In this series we want to discover the following themes in the Bible: (1) the significance and value of a name, (2) the practice of naming children and (3) changing of names. Last week we have studied the first part of these themes and discovered that 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) helps us to better understand Scripture like Matt 6:9; John 5:43; 14:14; and Rev 19:16.
Names do not only let us identify people in a given narrative, but can employ social status, power, prestige, and dignity.
Today we want to focus on the second theme: The Practice of Naming.
Already in the account of creation, naming plays a significant role: “The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living” (Gen. 3:20). Here the giving of the name illustrates the meaning and significance of the person’s future. There are more reasons for picking a particular name for individuals. Thompson explains the choosing of names this way: “Children’s names were chosen carefully because they were held to represent their character. Often the name had some reference to the circumstances of the birth, a national event, or the response of the parents to God’s goodness.”
These phenomena are not exclusive to the nation and religion of ancient Israel. The cultures of the ancient Near East are very similar in that respect, though they did it in response to their gods and not Yahweh. Stuart states: “Because so much importance was attached to a name, people in the ancient Near East had a strong desire to associate a child properly with its name, and vice versa, so that the name would accurately and valuably reflect the individual’s character or even destiny.” Stuart shows further that the “events or remarks which occurred during the time the mother was in labor were apparently considered especially auspicious for the naming process.” He illustrates this with an example of the Sumerian goddess who has various names in the Sumerian literature and culture. He states that the Sumerian goddess “plays the role of the divine midwife in several myths. She says of herself, ‘I am the good midwife of the gods, I say only that which is wise at the time of birth.’”
A different pattern is seen in the culture of the Akkadians. Stol writes: “Soon after birth the baby received a name. Akkadian proper names are unique in the Semitic world in that so many of them reflect the feelings of the newborn. He or she expresses gratitude to a god or pronounces a short prayer: ‘My god has had mercy on me.’” This kind of naming of children is also seen in the story told in Genesis chapters 29 and 30 where Jacob’s children are named after prayer (and certainly enviousness of the wives). But the Akkadian practice of naming children is not limited by this one pattern. Oftentimes they named their children after a deceased kin or grandfather. Stol also explains shortly the practice of naming done by the Babylonians. “The first identification of the individual was by personal name, followed by that of the father.” This manner is also seen in ancient Israeland NT times when Scripture states something like “and this is X son of Y.” The same practice is seen in the Egyptian culture, too. David writes concerning this aspect: “There was no family name as such, but each individual had a personal name to which his or her father’s name was added in any official documentation (X son of Y). In the funerary texts the name of one or both parents was given (X son of Y, born to the mistress of the house Z).”
As already mentioned names often had something to do with the event of the birth, and may have had a natural or a divine connotation (theophoric names). Some examples for the event of birth (and prior to) as a circumstance of child naming found in the Bible are: Isaac (‘he laughs’) because Sarah laughed when she was told she would become pregnant, Esau (because he was hairy), Jacob (‘heel grabber’), or Ichabod (‘there is no glory’) because the Arkwas captured by the Philistines. Examples with natural connotations are: Jonah (’dove’), Deborah (‘bee’), Susannah (‘lily’), Leah (‘wild cow’), or Caleb (‘dog’). Theophoric names (names with divine connotation): Eliezer (‘God is helper’) Hezekiah (‘God is strength’), or Isaiah (‘God is salvation’).
Theophoric names were not only given in Israel. As an example the god of the Ammonites whose name was Milcom (1 Kings 11:5) “also appears as a theophoric element in names of several other Ammonite seals, for example, Milkom-’ur, the servant of the Ammonite king Baalis…” But according to Thompson,
A true worshipper of Yahweh would give his children names which contained the element Yahu, as in Jerimyahu (Jeremiah), Yeshayahu (Isaiah), Eliyahu (Elijah) and Yehonatan (Jonathan). He would avoid names such as Jerubbaal, Merib-baal and Abibaal. Yet in the collection of ostraca […] found in Samaria[…] there were eleven Yahu names and seven Baal names among a total of fifty-two.
Cogan gives further insight:
…the Judean onomasticon underwent a profound change [in the time of exile], and in just one generation, Babylonian personal names, some including the names of Babylonian deities, were adopted by the exiles. […] names like Zerubbabel (“seed of Babylon”) and Shenazzar (“the god Sin protects”).
But Cogan writes further that this changed after two more generations as the Israelites were back in their country and national emotions were gained again “as can be seen in the female name Yehoyishma (‘the Lord will hear’), bestowed by a father with the Babylonian name Shawash-sharusur (‘the god Shmash protects the king’).”
In the Greco-Roman societies theophoric names were common too. The names derived from the gods Dionysos, Aphrodite, Athena, Zeus and so on. The timing of when a child was named was commonly right after the deliverance, but this practice changed and it was common in NT times to wait eight days after the deliverance to name the child. This is also seen in the Greco-Roman period in which the NT was written. Salway explains:
[In Greek society] the Amphidromia was a ceremony held between five and ten days after the child’s birth, at which the infant was given a name. […] The firstborn son would usually adopt his paternal grandfather’s name; the second born…his maternal grandfather’s. […] A child would normally receive only one name. To distinguish an individual, the father’s name (patronymic), or for women the husband’s name was added…[In the Roman society] children were formally named at a ritual purification ceremony (lustratio) on the eighth day after birth for girls, the ninth for boys.
We can see again that names and the practice of naming was done with careful thought. Throughout Scripture we observe that God is utilizing current cultural practices for His own purposes. To name someone is to a certain aspect to have power over that person. This will be significant for our next post in which we will discover the power of name-changing.
J.A. Thompson, Handbook of Life in Bible Times. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1986), 80.
Douglas Stuart, “Name, Proper.” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. 4 vols. (edited by Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 485.
Marten Stol, “Private Life in Ancient Mesopotamia.” Civilizations of the Ancient Near East. Vol. 1. (edited by Jack Sasson. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995), 491.
Randall W. Younker, “Transjordan.” Peoples of the Old Testament World. (edited Alfred J. Hoerth, Gerald L. Mattingly, and Edwin M. Yamauchi. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 312.
J.A. Thompson, Handbook of Life in Bible Times. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1986), 322.
Mordechai Cogan, “Into Exile: From the Assyrian Conquest of Israel to the Fall of Babylon.” The OxfordHistory of the Biblical World. (edited by Michael D. Coogan. New York : Oxford UniversityPress, 1998), 358.
R. W. Benet Salway, “Names and Naming.” The CambridgeDictionary of Classical Civilization. (edited by Graham Shipley [et al.]. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 604.