William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene 2:


‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.

Juliet was in love with Romeo. She didn’t give a hoot what his family name was or that their clans hated each other. Hatfield’s and McCoy’s. Sharks and Jets. 

My name, Lawrence, means, “laurel branches.” A few months ago, I was on a weeklong silent prayer retreat during which I came to a deeper surrender to Christ. In a profound moment of grace I will never forget, the Holy Spirit gave me a new name – a name that connects me to God’s gracious loving character. 

In modern occidental cultures, babies are sometimes named in honor of someone, usually, someone in the family line. Or, the baby is named a name that the parent(s) simply like the sound of. Some parents-to-be scroll through lists of names on the internet and choose one that strikes their fancy. Some African-Americans, in celebration of manumission from white oppression, invent creative non-European sounding names. Others choose an African name. And, of course, names are at times connected to ethnic cultures, whether African, Asian, Latin, European, or Middle Eastern. Some babies are given names of religious significance; some are named after biblical characters, or after a famous person in history. Muslims sometimes name their sons in honor of their chief prophet, Mohammad. 

Regardless of what our children are named or what the origin of those names may be, almost none of us believe that we have settled our tiny offspring’s character and future by what we name them. To us, that would be magical thinking worthy of folklore. 

But that is exactly what everyone in the Ancient Near East (ANE) believed. ANE people would not have agreed with Shakespeare. Our Bible and all its stories and characters come out of ANE civilization. In that culture, what a person was named was of immense significance. For anyone in the ANE, your name contained your soul. You were not a person; you had no personhood, until you were named. Moreover, because your name contained your soul, you were fated to fulfill whatever the meaning of your name was. Your name defined your character. Neither your name nor your character could be changed by anyone other than a higher authority. 

That’s why we find God changing people’s names in the scriptures. “Jacob” means “trickster,” so he was doomed (as it were) to be deceitful and manipulative until a divine being changed his name to Israel, which means, “one who strives with god and prevails.” When Jacob finally surrendered himself to the divine being with whom he wrestled all night, his name, and therefore, his character, was changed. He could now face his biggest fear (his brother) with humility and grace.

The significance of a person’s name in the ANE also explains why the divine being who wrestled with Jacob refused to tell Jacob what his name was. In the minds of ANE people, if a messenger from God told a mere human his name, the human could use the divine being’s power for his own benefit. Jacob, had he known the angel’s name, could have, for example, used the divine being’s power to violently defeat Esau. 

Once Jacob (“trickster”) becomes Israel (“one who prevails”), his character is changed and he can be the ancestor of Israel. He will, from then on, live into his new name. A being greater than himself has changed his character.[1]

In similar ways, God gives new names to Abram (Abraham) and Sarai (Sarah). The significance is that God has changed the characters of these two persons, and so altered their futures. Now, they can be more than simply Neareastern nomads. Now, YHWH can covenant with them.  

In Genesis 35:17-18, Rachel names her child just before she dies in childbirth, and Jacob (the baby’s father) changes his name:

Leaving Bethel, Jacob and his clan moved on toward Ephrath. But Rachel went into labor while they were still some distance away. Her labor pains were intense.After a very hard delivery, the midwife finally exclaimed, “Don’t be afraid—you have another son!” Rachel was about to die, but with her last breath she named the baby Ben-oni (which means “son of my sorrow”). The baby’s father, however, called him Benjamin (which means “son of my right hand”).[2]

At the annunciation, Gabriel announces what Mary’s miraculous child is to be named. The name is reiterated to Joseph in a divine dream. “You shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” “Jesus” means “YHWH[3]saves.”

Jesus renames people in the New Testament as well. Cephas/Simon becomes Peter. An ostracized woman becomes “daughter.” Saul becomes Paul. And in Revelation believers are promised new names.[4]

Once an authority (especially the ultimate authority, God) gives a person a new name, that person is bound by grace to forever live up to the meaning of the new name. 

When we pray “in the name of Jesus,” and when we come against forces of evil that flee before His name, we are taking God’s authority because God instructed and allowed us to do so to unleash God’s power in accordance with God’s will to fulfill God’s mission of making all things new. When we praise or honor His name, we are acknowledging God’s character – perfect, self-sacrificing, altruistic, nonviolent, enemy-forgiving, never-ending, cruciform agapé love. 

The fact that God promises us new names when heaven has come to earth and all things are new, tells us that we are not doomed to fulfill the meaning of our earth-given names. Maybe your name means “serious loser,” or “rotten seed.” Maybe your name has no meaning. Maybe you were named after some total jerk. None of that matters. 

If you are a follower of Christ, you are identified with His name – His character.

In God’s heart, you already have a new name – His. 

Now you get to spend your life fulfilling the meaning of that Name – Jesus– by being kind, loving, forgiving, gracious, holy, and merciful. Now you get to act like Jesus – embracing the poor, the disenfranchised, the lonely, the sick, the dying, the incarcerated, the marginalized, the victims of poverty, racism, and war. Now you have the honor of turning the other cheek, responding nonviolently, and refusing nationalistic idolatry. And you can do because God has given you His Spirit, His authority, His power, His nature. So, put on the mind of Christ and don’t be conformed to this worldly system. Bring every thought into submission to Christ. Go and spread His love.

[1]Note that I use “angel,” “divine being,” and “god” interchangeably when I’m referring to the Jacob story in Genesis 32. I do so because the identity of the being with whom he wrestled is not revealed in the text. Jacob is seen as being in a camp of angels at the beginning of chapter 32. “Angel” can also bee translated “messengers” from God. He believes he has wrestled with God and names the place “Peniel,” which is spelled “Penuel” in the next verse (verses 30 & 31), either because of a copyist error or because it was spelled one way in the days of Jacob and another at the time Genesis was written, and in either case means “face of God,” or  “facing God,” perhaps indicating that this was a Christophany or theophany. The text itself simply says Jacob wrestled with “a man.” From the context, it appears clear that this is no ordinary man; most likely either an appearance of God in human form, or (more likely in my opinion) an angel sent to represent God. 

[2]Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

[3]YHWH, the sacred name by which God revealed Himself to Moses at the burning bush, most likely means, “I am who I am, or, “I will be who I will be.” God declares Himself to be compassionate and forgiving in His essence. See Exodus 34:6-7, Psalm 86:5; Psalm 103:10, & Nehemiah 9:16-17

[4]Revelation 2:17: Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.

Revelation 3:12: The one who is victorious I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will they leave it. I will write on them the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on them my new name. (Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.)

About Dr. Larry Taylor

Radical Anabaptist, Jesus Freak, Red Letter Christian, sailor, thinker, spiritual director, life coach, pastor, teacher, chaplain, counselor, writer, husband, father, grandfather, dog-sitter

Posted on October 24, 2019, in Bible, Bible Teaching, Christianity, creation, Jesus, Kingdom Life, kingdom of God, Spirituality. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. My reading ended with “Go and sp” — it just cuts off. Maybe Go and spread the good news?
    I’ve always wondered how that coward, Jacob, got the nerve to face Esau after being crippled. It doesn’t make sense, because instead of strengthening him, the Wonderful one made him even weaker. But I missed the name change, missed the relevance of it. Thanks for the insight! marylori@cal.berkeley.edu


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