The Meaning Behind Bible Names
IN MOST countries today few names have special meaning in themselves. When a baby is born it may be named after a friend or relative, but the actual meaning of that name is rarely considered.
This was not the case in ancient times. In the original Bible languages (Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek) names of persons, places and things had meaning.
NAMES OF PERSONS
The name given to a child often reflected the circumstances associated with its birth or the feelings of the father or mother. For example, Eve named her firstborn son Cain (which in Hebrew means “something produced”), for, as she said: “I have produced a man with the aid of Jehovah.” (Gen. 4:1) The son born to her after Abel’s murder she named Seth (“appointed, substituted”), regarding him as a replacement for Abel. (Gen. 4:25) Isaac named his younger twin son Jacob (“supplanter; taking hold of the heel”) because at birth this boy was holding onto the heel of Esau his brother.—Gen. 25:26.
Sometimes what an infant looked like at birth provided the basis for its name. Thus, the firstborn son of Isaac was called Esau (“hairy”) on account of his unusual hairy appearance at birth.—Gen. 25:25.
Especially did names given at divine direction have prophetic meaning. For example, in the case of the Son of God, the name “Jesus” means “Jehovah is salvation” and was prophetic of his role as Savior or Jehovah’s means of salvation.—Matt. 1:21; Luke 2:30.
Names given to children were often combined with the word for God (El) or an abbreviation of the divine name Jehovah. Such names could express the hope of parents or reflect their appreciation for having been blessed with offspring. Some examples are Jehdéiah (“may Jah give joy”), Jebérechiah (“Jah blesses”), Jonathan (“Jehovah has given”) and Daniel (“God is [my] judge”).
Sometimes children were named after animals and plants. Some of these names are Deborah (“bee”), Jonah (“dove”) and Susanna (“lily”).
NAMES OF ANIMALS, PLANTS AND PLACES
Jehovah God granted to the first man Adam the privilege of naming the lower creatures. (Gen. 2:19) The names given doubtless were descriptive. This is suggested by some of the Hebrew names for animals and even plants. “Burrower” seems to be the name for the fox. “Springer” or “leaper” is seemingly applied to the antelope. “Waker” designates the almond tree, apparently because of its being one of the earliest trees to bloom.
There were times when physical features provided the basis for the names of places, mountains and rivers. The cities of Geba and Gibeah (both meaning “hill”) doubtless got their names because of being situated on hills. The river Jordan (meaning “descender”) drops rapidly in elevation, and this is probably the basis for its name. In view of their situation near wells, springs and meadows, towns and cities were often given names prefixed by “beer” (meaning “well”), “en” (“spring”) and “abel” (“meadow”).
Other places are named on the basis of the events that occurred there. An example is Babel (“confusion”), the place where the confusing of man’s language took place. (Gen. 11:9) Other names were derived from such characteristics as size, occupation and produce. This is reflected in the names Zoar (“littleness”), Bethsaida (“house or place of fishing”) and Bethlehem (“house of bread”).
READING PROPER NAMES
Proper names in the Bible often cause difficulty in reading, especially when one is doing public reading. This is understandable, as these proper names come from a language that is different from the one most persons speak today. To help solve the problem of pronunciation some Bible translations divide proper names into syllables and provide an accent mark (ʹ).
The accent mark is not to be ignored; it indicates which syllable is to get primary stress in pronunciation. Thus at Job 2:11 in the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures appears the name “Elʹiphaz the Teʹman·ite.” By placing the stress on the correct, accented syllable, this would be pronounced: ELʹi·phaz the TEʹman·ite. Five of the names at Acts 6:5 are correctly pronounced: PROCHʹo·rus, Ni·CAʹnor, TIʹmon, PARʹme·nas and Ni·co·LAʹus.
So if you are going to do public reading and there are a number of Bible names, prepare well by actually saying these names out loud to yourself. Be certain you have the correct pronunciation by checking an appropriate Bible translation or Bible dictionary. A fine help for pronunciation of Bible names in the English language is the book Aid to Bible Understanding. It also helps to pay attention to how experienced persons pronounce Bible names; if you have been pronouncing them in a different way, investigate. If you do public reading, you want to do it well, applying yourself also to the matter of pronunciation of Bible names.—1 Tim. 4:13.
TRANSLATING HEBREW NOUNS
Nouns (names of persons, places and things) are sometimes difficult to translate from Bible languages into modern tongues. There is no ancient dictionary into which the translator can look to get the exact definition of a common noun that may have been written three thousand years ago.
Scholars have labored to determine the exact meaning of Hebrew words by comparing them with those of related languages, such as Arabic. Thus the Hebrew word sis is thought to identify the swift, since that bird is still called sis in Arabic. (Jer. 8:7) Additionally, names of birds and beasts in the Bible may be onomatopoeic (imitating the sound the creature makes, just as “cluck,” “hoot,” and “quack” help to identify chickens, owls and ducks in English). The Hebrew name sis, for example, appears to fit the shrill si-si-si cry of the swift.
Nevertheless, because of insufficient information, translators are not sure of the exact meaning of all Bible nouns. The Hebrew word tin·sheʹmeth (as at Leviticus 11:18) has been identified with the water hen, eagle owl, ibis and swan by various modern translators.
Future developments will undoubtedly reveal the exact meaning of such questionable (and, it might be added, relatively minor) terms. In fact, some points will no doubt be clarified only by the firsthand testimony of those who were alive when the Bible was written. The evidence will be forthcoming in God’s new order, when ancient Hebrews and other peoples come back from the dead in the promised resurrection of the “righteous and the unrighteous.”—Acts 24:15; John 5:28, 29.