What Is in a Name?
An Ethiopian woman gives birth to a baby boy. But her joy turns to grief when she sees the child lie motionless. When the grandmother takes the limp little body to bathe it, the boy suddenly begins to move and breathe and cry! The name of the baby’s father means “Miracle,” so the parents combine that name with another Amharic word and call the boy A Miracle Has Been Done.
In Burundi, a young man flees from soldiers who are out to kill him. While hiding in a field, the man vows that if God saves him, he will call his firstborn Manirakiza, meaning “God Is the Savior.” Five years later, grateful to be alive, the man gives his firstborn son that name.
GIVING children names that have a specific meaning may seem unusual to some, but this custom has ancient roots. In fact, the Bible contains hundreds of such names. Understanding the meaning of various individuals’ names will enhance your Bible reading. Consider just some examples.
Meaningful Names in the Hebrew Scriptures
Among the first names recorded in the Bible is that of Seth, meaning “Appointed.” Seth’s mother, Eve, explained why she chose that name, saying: “God has appointed another seed in place of Abel, because Cain killed him.” (Genesis 4:25) Seth’s descendant Lamech named his son Noah, meaning “Rest” or “Consolation.” Lamech said he gave his son that name because “this one will bring us comfort from our work and from the pain of our hands resulting from the ground which Jehovah has cursed.”—Genesis 5:29.
God himself changed the names of certain adults for prophetic purposes. For example, he changed the name of Abram, meaning “Father Is Exalted,” to Abraham, meaning “Father of a Multitude.” True to his name, Abraham did become the father of many nations. (Genesis 17:5, 6) Consider, too, Abraham’s wife, Sarai, possibly meaning “Contentious.” How happy she must have been when God renamed her “Sarah,” meaning “Princess,” alluding to her becoming an ancestress of kings.—Genesis 17:15, 16.
God also personally chose the name of some children. For example, he told Abraham and Sarah to name their son Isaac, meaning “Laughter.” That name would constantly remind this faithful couple of their reaction to the news that they would have a son in their old age. When Isaac grew up to be a faithful servant of God, his name no doubt continued to bring a smile to the faces of Abraham and Sarah as they enjoyed the company of this beloved son.—Genesis 17:17, 19; 18:12, 15; 21:6.
Isaac’s daughter-in-law Rachel gave her last son his name for a very different reason. While on her deathbed, Rachel called the child Ben-oni, meaning “Son of My Mourning.” Her bereaved husband, Jacob, slightly altered the name to Benjamin, meaning “Son of the Right Hand.” This name signified a position not only of favor but also of support.—Genesis 35:16-19; 44:20.
Names were sometimes given or taken in harmony with the physical characteristics of the person. For instance, Isaac and Rebekah had a son who was born with red hair as thick as a wool garment, so they named him Esau. Why? In Hebrew that name means “Hairy.” (Genesis 25:25) As noted in the book of Ruth, Naomi had two sons. One was named Mahlon, meaning “Sickly, Invalid,” and the other Chilion, meaning “Frailty.” Whether these names were given at birth or later is not stated, but they seem to be fitting, given the early demise of these two young men.—Ruth 1:5.
Another common practice was that of changing or adjusting names. On returning to Bethlehem, destitute after losing her husband and sons, Naomi no longer wanted to be called by that name, meaning “My Pleasantness.” Instead, she insisted: “Do not call me Naomi. Call me Mara [meaning “Bitter”], for the Almighty has made it very bitter for me.”—Ruth 1:20, 21.
Yet another custom was to name a child in honor of a significant event. The prophet Haggai’s name, for example, means “Born on a Festival.”*
Significant Names in the Christian Era
Jesus’ name has great prophetic significance. Before his birth, his parents were divinely instructed: “You must call his name Jesus,” the name meaning “Jehovah Is Salvation.” The reason? “He will save his people from their sins,” said the angel who spoke to Joseph. (Matthew 1:21) After Jesus was anointed with holy spirit at his baptism, his name was combined with the Hebrew designation “Messiah.” In Greek, this same title is rendered “Christ.” Both expressions mean “the Anointed One.”—Matthew 2:4.
Jesus himself chose descriptive names for some of his disciples. For instance, he gave Simon the Semitic name Cephas, meaning “Rock.” Cephas became better known by the Greek rendering of this name, which is translated “Peter.” (John 1:42) Jesus called the zealous brothers James and John “Boanerges,” meaning “Sons of Thunder.”—Mark 3:16, 17.
Jesus’ disciples continued the practice of giving appropriate surnames. One example is that of the disciple Joseph, whom the apostles named Barnabas, meaning “Son of Comfort.” Barnabas lived up to his name, bringing both physical and spiritual comfort to many.—Acts 4:34-37; 9:27; 15:25, 26.
The Importance of Your Name
We have no control over the name given to us at birth. However, we alone determine the reputation that we acquire. (Proverbs 20:11) Why not ask yourself: ‘If Jesus or the apostles had the opportunity, what name would they choose for me? What would be an appropriate name to describe my dominant quality or my reputation?’
This question deserves serious thought. Why? “A name is to be chosen rather than abundant riches,” wrote wise King Solomon. (Proverbs 22:1) Certainly, if we gain a good name, or reputation, in the community, we have a valuable asset. More important, though, if we make a good name with God, we will acquire a lasting treasure. How so? God promises that he will write in his “book of remembrance” the names of those who fear him, and he will grant them the prospect of everlasting life.—Malachi 3:16; Revelation 3:5; 20:12-15.
Many of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Africa have names that are connected with the titles of Witness conventions and assemblies held when they were born.
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What would be an appropriate name to describe my reputation?
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Who Was Immanuel?
Some names of individuals in the Bible were prophetic and describe the work the person would do. For example, the prophet Isaiah was inspired to write: “Look! The maiden herself will actually become pregnant, and she is giving birth to a son, and she will certainly call his name Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14) This name means “With Us Is God.” Some Bible commentators have tried to link the first fulfillment of this prophecy with one of the Israelite kings or one of Isaiah’s sons. However, the Gospel writer Matthew showed that Isaiah’s prophecy was completely fulfilled in Jesus.—Matthew 1:22, 23.
Some have claimed that by applying the name Immanuel to Jesus, the Bible teaches that Jesus is God. However, by this logic the young man Elihu, who comforted and corrected Job, was also God. Why? His name means “My God Is He.”
Jesus never claimed to be God. (John 14:28; Philippians 2:5, 6) But he did reflect his Father’s personality perfectly, and he fulfilled all of God’s promises regarding the Messiah. (John 14:9; 2 Corinthians 1:20) The name Immanuel well describes Jesus’ role as the Messianic Seed, a descendant of David, the one who proves that God is with those who worship Him.
IMMANUEL “With Us Is God”
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The Most Significant Name
The personal name of God appears some 7,000 times throughout the Bible. This name, as represented by the four Hebrew characters יהוה, is most commonly rendered “Jehovah” in English. What is the significance of that name? When Moses asked about God’s name, Jehovah replied: “I Will Become whatsoever I please.” (Exodus 3:14, The Emphasised Bible, by J. B. Rotherham) God’s personal name, therefore, is a guarantee that he will become whatever is needed in order to fulfill his purposes. (Isaiah 55:8-11) When God makes a promise, we can confidently build our lives around it. Why? Because his name is Jehovah.
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ABRAHAM “Father of a Multitude”
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