Readers may have wondered why I took time earlier in this series to point out the meaning of the names of Vice President Kamala Devi Harris and President Joe Biden. This is because—spiritually and biblically speaking—names are especially important when connected to national leaders at pivotal points in history. They may even be the result of providence. Because the typical individual is unaware of how profoundly significant this is in the prophetic scheme of things, I asked theology and history major Donna Howell to contribute to the following information, so that all may perceive how truly important names are at this time in history and what this has to do with the Secret Destiny of America… and something else—YOU if you are a member of the Body of Christ.
But first things first.
Our culture in the modern West is, shall we say, more than just a trifle different than those of the Bible when it comes to naming our children. Actually, that’s true regarding some distant societies thriving in the world today as well. Here, it’s not unusual that we discover a pregnancy, pick up a book of baby names, and make a list of ones we simply like the sound of—all well before the child is born and regardless of the name’s meaning. We may not consult the Lord in prayer, fast, or have any kind of naming ritual for our offspring. And, for the most part, we largely don’t believe a person’s name means anything other than the noise we make with our mouths when we want to make sure our little one doesn’t stick his or her finger in an electric outlet.
But this definitely was not the case for the ancients. As for the Bible’s “main characters”—that is, the Jews—they lived by their wisdom writings and traditions, most of which are heavily linked to an interpretation of Scripture.
Choosing a Name: The Approach of the Ancients
Let me explain briefly how this manifested into the importance of naming rituals. As one example, Deuteronomy 32:46–47 states:
And [Moses] said unto them, “Set your hearts unto all the words which I testify among you this day, which ye shall command your children to observe to do, all the words of this law. For it is not a vain thing for you; because it is your life: and through this thing ye shall prolong your days in the land, whither ye go over Jordan to possess it.”
The overarching theme of these verses, though they don’t directly address naming a child, ensures that younger generations are brought up to understand, appreciate, cherish, and respect the Law of God given through Moses. This, these verses clearly recognize, will lead to a long life of spiritual prosperity in the Promised Land.
The Jews committed themselves to a communal reading of the Torah. The verses we just reflected on are from Haazinu, the fifty-third weekly Torah reading in the Jewish cycle. With this established, it would not be easy for God’s people to forget the emphasis that He (again, through Moses) placed on the importance of raising up children in the community of Yahweh. For a deeper understanding and reflection, the Jews also committed these traditional, “community” values to writing, many works of which are reflected in the ancient commentaries. Scriptures read from the Haazinu are covered in the Midrash Tanhuma 1 commentary (also known as “Tanhuma A” or “Tanchuma Buber”). One of the first things that it relates to the Jewish community about a fresh young life entering the nation of God is what a child should be named: “One should ever examine names, to give his son a name worthy for him to become a righteous man, for sometimes the name is a contributory factor for good as for evil.”[i]
Jewish-tradition expert Dr. Ronald L. Eisenberg discusses this concept further in his book, The JPS [Jewish Publication Society of America] Guide to Jewish Traditions: “A person’s name is thought to define and control his or her soul and destiny (Ber[achot] 7b). Therefore, the selection of an appropriate name is a critical decision.”[ii] And, in sharp contrast to practices today, there was no hiding whom one was related to, since names stemmed from the family line…which also meant that any shame a person accrued by committing a sinful act would be undivorceable from his or her relatives as well.
See, in the beginning, “family names” (surnames) were nonexistent for the Jews. One merely went by a first name, then the Hebrew ben (“son of”) or bat (“daughter of”), and finally the father’s first name. Using my own name as an example, I would be known only as “Thomas ben Clarence.” If the father’s name was very common, then other information was needed, such as what city one was from (or known in). At times, for clear identification and for distinction, the tribal lineage was mentioned (especially in the cases of men from the Kohen or Levite tribes after the Babylonian division). For instance, at the town market trading grain for a sheep, I might be called “Thomas ben Clarence ha-Kohen.” But, if I was caught at the town market stealing a sheep, aside from my own personal punishment, there would be a grandiose and long-lasting layer of dishonor and shame placed upon Thomas, Clarence, and the entire Kohen tribe as far back as my ancestors could be traced. It was anything but a casual affair. This is why we don’t read any verses in the Bible stating that a parent cradled a newborn and said, “I think I’ll call him Seth; it has a clever ring to it,” or, “Didn’t you have an uncle with a nose shaped like that? What was his name again? Yeah, Joseph. That’ll do, since I can’t think of anything else.” A name was almost always assigned to a new life as a way of ritualistically dedicating the baby to the Lord and to his or her “Yahweh community” for life. If a baby was named after a relative, it was for that namesake’s legacy and the new parents’ hope that the youth would walk in the same or similar footsteps as another who had already demonstrably lived for God.
Of course, the subject extended beyond merely naming newborns. So important was the marriage between a person and his or her name that some Jewish communities resorted to a name-change for a loved one on his or her death bed. As an example: All signs point to the notion that cousin Joseph is not going to recover, because God has ordained that he will die soon. A copy of the Scriptures is brought in and opened to the first random page (or paragraph of a scroll), and a learned member of the family begins to read. The first Jewish man of merit, long life, and generally good works who happens to appear in the Word is David. So, a renaming ritual involving close family members occurs right there at the bedside of Joseph. If Joseph—now called David—does rise again and recover, he will keep his new name for the rest of his life (assuming he is not renamed a second time). This is done as a sort of “covenant name” (my words, to avoid a lengthier and more complicated explanation).
Dr. Eisenberg’s Guide to Jewish Traditions acknowledges that this would look like odd superstition to an outsider, but to a Jew, if nothing else, it shows the enormity of the power, authority, and influence assigned to a name in relation to the mystical and unseen operations of God.[iii]
Regardless of ancient traditions, communities, and cultural norms, however, can an argument actually be made that points to the spiritual/mystical significance of a person’s name? Or is it all mere superstitious nonsense and folk beliefs? Is there possibly anything to “the ancient notion that names give power over [people’s] souls and fates”?[iv]
The Fallacy of Juliet Logic
What’s in a name? I mean, really. A rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet, would it not? Let’s be mature about this. Spoken names are just a sound in the air. It doesn’t have to be mystical. We don’t choose our names, anyway, so there are no spiritual or numinous implications behind names, right? It’s not like it’s a destiny…
Not exactly. It’s more complicated than that, as folks familiar with their Bibles will know. The Shakespearean argument put forth so influentially by Juliet on the balcony of our most iconic stage romance seems sound enough initially…but it has a giant hole in the center where logic goes to die.
Well, technically, you might be thinking, a rose really would smell the same regardless of what we call it…
True. Scientists in the field of horticulture will say that, regardless of the name, the “complex mixture of low molecular weight compounds emitted by flowers into the atmosphere and its structure”[v] is a factor regardless. Our olfactory systems will take in the same sensation and report that incoming information to the human brain in the same way, no matter what name tag we want to slap on a plant from the Rosaceae family. This is because the purpose of the flowers’ scent isn’t about you or me; God designed the mechanism to attract pollinators who contribute to the continuing ecological function of the planet.
But there’s an obvious error in this romanticized Juliet-ism: A flower doesn’t have a soul or a destiny—Romeo does. Beautiful poetry aside, it’s a silly thing to present the idea that a flower’s name, and a human’s name, would have an equivalent link to the universe, the unseen realm, God, destiny, etc. Yet, there is a “mini-Juliet” alive in most of us. We may not hang our arguments on a rose like Juliet did, but we commit a similar grievance when we assume that names have no meaning but “a sound in the air.” Or that, just because a baby doesn’t choose his or her own name, there’s nothing to the idea that a name might be supernaturally or prophetically linked to a person’s role in the universe.
Some may remember, when President Donald Trump was first announcing his intention to run for president prior to the 2016 campaigns, the spike in online discussion regarding the meaning of his name. “Donald” is derived from the Gaelic Domhnall, meaning “world leader.” “John” is Hebrew, and it means “God is gracious.” The surname “Trump” is “trumpet” or “drum” in German; in modern English, it’s “to excel, surpass, outdo”; or, in earlier English, it is “triumph.” Not surprisingly, the collective name—which could be read, “a world leader who will triumph under the grace of God”—wasn’t lost on those whose ears were piqued to the prophetic when 2016’s election suddenly flipped in Trump’s favor—and remember, Donald Trump didn’t choose his name, either.
So, our “it doesn’t matter” Juliet-isms would only be fair if considered within the framework of what the Bible (and human history) says about the mysterious link between people and the title that represents them…not roses. With that in mind, reconsider Juliet’s reasoning: Calling a rose “skunk cabbage” (a wetlands plant here in the States that smells horrid, especially after a fresh rain) or perhaps “corpse flower” (a real flower from the rainforests of Indonesia with vampiric fangs in the center that smell like a rotting dead body) would, in human equivalent terms, be an injustice to “the calling placed upon this flower’s life.” It would be “an insult to its destiny.” Maybe, after God had used this flower to accomplish great things, He would have changed its name to “Rose.”
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But one thing Shakespeare and his lovely heroine did get correct was the desperation that drives the dialogue. Just to get in the right headspace, let’s take a peek back at the lady standing at the edge of that infamous balcony, using brackets to indicate clarification:
JULIET: O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo? [Literally, “Why are you Romeo?”; the word “wherefore” is commonly understood to mean “where,” though the true meaning is “why.” She is asking why he has to have this name.]
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet [i.e., “If you can’t refuse your name, then I will refuse mine, if you swear to love me”].…
’Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague [“You are simply you; your surname doesn’t define you”].…
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;…
Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.
ROMEO: I take thee at thy word:
Call me but love, and I’ll be new baptized;
Henceforth I never will be Romeo.
And where did they end, these young lovebirds? It’s Shakespearean Tragedies 101: They did not get married, have children, and attend potlucks at a local church where Romeo was baptized anew and freed from the binds that held him to the House of Montague. In the end, their names had more power to speak of their destiny than they ever had. And whereas I understand perfectly well that the play Romeo and Juliet is a fictional as well as an exceptional situation, the error of Juliet logic (that moment when the meaning of names is considered a flippant nonissue) is alive and well for many folks.
So, grab your Bible. In the next entry let’s see what the Good Book actually says on the matter.
UP NEXT: “FOR WE ARE LEGION”—HOW CALLING FORTH “NAMES” AND PLACING THEM IN AUTHORITY OVER YOU IS MORE THAN MAKING A “SOUND IN THE AIR”
[i] R. L. Eisenberg, The JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2004) 14.
[iii] Ibid., 20.
[iv] Ibid., 20.
[v] Natalia Dudareva, “Why Do Flowers Have Scents?” April 18, 2005, Scientific American, last accessed January 26, 2021, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-do-flowers-have-scent/.