What's in a Biblical name

A child's name used to reflect his or her character. now we give character to our names.

Of the 10 most popular boys' names given to babies in 2000, eight are found in the Bible. Four of the top 10 girls' names are there as well. Many parents don't even think about where a name comes from when they give their children names. They just like the sound or have a friend or relative with that name.

But in the days of the Bible, names were much more meaningful. How would you like to be named Hairy, or Refreshment, or The Spoil Speeds, the Prey Hastens? Your name may actually have a meaning like this, but it's not so obvious. You'd have to look in a book of names to find out what it means.

"In the Bible, many names said just what they meant," says Prof. David Noel Freedman of the Department of History at the University of California, San Diego. Names were more than just labels. To ancient Hebrews and Babylonians, nothing existed until it had a name. Its name expressed its character.

So if parents named a child Grace, they expected the child to be graceful.

In the Biblical story of Nabal, he did something foolish. His wife, Abigail, said "as his name is, so is he: Nabal [fool] is his name, and folly is with him" (I Samuel 25:25). "It's hard to believe that his parents actually named him 'Stupid,' " Dr. Freedman says. "We don't know for sure, but the name may have had another meaning and it just happened to also sound the same as Fool, like the words 'stair' and 'stare' sound alike but mean different things."

Other names worked out a lot better. Joseph and Mary were instructed to name their son Jesus. That's a Greek form of the name Joshua, which means "savior." Esau had a lot of hair when he was born, so his parents named him Hairy.

Job and his wife might not have been thinking about character when they named some of their daughters. Kerenhappuch means "horn of antimony" (black eye shadow), but maybe she just had thick eyelashes. Keziah might have been a type of perfume or even a spice for food. Their third daughter was named Jemimah, which means dove.

How about a girl named 'Lipstick'?

If people followed this practice today, girls might have names like Mascara, Lipstick, or Nutmeg. (Actually, Cinnamon has been used as a girl's name recently, so naming girls after spices is still a possibility.)

People in Biblical times even changed their names when they felt they had greatly changed as a person. When Jesus wanted to emphasize that Simon would be a steadfast upholder of his teachings, he gave him the name Peter, based on the Greek word for rock. Jacob's name means "supplanter," and he lived up to his name when he stole the inherited rights belonging to his older brother, Esau. When he became a changed man, he changed his name to Israel (he strives with God).

Many Bible names contain "El" or "Yah," which are Hebrew words for God. Notice the "el" at the end of Michael, Daniel, and Samuel. Can you hear the "yah" at the end of Obadiah, Nehemiah, and Jeremiah?

In Old Testament times, children were usually named by their mothers. These "El" and "Yah" names were meant to honor God and ensure that God was a part of their children's lives. These names declared "God rules" and "Who is like God?"

Because a name was so much a part of a person, if you acted "in someone's name," you acted with their authority. That's why Mordecai could write a command in the name of King Ahasuerus and it became law (Exodus 8:8-10).

Prophets sometimes spoke "in the name of God" to emphasize their authority. By declaring something in the name of God, they declared that they spoke for God Himself.

Unfortunately for their children, prophets also had a tendency to give their kids names related to their prophesies. Hosea felt the people of Israel didn't deserve God's mercy or protection, so he named a daughter Loruhamah (not pitied) and a son Loammi (not my people).

And it was Isaiah who signified the destruction of cities Rezin and Pekah by naming his son Mahershalalhashbaz (the spoil speeds, the prey hastens). If we named children after events today, they might be called Question the Vote Count or March Madness.

'This is my son, Vulture'

People in the Bible who traveled around living in tents also named their children after the animals they saw, especially if the child showed any characteristics of the animal.

They named them Gazelle (Zibiah), Mountain Sheep (Zimri), even Vulture (Aiah). They also chose names of the features around them such as Cliff (Sela), Meadow (Abel), or Hill (Gibeon). Would parents living in cities today ever call their children High-Rise or Billboard?

After about the 5th century B.C., it became more customary to name a child after a relative. And as people from different cultures mixed together, names were borrowed from other traditions. The meaning of the borrowed name might be lost.

Today we still have some names with obvious meaning: Grace, Joy, April. (Can you think of others? Lefty, maybe? Or Tiger?) Most of us don't give much thought to what our names mean. We may not even be sure where it came from. It's the opposite of the Biblical tradition. Then, a person's name was supposed to give him character. Now, it's who we are that gives meaning to our names.

Most popular names

These were the most popular names for babies born in the United States last year. The ones in bold are from the Bible. (What do the names mean? See story, next page.)

Boys

1. Michael

2. Jacob

3. Matthew

4. Joseph

5. Christopher

6. Nicholas

7. Andrew

8. William

9. Joshua

10. Daniel

Girls

1. Hannah

2. Madison

3. Elizabeth

4. Alexis

5. Sarah

6. Taylor

7. Lauren

8. Jessica

9. Ashley

10. Samantha

What does your name mean?

The meaning of some ancient names isn't always clear, but here are some Bible names still used today, and their meanings. (All are Hebrew in origin unless otherwise indicated) If your name isn't listed here and you'd like to know its meaning, look in a book of names for new babies, or go to: www.tbns.net/babynames/index.html

Abigail - The father is rejoicing

Adam - Ruddy, red, formed; earth

Andrew - (Greek) Manly

Asher - Happy

Daniel - God has judged

David - Beloved one

Elijah - My God is Yahweh

Elizabeth - Promise of God

Esther - (Persian) Star

Eve - Life

Hannah - Grace

Jacob - Heel-grabber, usurper

Jeremiah - Yahweh founds or lifts up

John - Yahweh has been gracious

Joseph - May He (Yahweh) add

Joshua - Savior, salvation

Josiah - (Heb./Arabic) Yahweh (God) heals

Mark - (Greek/Latin) A large hammer

Martha - (Aramaic) Lady, mistress

Matthew - Gift of Yahweh

Micah, Michael - Who is like God?

Naomi - My delight

Nathan - God has given; gift

Nicholas - Conqueror, victor, victory

Paul - (Latin) Little

Rachel - Ewe

Ruth - Refreshment, reviving; beautiful friend

Samuel - Name of God

Sarah - Princess

Sharon - A plain

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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