The Significance of Names.
“What’s in a name?” asks Juliet. True, the surname Montague shouldn’t have kept her from being with Romeo, but generally I think there is great significance in names that shouldn’t be underestimated. They are a crucial part of our identity, albeit only part.
Names are clearly significant in Genesis. Firstly, names evolve to reflect a major life-change. Thus Abram (‘honoured father’) becomes Abraham (‘father of many’). This is far more momentous than the extra two letters and slight change of meaning would suggest: it marks the moment when Jo-Bloggs-ordinary Abram became Abraham, the head of the family-tree of faith. At the same time Sarai became Sarah, both meaning ‘princess’ but as with Abraham the change reflected a major development in her life.
Later on Jacob became Israel. ‘He who wrestles with God’ doesn’t sound much better than ‘he who grasps the heel’, but this name change commemorates the time when Jacob was so desperate for God that he wouldn’t let go, even when his hip was dislocated – we should all be so desperate for God. This name foretells the turbulent relationship Jacob’s descendants would have with God, but it remains a name of promise, a mark of favour.
Secondly, names are used in Genesis as a way of honouring God. Hagar creates a new name for God when she is rescued by Him in the desert as a way of celebrating what He did for her (‘You are the God who sees me’ – Gen. 16:13). Leah’s names for her children all reflect her circumstances, but also her changing level of positivity. From Reuben (‘he has seen my misery’) and Levi (‘attached’) to Judah (‘praise’) and Asher (‘happy’) (Gen. 29:31-30:13). Finally, right at the end of the book, the names chosen by Joseph for his sons memorialise what God had done for him (Gen. 41:51-52). These names were an act of worship.
All this makes me think of my own name and reflect again on its meaning. I’ve always been very proud of my name: Michael (he who is like the Lord) Harvey (from the medieval French herve meaning ‘battle-worthy’). That’s not a bad combination, especially not when you think there are names like Kennedy (‘misshapen head’) and Mallory (‘unlucky’) – apologies to any with those names reading this.
I’m grateful to my parents for choosing the name Michael for me. I preferred Mike for most of my life, but now I realise how foolish I was to give up Michael, with all its wonderful meaning, for a name that means nothing and rhymes with spike. I take the meaning ‘he who is like the Lord’ not so much as a description as an aspiration – a constant challenge to become more like Jesus. That’s a lifetime’s pursuit right there.
Though others might look down their noses at a non-Biblical name, my wife’s name means ‘light’ in Latin, and it could not be more appropriate, for she is a ray of sunshine in my life. She’s made everything brighter since the day I met her, and all will be dimmed if she’s the first to be called home. And anyway, even if the name itself is not Biblical, you need look no further than the opening paragraphs of John’s Gospel to realise how wonderful is the symbolism she’s connected to by name.
Despite my reverence for meaningful names we chose the name Ethan for our son not because of its meaning but simply because we liked it. In the Bible Ethan was one of David’s court musicians, the man who wrote Psalm 89, and the name means ‘long-lived’, or alternatively ‘wise’, all of which is nice enough, but nothing next to the fantastic meaning arrived at in my own language when adding an extra letter to the beginning: Intelligent Warrior. May he be so.
Names are important right throughout the Bible, not just in Genesis. Paul (‘short’) might not have got a very good exchange from Saul (‘asked for’), but Jesus (‘the Lord saves’) encapsulates the most wonderful name-meaning in the whole Bible. Apart from God the Father Himself, Jesus probably has more names than anyone else in the Bible: Emmanuel, Christ, The Word of God, The Alpha & Omega, the Son of David, The bright Morning Star, The Lion of Judah, etc. etc. And every one represents another facet of His character or His role, and all of them teach us something about how awesome He is.
There’s also the idea that God has His own names for us, known to none but Him. By what name did He know us when He called us, before the beginning of creation (Ephesians 1:4-5), and was that the same name He used for us when we were in the womb? Is it the same name written in heaven (Luke 10:20), in the book of life (Philippians 4:3)? God says in Isaiah (49:16) that our names our engraved on His hands – can you imagine how wonderful those names must be? Just knowing that I have such a name, is too beautiful, and more affirming than I can ever understand this side of heaven (Psalm 139:6).
If you don’t know God by any of His names, perhaps you’d like to think about the fact that He has a name for you which no one else knows. You’re His. He made you, loves you, died for you, and calls you by name. Can you hear?