the following Phoenician description.
If any monarch, prince or strong man removes the name of Azitiwada from this gate or its statues and puts his own name on it […] may Ba’al the Cloud Rider, and El, the creator of the heavens and the earth, and every member of the divine assembly erase the name of the state and its ruler or strong man […][5]
Here the name stands for identity and authority. This passage strongly illustrates that there is no understanding or allowance for misuse of names and their binding identity (would this shed some light on the commandment not to take the LORD’s name in vain?).
            In the Egyptian account of creation, the “Hymn to Ptah”, it is said that the divine patron Ptah created only by the words spoken (similar to the creation account of the Bible) and goes on with “Ptah called the names of Shu the wind and Tefnut the rain, who gave birth to Geb the earth and Nut the sky.”[6] By calling the names alone Ptah was mighty in creating (little nugget here: check out Hebrews 1:1-4).
            This value of a name is also seen in a similar way in the religion of the ancient Israelites. Throughout the Old Testament one can observe the value of a name. An example is found in the Psalms where the psalmist David prays for his son Salomon and his kingship (Psalm 72: 17-19 [emphasis added]):
May his name endure forever, his fame continue as long as the sun!
May people be blessed in him, all nations call him blessed!
Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who alone does wondrous things.
Blessed be his glorious name forever; may the whole earth be filled with his glory!
Amen and Amen!
Dana M. Pike summarizes the significance of a name in Scripture this way: “The Bible also illustrates the significance and power associated with certain names and            with the act of naming. Obedient Israelites would be ‘called by the name of the Lord’ (Deut. 28:10). God’s messengers spoke in God’s name.”[7] Further insight is given to us by G. F. Hawthorne. He maintains that a fundamental aspect of a name is to reveal the inner most being (“the true nature”) of the one possessing the name “so that to know the name is to know the person (Ps. 9:10 [MT 11]).”[8] In reference to the story of David and Abigail, we can also state that the name “reveals the true nature of its bearer,” but it is also to be recognized that the name is a bearer of might and authority (as e.g. in Esther 3:12).[9] 
In the Greco-Roman period names still had a significant role. This can be seen in a letter by a new recruit from the Roman army. Horsley tells the story:
           
            Apion writes to his father with news of what has been happening, and adds toward the     end, ‘My name is Antonius Maximus’. The Roman name he was given upon enlistment          indicates that he was in receipt of Latin rights, something short of full citizen status.[10]
The name given to him has value for his social status. It is important to recognize the significance of this name in regard to the Roman social and economic structure. The name in Roman society said something about the heritage, social status, and background of a person.
            In seeing the significance and value of a name in the ancient Near East and the time of ancient Israel (as well as the Greco-Roman world) one will have a deeper understanding and insight in the meaning of our Lord’s, words and the writing of the apostles. Here are just some examples,
           
Matthew 6:9
“Pray then like this: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name’”
John 5:43
“I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me. If another comes in his own name, you will receive him”
John 14:14
“If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.“
Rev. 19:16
On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of
lords.
            In the next two post we will further investigate the practice of naming children (which will be part two of this series) and the significance in the changing of names (part three).
            Blessed be the name of the LORD!

[1]Douglas Stuart, “Name, Proper.” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. 4 vols. (edited by Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 485.
[2]G. H. R. Horsley, “Name Change as an Indication of Religious Conversion in Antiquity.” Numen. (34.1 June 1987), 3.
[3]Russel Fuller, “Names and Namegiving.” The Oxford Guide to People and Places of the Bible. (edited by Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan. Oxford, New York: Oxford, 1993), 207.
[4]Benjamin R. Foster,  Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature.  Vol. 2. (Bethesda, MD: CDL, 1993), 640 [emphasis added].
[5]Victor H. Matthews and Don C. Benjamin, Old Testament Parallels: Laws and Stories from the Ancient Near East. (New York/Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1991), 165.
[6]Ibid., 5.
[7] Dana M. Pike, “Names.” Harper’s Bible Dictionary. (edited by Paul J. Achtmeier. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985), 733.
[8]G. F. Hawthorne, “Name.” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. 4 vols. (edited by Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 480.
[9]1 Samuel25:5-25a
[10]G. H. R. Horsley, “Name Change as an Indication of Religious Conversion in Antiquity.” Numen. (34.1 June 1987), 3.

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