Names in the Bible

Biblical Names

Biblical narratives preserve a wide variety of personal and geographic names. These are augmented by geographic and genealogical lists in early and late sources, which, when handled critically, can provide much accurate information. Another valuable source of Israelite proper names is the corpus of ancient Israelite inscriptions, preserving hundreds of names, some not attested in the Bible. Most important for the earliest periods are ostraca and stamp seals. Comparative studies of names, furthermore, seek to catalogue those names that are found in ancient Semitic languages most closely related to Hebrew, including Eblaite, Amorite, Ugaritic, Phoenician, Ammonite, Moabite, Edomite, Aramaic, and later Arabian dialects. Akkadian (Semitic) and Egyptian names, although preserved in great numbers, are less similar in style and form to Israelite names, but they have also proven beneficial in understanding difficult and foreign names that occur in the Bible. For the Second Temple period, a number of names have been catalogued as appearing in Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek inscriptions found on seals, tombs, ossuaries, ostraca, and papyrus documents. These augment the names found in the nt and contemporary Jewish writings.

Personal Names: The majority of Israelite names, and ancient Semitic names in general, had a readily understandable meaning. That parents consciously chose a child's name is implied by the content of these names, many of which are translatable sentences.

Compound names, usually consisting of two elements, are attested in a variety of grammatical constructions, especially statements, which occur in nominal, adjectival, and verbal forms. Interrogative and imperative constructions are infrequent. Most compound proper names (pns) are theophoric, containing a divine name (dn) or title. The most common dn in Israelite pns was a form of the Tetragrammaton YHWH (sometimes written with vowels as Yahweh or Jehovah; but rendered in some English Bibles and here as "the Lord"). The next most attested element was the generic 'el, meaning "god" (El was also the dn of the head of the Canaanite pantheon). Titles such as 'adon ("lord"), ba'al ("master," also a Canaanite dn), melek ("king"), zur ("rock") as well as kinship terms like 'ab ("father"), 'akh ("brother"), and 'am ("relative/[paternal] uncle") were sometimes used instead of a dn. Confusion can arise, however, regarding elements used both generically and as dns, such as ba'al, 'el, and several others; or with kinship terms, which might be associated with a deceased relative rather than a deity.

Different types of compound pns include: names expressing parents' recognition of divine assistance, such as Mattaniah ("gift of the Lord"), Elnathan/Nathanael ("God has given [this child]"), and Shemaiah ("the Lord has heard [the parents' prayer]"); names expressing parental desires for the child, such as Jeberechiah ("may the Lord bless [this child]"), Ezekiel ("may God strengthen [this child]"), and Jehiel ("may God preserve [this child]"); names expressing parents' convictions, such as Elijah/Joel ("the Lord is [my] God"), Uzziel ("God is my strength"), Adoniram ("my lord is exalted"), and Ahimelek ("my [divine] brother is king"); and names reflecting circumstances at the child's birth, such as Ben-oni ("son of my sorrow," Gen. 35:16–20), and Ichabod ("where is the glory?" 1 Sam. 4:19–22). Names like Menachem ("comforter") and Eliashub ("God restores") may suggest that a newborn was regarded as a substitute for a deceased family member.

The elements of a compound name could also be employed singly, making a shortened (hypocoristic) form, as in Mattan, Nathan, Uzzi, etc. There were other types of simple or one-element pns too. Some were originally animal or plant names, like Caleb ("dog"), Deborah ("bee"), Jonah ("dove"), Tamar ("palm tree"), and Allon ("oak"). Other pns reflected circumstances at birth, such as Haggai ("[born on] a festival day"), Becorath ("firstborn"), and Jacob ("heel-grabber"); physical characteristics, as with Esau ("hairy"), Zuar ("little one"), and Laban ("white [fair-skinned]"); or qualities hoped for, as in Amon ("reliable"). Evidence available from the nt and contemporary Jewish writings indicates that these types of simple and compound pns continued in use, but with a trend toward diminutive, hypocoristic forms of the latter. There was also a greater tendency toward adopting a foreign name or a name showing foreign influence.

The use of patronyms (surnames that serve to distinguish someone from others with the same name) were common among ancient Semites, as is amply attested in the Bible and in Israelite inscriptions. Well-known biblical examples include Joshua son of Nun and Simon Bar-Jona ("son of Jonah"). Other forms of distinct identification included geographical identifications, as in Goliath of Gath and Jesus of Nazareth, as well as professional identifications, such as Simon the tanner and Shimshai the scribe. During the Second Temple period, the phenomenon of "double names" became more common—as Jews interacted with Gentiles, they often had a Hebrew name and another non-Hebrew name for use in Gentile contexts. Thus, Hadassah was known to the Persians as Esther (Esther 2:7), and Saul was known to Gentiles as Paul (Acts 13:9).

Symbolic Meaning of Personal Names in Biblical Narratives: The biblical authors often seize upon meaning inherent in certain pns and incorporate that into the narrative. At times, one may suspect that the narrative has determined the name, rather than the other way around. It seems unlikely that any parents would have named their child Nabal ("fool"), but the only biblical character said to possess that name lives up to it in the only narrative that has been preserved concerning him (1 Sam. 25; esp. 25:25). On the other hand, there is no doubt that Jesus ("the Lord saves") actually did bear the name attributed to him in the Bible. Still, the nt authors were quick to seize upon that happy coincidence (or, indeed, to maintain it was no coincidence: an angel told Joseph to name him this, because "he will save his people from their sins," Matt. 1:21; cf. Luke 1:31). Names are sometimes allowed to do double duty with both literal and metaphorical application. Jacob was supposedly named "heel-grabber," because he literally was holding his twin brother Esau's heel when he came out of the womb (Gen. 25:26), but subsequent narratives portray him as living up to the connotations of such a name in multiple occurrences (he is often portrayed as manipulative and ambitious, trying to "get the upper hand," to use a comparable modern idiom). Likewise, Moses is named after a word that means "draw out," because he was literally pulled out of the Nile by Pharaoh's daughter (Exod. 2:10), but he lives up to this name in ways she could not have anticipated by becoming the one who draws Israel out of Egypt.

Certain prophets drew upon this tradition of symbolic names by giving names to their children that offered prophetic statements to their audiences. Thus Isaiah named his children Shear-jashub ("A remnant shall return," 7:3); Maher-shalal-hash-baz ("The spoil speeds, the prey hastens," 8:1–4), and possibly Immanuel ("God with us," 7:14). Hosea likewise named his daughter Lo-ruhama ("Not pitied," 1:6) and his son Lo-ammi ("Not my people," 1:8), because he said God would no longer have pity on the house of Israel and that its people were no longer the people of God.

The Process of Naming: The means through which names are given is sometimes important in and of itself in the Bible. In the garden of Eden, God brings all of the animals to the man "to see what he would call them, and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name" (Gen. 2:19). This probably implies the special authority and responsibility that human beings will have within God's creation. The fact that Man also names Woman (2:23) and Adam names Eve (3:20) has been taken as an indication of the authority and responsibility that men are to have in ruling over women (cf. 3:16), though it is the woman who subsequently names at least two of their sons (4:1, 25). In fact, there is no consistent pattern in the Bible to which the parent names the child. Out of forty-six instances in which the person who names the child is specified, the father gives the name eighteen times (e.g., Gen. 5:3; Exod. 18:3–4) and the mother gives the name twenty-five times (e.g., Gen. 19:37–38; 1 Sam. 1:20). The remaining instances are anomalies. Pharaoh's daughter names Moses (Exod. 2:10), and the women friends of Naomi name Ruth and Boaz's son Obed (Ruth 4:17). In the case of John the Baptist, the mother declares what the name should be, but this must be confirmed by the father (Luke 1:59–63).

With regard to the process of naming, special significance may be accorded to two phenomena that occur only sporadically. First, in remarkably few instances, God is said to select the name and to communicate it to the parents via an angel or some other medium. God chooses the name Isaac ("laughter"), because both Abraham and Sarah laughed when his miraculous birth was announced. In the nt, God chooses names for John the Baptist (Luke 1:13; cf. 1:59–63) and Jesus (Matt. 1:21; Luke 1:31). A second phenomenon is that of name changes. Changing a person's name displayed the power of the changer and the allegiance owed by the one whose name was changed. Names changed by God include Abram, changed to Abraham (Gen. 17:5); Sarai, to Sarah (17:15); and Jacob, to Israel (32:28). Names changed by a human authority include Eliakim, to Jehoiakim (2 Kings 23:34); Mattaniah, to Zedekiah (24:17); and Daniel, to Belteshazzar (Dan. 1:6, 7). Though Jesus does not change people's names outright, he is said to bestow nicknames on people. According to Mark 3:16–17, Jesus gave the nickname Peter (GK., "rock") to his disciple Simon and the nickname Boanerges (Aramaic, "sons of thunder") to his disciples James and John. Saul's name is not changed to Paul in the nt, as is sometimes thought; rather, this individual used both names throughout his adult life, Saul in his interactions with Jews, and Paul in his interactions with Gentiles.

Geographic Names: Although many of the features discussed in relation to pns apply to geographic names (gns) as well, the gns are more difficult to treat. Some are very old and their meanings are obscure. The names of many cities, rivers, and mountains preserved in the Bible, though Semitic for the most part, were often in existence before the Israelites entered Canaan and were merely adopted by the Israelites. This probably holds for Jerusalem, Megiddo, Mount Hermon, and the Jordan River. Other gns were changed by the Israelites, as in the case of Laish becoming Dan (Judg. 18:29), while new sites received new gns. Inferences from biblical gns concerning Israelite religion are limited, since Israelite gns follow the basic typology of pre-Israelite Caananite gns, making it impossible to discern whether the names were Israelite creations or merely adoptions. The nt similarly reflects the continuation of many gns, the replacement of others (e.g., Herod's renaming of Samaria as Sebaste), and the formation of entirely new ones.

As with pns, gns of both simple and compound form existed. However "sentence" gns are only infrequently attested in the Bible, as are theophoric gns. Examples of the latter include Beth-el ("house/temple of God/El"), Beth-dagon ("house/temple of Dagon"), and Baal-hazor ("lord/Baal of Hazor"; this latter type was usually short for a fuller form with "beth" in the first position). "Beth," with the meaning "house/place," also occurred in nontheophoric gns, as in Beth-marcaboth ("house/place of chariots") and Bethlehem ("house/place of bread/food"). Other compound gns contain an element referring to the environment, such as be'er ("well"), as in Beer-sheba; 'en ("spring") as in En-gedi; 'abel ("meadow") as in Abel-meholah; and 'emeq ("valley") as in Beth-emek.

Many simple gns also referred to natural features, including Ramah and Ramoth ("height[s]"), Gibeah and Gibeon ("hill"), Horeb and Negev ("dry"). Names based on structures include Mizpah ("watchtower"), Succoth ("booths"), Geder ("wall/enclosure"), and Gath ("wine press"). gns were also sometimes associated with individuals, as with Nobah (wife of the man who named the city, Num. 32:42) and Dan (ancestor of the tribe that settled in the city, Judg. 18:29), or with an event, as with Bochim ("weepers," Judg. 2:4–5) and Ebenezer ("stone of help," 1 Sam. 7:12). Plant and animal names were employed as gns too, such as Tamar ("palm tree"), Shimir ("thorn"), En-rimmon ("spring of the pomegranate"), Ephron ("gazelle"), Akrabbim ("scorpions"), and En-gedi ("spring of the goat").

Value of Studying Names: The value of these ancient names for biblical studies is found in the variety of cultural clues they provide. For example, theophoric pns indicate which deities were important to various societies in the polytheistic ancient Near East. The majority of Israelite theophoric pns either contained specific reference to "the Lord" or use the more generic 'el ("god," "God"). Still, the names of Israelites mentioned as living between the exodus and the Babylonian exile (thirteenth through early sixth centuries bce, excluding those whose sole attestation occurs in Chronicles, Ezra, or Nehemiah) reveal that only a small percentage of the population of ancient Israel had pns containing a foreign dn, even during times of proclaimed apostasy. pns in Israelite epigraphic sources corroborate this point with similar evidence. Theophoric pns are also a valuable guide to qualities associated with a given deity. pns containing "the Lord" as the dn depict the deity as strong, glorious, noble, righteous, and gracious; king, father, brother, and light; and as one who creates, gives, strengthens, remembers, knows, blesses, protects, saves, judges, and restores.

Name studies also help to chart various cultural trends, such as preferred grammatical forms of names in different periods; similar categories of gns used by pre-Israelite Canaanites and Israelites; the small number of theophoric pns attested for women in the Bible; more frequent use of kinship terms and certain divine titles in pns through the time of the united monarchy (ca. 1004–926 bce); the faddish popularity of certain pns; the increased foreign influence on names by the nt period; the growth in prominence of papponymy (naming a child after his grandfather) from the Persian period (late sixth century bce) on; and the preference in the Second Temple period for pns previously borne by biblical or national heroes over ones that had descriptive meaning applicable to the particular child. Luke 1:59–61 suggests a tradition of naming a son after his father or at least some other relative, though this is not widely attested elsewhere.

Pike, D. M., & Powell, M. A. (2011). names. In M. A. Powell (Ed.), The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary (Revised and Updated) (Third Edition, pp. 683–685). New York: HarperCollins.

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