In a previous blog post about Biblical Hebrew (BH), I wrote about some of the BH words denoting family relationships and some related words and their meanings. In that post I also introduced a few personal names and gave the meanings for those names. In this post, I felt it would be a good idea to explore some other people’s name and what they mean and how our understanding of the meaning of those names enhances the Biblical narrative.
One of the interesting things I found when I first came to understand BH was that names are important because of their meanings, and it seemed that a person was given their name based on their characteristics. In other words, the name someone was given was based on what they were like. But there also seemed to be some people’s name that were given based on an aspiration for the person being named or the nation in general. Unfortunately, in our English translations this is often not realised, but when we have an understanding of the BH text, those names and their context take on a more vibrant meaning. This becomes especially apparent when a person is given or takes a new name because sometimes the reason for the name change is given.
The first human mentioned in the Bible is Adam:
This name basically means “man / mankind”, and in the first few chapters it can sometimes be difficult to discern whether the man Adam, or mankind in general, or “the man” as a living being, is being referred to. This illustrates the integral role the meaning of a personal name has in BH. But there is a bit more to it than the name ‘Adam being simply a reference to mankind, or a specific person with that name. The name ‘Adam is related to a number of other BH words, including the words for blood (dam, דָּם), ground (‘adamah, אֲדָמָה), and resemblance (demut, דְּמוּת). So it is fairly safe to say that in the first man, Adam, there was the bloodline (dam, דָּם) of all mankind, and that the basic human resemblance (demut, דְּמוּת) has been passed down from Adam to every human being who has ever lived. The Bible also describes Adam as being formed from the ground (‘adamah, אֲדָמָה). So in that one name, Adam, we see connections to various other Biblical concepts. The name Adam is also connected to the name Edom (אֱדׂם or אֱדוׂם) which denotes redness and refers to the offspring of Esau (who is also described as being “red” in Gen 25:25). If we extend the meaning of Adam to the New Testament, we find that Jesus is called the new or second Adam, the new representative head of mankind (see 1 Corinthians 15:45-49). In that passage, it says plainly that there is a connection with the earth / ground (BH: ‘adamah, אֲדָמָה), and that while we are born in the physical image or resemblance (BH: demut, דְּמוּת) of the first man, Adam, that we will bear the spiritual image / resemblance of the heavenly man, the new Adam, Jesus the Messiah.
The next human mentioned in the Bible, a very short time later than Adam, is Eve:
חַוָּה (chavah / hhavah)
This name is closely related to a number of BH words whose meanings include the concepts “to be”, “(something that) has been”, “alive / living (thing), animal” through the BH word hayah (הָיָה) and chayah / hhayah (חַיָּה). When God breathed in Adam, and Adam is described as a “living soul”, the words נֶפֶש (nephesh) חַיָּה (hhayah) are found in the Hebrew text, meaning Adam was made a “living being”. We could ask the question: if the man Adam was the first human described as a living being, why wasn’t he given the name chavah / hhavah? In the first few chapters of the Bible, the BH word ‘Adam is so closely linked to mankind (as represented in the first man), or has the definite article attached meaning “the man”, that it can be difficult to say for sure whether the name of the first man was given to him during the first few chapters or not. Sometimes English translators have chosen to translate the BH phrase “ha-‘adam” (“the man”) as the name Adam, so it seems that even the translators sometimes weren’t entirely sure themselves whether the man, mankind, or the personal name Adam was the correct way to translate the BH text! But with Eve, that confusion is not apparent. In Genesis 3:20, which takes place after the fall, it says: “And the man (BH: “ha-‘adam”) called his wife’s name Eve (BH: “chavah / hhavah”) because she was the mother of all living (BH: “chay / hhay”)”. Notice that Adam gave Eve her name specifically because she was to be the mother of all living. Eve appears to be the first person actually called a name in the Bible, and she was to be the mother of all mankind.
Sometimes names used in English Bibles are so different to the original that it can be hard to see what the name means. An interesting example of this is the name “John” that we find in the New Testament. What is not obvious in the English text without checking a concordance or reading an Aramaic New Testament is that John is translated from a BH word! It is not written as “John” in BH, but as “Johanan”.
יוֹחָנָן (yochanan / yohhanan)
The name Johann is the Germanised form of the BH name Yohanan. The name Johanan is found a number of times in the Old Testament / Tanakh and is also where the English name John derives from. The BH name Yohanan means “graced by Yah”, the “yo-” being a reference to God’s name, and “hhanan” is a verbal form related to the BH word “chen / hhen” (חֵן) which means “favour / grace”. The meaning of the name John is not immediately apparent in English, but adds an extra level of meaning to the text when we see the name John used. Interestingly enough, when we see actions and attitudes of John, Jesus’ disciple, in the New Testament Gospels, we see a juxtaposition between the meaning of his name (“yah has graced”) and what appears to an apparent lack of graciousness in John himself towards his fellow man: he was called a “son of thunder” by Jesus (Mark 3:17), and John and his brother even suggest to Jesus that fire be called down from heaven upon a Samaritan village because they didn’t accept Jesus (Luke 9:54). And yet after the Resurrection, John’s attitude seems to have changed dramatically to resemble the gracious attitude of Jesus.
What about name changes? Let’s have a look at a few of those.
The first one we will look at is Jacob being changed to Israel. The name Jacob is written like this in BH:
This name means “one who catches / grabs the heal”. This name was given to him because of what happened during Jacob’s birth. In Genesis 26:25, 26 it says “And the first came out red, all over like a hairy garment; and they called him Esau. And after that came out his brother, and his hand took hold on Esau’s heal; and his name was called Jacob“. The name Jacob has also become synonymous with “taking the place of someone or something that was there first”, although that may be more to do with what Jacob did to Esau much later when he gained the birthright by deception. In Genesis 32:24-29 it says this: “024 And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. 025 And when he saw that he did not prevail against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him. 026 And he said, Let me go, for the day breaks. And he said, I will not let you go, unless you bless me. 027 And he said unto him, What is thy name? And he said, Jacob. 028 And he said, Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel: because you have persevered (“sariyta”, BH: שָׂרִ֧יתָ) with God and with men and have been able. 029 And Jacob asked him, and said, Tell me, I pray you, your name. And he said, Why is it that you ask after my name? And he blessed him there”. We read that Jacob wrestled with a Man (BH: man, אִיש) who he later identifies with God, and because of Jacob’s wrestling and his desire to be blessed a new name was given to him, the name Israel.
In the Hebrew text, the אֵל at the end (left hand side) of the name denotes God (BH: ‘el). The שְֹר in the middle relates to another BH word in the text, the word sariyta (BH: שָׂרִ֧יתָ), which means “perseverance” and is derived from the BH word sarah (שָׂרָה), meaning “to have power over (prevail) as a prince” and which is also the name of Abraham’s wife after she had her name changed from Sarai. In the text, Jacob’s name change to Israel was the direct result of his perseverance in wrestling with the “man” who actually appears to be God when the reason for the name change is given and Jacob names the place where the encounter happened “Peniel” which means “face of God”. Through the chapters in Genesis after this event, the name Jacob continues to be used to identify him, however. But in reference to the descendants of Jacob the designation Israel / Israelite was often used, and today the word Israeli is still used to describe a resident of the land of Israel which was given to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Another interesting name change happens in the book of Ruth. In Ruth 1:2, we find the name Naomi.
This name means “my pleasantness”. The name Naomi is derived from the na’am (BH: נַעַם / נׂעַם) which means “pleasure, pleasantness, agreableness, delight, suitableness, splendor, gracefulness (as an attribute), beauty”. It has an obviously beautiful meaning and suggests that Naomi must have had very beautiful attributes, if she was named according to her characteristics, at least in the eyes of her parents. In the story of Ruth, Naomi is first mentioned as being in Moab with her husband and sons. While there, her sons take Moabite women as wives. The narrative then mentions that her husband and sons die. As a result Naomi decides to return to her home town of Bethlehem. When she entered Bethlehem, people said “is this Naomi”? To which Naomi herself says “Do not call me Naomi. Call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me” (Ruth 1:20). The word Mara’ (BH: מָרָא) is closely related to the name of a place in the Sinai Desert called Marah (“marar”, BH: מָרָה) where the water was bitter to the taste, and a number of other words that include the idea of bile (because of it’s bitter taste) [“mererah”, BH: מְרֵרָה], Myrrh (because it has a bitter taste, even though it smells sweet) [“Mar-deror”, BH: מָר-דְּרוׂר], and trouble or grief (as something bitter to experience) [“morah”, BH: מׂרָה / מָרָּה]. These words all have a common root, the BH word “marar” (BH: מָרַר), which means “to trickle” and indicates the process of distillation. So when Naomi said she should be called Mara, she could have been indicating that her loss of husband and sons was a source of much trouble or grief that was extremely bitter to the taste and had left her feeling bitter too. But in the narrative she is only referred to as Mara once, and only then by herself. This may not have been a permanent name change like that of Jacob to Israel, but rather a statement of how she felt at that time, a temporary name to express her grief. Towards the end of the book of Ruth, Ruth is married to Boaz and a son is produced. And at that time the women of Bethlehem said to Naomi “he shall be unto you a restorer of your life, and a nourisher in your old age. For your daughter-in-law, which loves you and is better to you than seven sons, have given birth to him” (Ruth 4:15). This seems to indicate the the women saw the birth of that son as something that would remove the bitterness of losing her husband and sons, and give her pleasure and delight, the root meaning of the name Naomi.
There are so many names of people in the Old Testamment, as well as in the New, that are possibly of more importance than we realise. What is included above is just a very small selection of them to illustrate how knowing the meaning of BH names gives more depth to the text. So if a person can’t read Hebrew, how can the meanings of those names be found out? Before I learned BH, I found a few ways that were helpful.
In the Complete Jewish Bible, translated by David Stern, a Messianic Jew, the names of people and places are written phonetically based on the origjnal text. The same Bible also has a Glossary of words in English phonetic order, many of the words listed having a short commentary or meaning indicated.
A good Concordance. I used Strongs Concordance, which often includes a name’s meaning, and which other BH words the name is derived from. I found Strongs Concordnace to be a very good resource in this regard.
The Internet. It is relatively easy to find the meanings of names on the internet. But use this with care, as some names that are of Hebrew origin may not indicate the best translation / meaning of a name.