What’s in a name?

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Day 14

Prayer for the day

In the morning, LORD, you hear my voice; early in the morning I make my appeal and watch for you.

Scripture for the day

Genesis 33-35, Matthew 10:1-20

Have you noticed that we don’t really attribute meaning to names anymore? Unless of course you’re a celebrity, in which case you invest strange and sometimes incomprehensible meanings in the names of your children. But we ordinary folk eschew all that highfalutin “meaning” and stick to ordinary names. Particularly in North America, we name things either what they are, or we pick something that sounds nice.

Not so in the Bible. The First Testament passage for today speaks of Sukkoth, El Elohe Israel, El Bethel, Allon Bakuth, Israel, Bethel, Ben-Oni, and Benjamin. Our Second Testament passage lists the names of the twelve disciples, some with epithets and some without. What is it about these Hebrews that makes names so important?

For much of the Ancient Near East, naming a place or a person had incredible power.
1. The power of memory
When you don’t write down much, and you’re a nomad, it’s important to be able where things happened and why. That knowledge was able to be passed on when a place bore a memorable and descriptive name.
2. The power of identity
When we share a name or bestow a name, we are sharing or bestowing a part of ourselves. In the Ancient Near East, that was to bestow power on the listener. Once I hear your name, once I know it, I hold some portion of power over you.
3. The power of experience
Our ability to name a thing, an object, a place, or a person, allows us to name an experience of that thing etc. As Wittgenstein said, “the limits of my language are the limits of my world.”

With these three kinds of power conferred, it makes sense that naming would be a sacred act in the Ancient Near East. But what about today? Do names still carry meaning?

There are several names that carry significant weight in the Scriptures. The most obvious examples are the name of God (YHWH) and the name of the Son of God (Yeshua or Jesus). But there are a few more names that bear thinking about. Names given to people who belong to this God.

Names like Son. Daughter. Brother. Sister. Beloved.

When we belong to God, we are assigned these names, and these names are able to overcome the names we used to bear. Names like Unwanted. Un-Cared-For. Undesirable. Unloved.

Know then that as you have been accepted by God, your name has changed. And revel in the newness of being Beloved.

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2 thoughts on “What’s in a name?

  1. succoth: booths (pens, stables?)
    El-elohe-Israel : God , the God of the prince of God
    El-beth-el: : the God of the House of God
    Allon-bachuth: the oak of weeping
    Israel: a prince of/with God
    Bethel: the house of God
    Ben-oni: the son of sorrow
    Benjamin: son of my right hand

    I thought it was interesting that Jacob did not introduce himself as isreal after he had been re named by God. does it persist, this duality of identities, until the end of chapter 35 or beyond? does Jacob/Isreal carry it for the rest of his life? vs 7 of chapter 34 shows the two names side by side, but it sounds to me like ” because he had wrought folly in Israel” means that God was already identifying his people in Jacob’s family, even before Jacob had fully taken on his identity.

    the power of memory, the power of identity, the power of experience.

    the twelve, i wonder what their names meant? i do remember a vital shift in relationship between Jesus and his disciples at the last supper where Jesus switches from calling his disciples servants to calling them friends, underscoring a new level of intimacy. that hearkens back to Abraham, who was brought into God’s plans to destroy Sodom. intimacy.

    the names that you mention at the end are all relationships too. i like the idea of being identified as my relationship to/with God.

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