All poetry is but a giving of names.
Biography is the only true history:
History is the garb of biography.
The beginning of all instruction is the study of names.—Antisthenes, c. 400 b.c.
Many readers of the Bible treat its genealogical lists as despised regions, and wonder why they form part of a divine revelation such as the Bible is. At first glance, there seems to be no point or profit in the bare enumeration of the names of men who died thousands of years ago.
Yet because the Bible is the inspired Word of God, even these uninteresting lists of names were written for our learning, and if properly studied they yield remarkable results. Many of these names describe nations, as well as men, and have therefore a priceless historical value. Consulting them, we find they often show the course taken by men in their settlement over the earth. Ancient Hebrew names, which at first sight might appear unattractive, and are passed over as unworthy of serious thought, have something about them which compels our prayerful consideration. In many cases Bible names are fragments of ancient history, revelations of divine purposes, expressions of hopes and prophecies of the future.
Every Jew kept a record of his lineage and was proud if he could claim royal or priestly descent. Joseph, for example, could boast of himself as “a son of David.” The genealogical lists of Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Matthew and Luke, containing the majority of named men, prove how meticulous the Jews were in the preservation of their pedigree. It was common in almost every Jewish family to transcribe a family tree.
Josephus, the Jewish historian who lived in the time of our Lord, tells us that he could trace his ancestry back to the Maccabeans, or priest-rulers, from public registers. He also states that wherever Jews settled such registers were kept of births and marriages of the priesthood, and that registers went back some two thousand years. That the Israelites were most interested in the preservation of their pedigree can be proven by 1 Chronicles 9:1. The forfeit of those tribes who had lost their pedigree is seen in Ezra 2:59 and Nehemiah 7:63.
Truth taught by names is another important aspect to observe. The significance of names opens up a field of pleasant and profitable investigation to all true lovers of Scripture. While many of the names may not have been designed to be typical, they are certainly suggestive of spiritual truth, as can be seen in the names Jacob gave his sons. In ancient Israel the name of a person was supposed to indicate some characteristic of that person, or be linked to circumstances, however trivial or monotonous, connected with his birth. Names and nature, as well as names and facts, were made to correspond, as can be found in the name Moses gave his son (Exod. 2:22), and the naming of Ichabod (1 Sam. 4:21). As we review the suggested meanings given to the names alphabetically set forth in the following chapter, we will find that they cover many associations.
Names denote natural or personal qualities. A classic illustration of this is Abigail’s plea to David for her worthless husband: “...as his name is, so is he: Nabal is his name and folly is with him” (1 Sam. 25:25). Nabal means “fool.” In effect then, Abigail said, “Pay no attention to my husband. He’s a fool by name, and a fool by nature.”
Names point to an occupation. There are many instances of these occupational names: Archippus, “governor of horses”; Asa, “physician”; Carmi, “vine-dresser.”
Names bear a symbolic or prophetic feature. An instance of this is seen in the name Shear-jashub, “a remnant shall return” (Isa. 7:3). Maher-shalal-hash-baz, one of the longest names in the Bible, means “Haste ye, haste ye, to the spoil” (Isa. 8:1).
Names are fixed immediately after birth. In the choice of a name for a child, the mother usually exercised such a privilege (Gen. 19:37; 29:32). Sometimes, however, the father chose the name (Gen. 4:26; 16:15). Occasionally other interested persons came forward with a name (Ruth 4:17; Luke 1:57-63).
John the Baptist and Christ had names divinely given before their birth (Luke 1:13; Matt. 1:21).
Names are bestowed indifferently on men and women. Now and again a man and a woman bear the same name, for example, Abihail (Esther 2:15; 1 Chron. 2:29). Then persons and places have the same name. Did you know that Eden is the name of a man as well as the garden where Adam first lived, and that Bethlehem is the name of a person as well as the town where Jesus was born?
Names are connected with family relationships. A few names are taken from relatives (Luke 1:59). Ahab means “father’s brother”; Ahban, “brother is son”; Ahiam, “maternal uncle.” Ab means “father,” so we have many names beginning with these letters, such as Abimelech (“whose father is king”).
Names carry a religious relationship or significance. Sometimes a name expressed some hope or aspiration on the part of parents, as in John, meaning, “gracious gift of God.” Other names (such as Samuel, meaning “God hath heard”) were conceived in the spirit of prayer because they expressed religious expectation on behalf of the child. This name marks the fact that the child was born in answer to prayer.
Ancient peoples fashioned names out of the names of their gods, proved in Pan-Bel-adagal, meaning “I look to Bel,” and in other heathen names in which gods are invoked. This also characterizes many Hebrew names into which the idea of God enters freely. The divine name El, meaning “God,” is incorporated within many proper names of persons, as in Israel or Eliakim. The same is true of names containing Jah, or Jeho, as in Jahaziah and Jehoiakim. Other names extol divine sovereignty, as in Adonijah, meaning, “Jehovah is Lord.”
Names are changed by God’s direct intervention. Many names were not only given by God but changed by His direction: Abram to Abraham; Sarai to Sarah; Jacob to Israel; Oshea to Joshua.
Names deemed important had an acute consciousness of meaning. This fact is borne out in such names as Reuben, “see, a son”; Judah, “praise”; Joseph, “he adds.” At times, given names reflect the characteristics of the parents, which the children inherited. Weak, indecisive parents were likely to coin weak, indecisive names for their children who manifested character in keeping with their names.
Names are from the vegetable world. We have many instances of names of this order: Adam, “red earth”; Elah, “oak”; Asnah, “bramble”; Shamar, “thorn.”
Names are associated with natural objects in the world: Geshem, “rain”; Barak, “lightning”; Boanerges, “sons of thunder”; Adoni-Bezek, “lightning of the Lord.”
Names are taken from the animal creation: Caleb, “dog”; Dan, “lion’s whelp”; Shaphan, “rock-badger”; Achbor, “mouse”; Parosh, “flea.”
Names, separate or double, of the same person are frequent. Some examples are: “Saul who is called Paul,” “Simon Barjonas,” “Simon Zelotes,” “Judas Iscariot.” Alongside of these double names we have those men who carry a distinguished and honorable surname.
By “surname” is meant an additional name—a name to be distinguished from the “Christian” name, the name over and above, a sur-, or super-name. As surnames, as we presently know them, were unknown among the Hebrews, the word as used in the Bible simply means the bestowal of a flattering or honorable title. Foreigners, envious of the privileges of the Jews, were eager to surname themselves by the name of Israel, that is, be enrolled as members of the Jewish nation (Isa. 44:5). God surnamed Cyrus, meaning that He gave him the honored title of “my shepherd,” thereby appointing him to be His instrument for the restoration of His people (Isa. 44:28).
In the New Testament the custom of bestowing this kind of surname was becoming more widespread, for example, Simon surnamed Peter (Acts 10:5, 32); James and John surnamed Boanerges (Mark 3:17); Judas surnamed Iscariot (Luke 22:3).
Then we have names to which labels are attached indicating work or worth such as Elijah the Tishbite, Nehemiah the king’s cupbearer, John the Baptist, James the Lord’s brother and Luke the beloved physician.
When some of these persons experienced a changed life, why permit them to carry an appendage so suggestive of the old, worthless life? If Mary Magdalene was no longer demon-possessed, why continue to write of her, “out of whom went seven devils”? It may be that the wearers of some of these labels carried them so as not to forget the past. They were not to forget the pit from whence they had been digged (Isa. 51:1). Perhaps they were retained that those who bore them might maintain a fitting humility.
We conclude this first section of our study with two features suggested by Elsdon C. Smith, in his most enlightening book, Story of Our Names.
With the publication of the Genevan Bible in 1560, the adoption of Bible names became popular. The common people, now interested in Biblical characters, had a long list of names from which to choose, and baptismal registers became records of Bible names. Elsdon C. Smith tells us that about the only Old Testament names used with any frequency before the Protestant Reformation were Adam, Elias, Samson, David, Solomon, Daniel, Joseph and Benjamin. After the Reformation the type of name changed. Because of the Puritan hatred of Roman Catholicism saints' names were avoided. Names like Elijah, Moses, Aaron, Joshua and Nathaniel became popular. English names not in the Bible were rejected as pagan. Even the longest name in the Bible, Maher-shalal-hash-baz, was often used.
Today many of our most frequently used Christian names and surnames are traceable directly to the Bible, particularly to the New Testament. Over a century ago Old Testament names were more prominent. Now John for a boy and Mary for a girl hold the lead.