Neviim Tovim/TheHaftarah Circle Gillian Gould Lazarus

Posts Tagged ‘The meaning of biblical names

cain
When babies are given names in the bible, the name is chosen to reflect the situation of the birth, sometimes as a comment on the parents’ predicament, sometimes an acknowledgement of God’s role in the birth or the general situation, and sometimes prophetically, as an expectation of what the named child will become.

A Who’s Who of the Hebrew bible will explain the meaning of any name, and very often, as with the characters invented by Charles Dickens, the name expresses some characteristic of the person.

In the modern world, a child’s given name may indicate many things: nationality, religion and class for example. They reflect social trends, media and celebrity culture. The influence of celebrity names is determined by other factors besides the popularity of the celebrity. For some reason, more Marilyns than Elvises were born in the 1950s; perhaps more Nevilles than Winstons in the 1940s. Even certain patterns of sound can become popular trends: consider that Aidan, Jayden and Kayden were amongst the top boys’ names in the UK in 2011, Ella, Bella (an allusion to the Twilight series of fiction) and Ellie for girls. Surnames such as Howard and Harrison become popularized as given names. Why were so many Jewish boys in the 1940s given the Welsh name Melvyn?

Cain and Abel

Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten a man (קניתי איש) with the help of the LORD.”
And again, she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground.

Cain’s name is from the verb ק נ ה, to acquire, buy, get. It has two strong consonants in common with ק נ א, to be jealous, conceptually linked with possession or acquisition. God’s relationship with Israel is expressed as קנה at the Song at the Sea: … till your people, O LORD, pass by, till the people pass by whom you have purchased.

The naming of Abel is not accounted for in the Genesis narrative, but הבל is usually translated as vanity, especially in its context in Ecclesiastes, suggesting something transitory and insignificant. In our morning prayer service we say: Ki hacol havel levad haneshamah hatehorah – Everything is trivial except the pure soul.

And Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and called his name Seth, for she said, “God has appointed for me another offspring instead of Abel, for Cain killed him.”
Genesis 4:25
ותקרא את־שמו שת כי שת־לי אלהים זרע אחר תחת הבל

Noah

When Lamech had lived 182 years, he fathered a son and called his name Noah, saying, “Out of the ground that the LORD has cursed this one shall bring us relief (זה ינחמנו) from our work and from the painful toil of our hands.”

The names Nahum or Nahman would have fitted the etymology of yenachamenu, and the name of Noah looks as if it comes from נ וּ ח, to rest, as in ותּנח התּבה …and the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat.

Ishmael’s name, connected with shema, comes from the same source as Simeon, chosen later by Leah for her second son. Note that the name Samuel is spelled with an aleph rather than an ayin, so is not linked to the concept of hearing in the same way.

The angel of the LORD found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur.
And he said, “Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?” She said, “I am fleeing from my mistress Sarai.”
The angel of the LORD said to her, “Return to your mistress and submit to her.”
The angel of the LORD also said to her, “I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude.”
And the angel of the LORD said to her, “Behold, you are pregnant and shall bear a son. You shall call his name Ishmael, because the LORD has listened (כי שמע יי) to your affliction.

The source of the name Isaac is well known, based on a pun made by Sarah:

Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. And Sarah said, “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh (כל השמע יצחק־לי) over me.”

More puzzling is the naming of Esau:

The first came out red, all his body like a hairy cloak, so they called his name Esau.
Afterward his brother came out with his hand holding Esau’s heel (בעקב), so his name was called Jacob.

Esau is described as admoni, ruddy, and seir, hairy, which explains his names Edom and Seir, but what does Esav mean? The letters ayin sin vav spell the word that means ‘do’, third person or imperative plural, as in, for example עשו להם ציצית, ‘make themselves fringes’. Does the fact that Esau is a hunter have any bearing on a name which might be connected with ‘doing’?

Jacob’s sons are all given significant names, which reflect the circumstances of their birth. Leah in particular names her sons with pious allusions to God who responded to her prayers.

And Leah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Reuben, for she said, “Because the LORD has looked upon my affliction (ראה יי בעניי); for now my husband will love me.” She conceived again and bore a son, and said, “Because the LORD has heard that I am hated (שמע יי כי שנוּאה), he has given me this son also.” And she called his name Simeon. Again she conceived and bore a son, and said, “Now this time my husband will be attached to me (ילוה אישי), because I have borne him three sons.” Therefore his name was called Levi. And she conceived again and bore a son, and said, “This time I will praise (אודה) the LORD.” Therefore she called his name Judah.

Rachel, in naming the children of Bilhah her handmaid, reveals her competitive feelings about her sister and Leah responds similarly when Zilpah gives birth:

And Bilhah conceived and bore Jacob a son. Then Rachel said, “God has judged me (דנני), and has also heard my voice and given me a son.” Therefore she called his name Dan.
Rachel’s servant Bilhah conceived again and bore Jacob a second son.
Then Rachel said, “With mighty wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister (נפתוּלי אלהים נפתלתי עם אחתי) and have prevailed.” So she called his name Naphtali.
When Leah saw that she had ceased bearing children, she took her servant Zilpah and gave her to Jacob as a wife. Then Leah’s servant Zilpah bore Jacob a son. And Leah said, “Good fortune has come!” (בא גד) so she called his name Gad. Leah’s servant Zilpah bore Jacob a second son. And Leah said, “Happy am I! (באשרי) For women have called me happy.” So she called his name Asher.

The sisters then quarrel, haggling over the valuable mandrakes found by Reuben. Rachel bargains with Leah by promising access to Jacob, and the fertile Leah gives birth to another son:

Leah said, “God has given me my reward (סכרי) because I gave my maid to my husband”; so she named him Issachar.19 And Leah conceived again, and she bore Jacob a sixth son. Then Leah said, “God has endowed me with a good endowment; now my husband will honour me (יזבּלני אישי), because I have borne him six sons.” So she called his name Zebulun. Afterward she bore a daughter and called her name Dinah.

Rachel’s two sons’ names are poignantly descriptive of Rachel experience:

Then God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her and opened her womb.
She conceived and bore a son and said, “God has taken away my reproach.”
And she called his name Joseph, saying, “May the LORD add (יסף) to me another son!”

And as her soul was departing (for she was dying), she called his name Ben-oni;but his father called him Benjamin.

On ‘Thought for the Day’ last Friday (23 March 2012), Rabbi Lord Sacks referred to the Egyptian etymology of the name Moses, a suffix meaning ‘child’, as in Ramses, child of Ra, while acknowledging that the Hebrew etymology gives Moses another meaning:

When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son. She named him Moses, “Because,” she said, “I drew him (משיתהו) out of the water.”

Now Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, had taken Zipporah, Moses’ wife, after he had sent her home, along with her two sons. The name of the one was Gershom, for he said, “I have been a sojourner in a foreign land”, and the name of the other, Eliezer, for he said, “The God of my father was my help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh”.

Regarding Moses’ two sons, we know very little other than their names and the strange circumstances of Gershom’s circumcision. We can find the names of their descendants, however, in 1 Chronicles 23.

The naming of Samuel is interesting as his name should mean something like ‘Name and God’, Shem v’ El. Hannah makes an association with שאל, to ask, which seems to belong less to Samuel than to his protegé Saul.

And in due time Hannah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Samuel, for she said, “I have asked for him (שאלתיו) from the LORD.”

The unnamed widow of Phinehas, Eli’s son, alludes to the loss of the Holy Ark, which is seized by the Philistines:

And she named the child Ichabod, saying, “The glory has departed from Israel!” (גלה כבוד מישראל)

Solomon, unusually, is given two names, the second, Jedidiah, at the instigation of the prophet Nathan. Robert Alter suggests that Jedidiah, meaning ‘beloved of God’ indicates Nathan’s identification with Bathsheba’s cause, as will become apparent when he supports Solomon later, against his older brother Adonijah, as the successor to David.

Then David comforted his wife, Bathsheba, and went in to her and lay with her, and she bore a son, and he called his name Solomon. And the LORD loved him and sent a message by Nathan the prophet. So he called his name Jedidiah, because of the LORD.

Isaac was also called yedid, the son whom Abraham loved.

Sometimes the etymology is approximate, or based on a transposition of consonants, as in the case of a descendant of Judah called Jabez, based on the word B’azav, ‘in pain’. When the adult Jabez prays to God to enlarge his territory, he adds the words: levilti azbi, ‘that it may not pain me’ and God answers his prayer.

Jabez was more honourable than his brothers; and his mother called his name Jabez, saying, “Because I bore him in pain (כי ילדתי בעצב).”

Some names allude to disasters which have befallen the person naming the child:

And Ephraim went in to his wife, and she conceived and bore a son. And he called his name Beriah, because disaster had befallen his house (כי ברעה היתה בביתו).

We have seen that Hosea’s wife bore children whose names suggested God’s abandonment of Israel. Conversely Job’s daughters have names which mean daylight, perfume and reversal of fortune:

And he called the name of the first daughter Jemimah, and the name of the second Keziah, and the name of the third Keren-happuch.

Names which reveal character or destiny from birth seem to belong more to the realm of literature than that of history. It is common for historical personages to be called ‘the Great,’ ‘the Terrible’, ‘Epiphanes’, ‘Longshanks’, ‘Milk-snatcher’ etc, but these are soubriquets, based on deeds or appearance.

The question arising from biblical names concerns their prophetic character. Does the parent know que sera, or are they simply expressing their hopes and fears about the future. Perhaps the etymology is added, with historical hindsight, as an explanation of the named character.

Some biblical names are meaningful in the absence of any infancy narrative; an instance of this would be David, whose name, ‘beloved’, is highly significant. Another is Saul, the ‘asked-for’ king.

The absence of any clearly discernible meaning in a biblical name seems to argue in favour of the historicity of the person in question.

Advertisements