Bible characters and locations throughout the Word undergoing name changes during times of historical and spiritual significance; the Lamb’s Book of Life being checked for the saints’ entry through the pearly gates of heaven; the dominion of Adam over the animal kingdom through the ceremonial naming of each beast; saints receiving instruction to ask of things “in the name” of the Lord…
What do all these factors, and so many others, have in common?
As it Pertains to People
Collectively, they illustrate, even to the newest of Bible students, that the Word takes names very seriously. Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible states:
In the Hebrew language, the term for “name” most probably meant “sign” or “distinctive mark.” In the Greek language, “name” (onoma) is derived from a verb which means “to know”; a name then indicates that by which a person or object is to be known.[i]
And the Evangelical Commentary on the Bible acknowledges that “a new name indicates a new destiny.”[ii] Often, this is shown quite transparently.
For example, consider Genesis 17:5:
Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations have I made thee.
In this case, we needn’t look any further than the immediate context to see the purpose behind God’s decision to rebrand Abram. It’s right there in plain sight that He planned to multiply Abram’s seed tremendously. The promissory note upon this covenantal act is manifest in the changing of what every person from that day forward would call Abram; every time his name was uttered, the promise of God would ring in the ears of those present, reminding him and his people that God would do what He said He would. In Hebrew, “Abram” is made up of ‘ab, which means “father,” and rām, “high” or “exalted.” God, by tweaking “Abram” to “Abraham,” fused in the Hebrew hămôn, or “multitude,” ultimately rendering the name to mean “high father over a multitude.”
Does the rose smell as sweet by just any ol’ name in this case? Sorry to disappoint you, Juliet, but the answer is no. The rose is much, much sweeter as the sun sets for the first time over Abra-ham, the father of many nations, than it would have been over the “high father,” generically. And his wife, Sarai-turned-Sarah (Genesis 17:15), wasn’t left outside of the promise, though the etymology behind that switch is much harder to nail down. Most commentaries and discussions on this moment in Scripture acknowledge that the Hebrew roots of both “Sarai” and “Sarah” mean “princess.” Naturally, to go from “princess” to “princess” doesn’t make sense, so much earlier scholarly discussion posed the interpretation that “Sarai” was a title chosen by man over a certain earthly tribe, whereas “Sarah” was a God-given designation stipulating that she would be the princess “of all mankind.” This theory, though beautiful, was hard to prove, and for some time, the full explanation was unattainable. However, in the nineteenth century, brilliant German theologian and biblical exegete, Heinrich Ewald, pointed out something that should have been glaringly obvious. Of the possible meanings of the Hebrew sarai, one was a verb meaning “to contend, to strive…contentious, violent, which suggested unpleasant ideas of temper.” The change from this pejorative moniker to the feminine derivative of “prince,” sarah, “was an honourable distinction conferred on the wife of Abraham.”[iii] In other words, Abraham’s wife’s name changed from meaning something like “to fight and struggle” to “princess.”
In a similar vein, establishing what a location would be called based on an important event was also commonplace. In one story, both a person and a place were reborn into a new identity. The night Jacob wrestled with God, we happen upon this exchange:
And he said unto him, “What is thy name?”
And he said, “Jacob.”
And he said, “Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.”
And Jacob asked him, and said, “Tell me, I pray thee, thy name.”
And he said, “Wherefore [again, it’s actually “why”] is it that thou dost ask after my name?” And he blessed him there.
And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel [literally, “face of God”]: “for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” (Genesis 32:27–30)
Though Abram was rebranded “Abraham” for the purpose of a future promise through his offspring, Jacob’s new identity, “Israel,” represented his current relationship with God and the relationship the twelve tribes would have with God, as well as a release for him from his former life and reputation. “Jacob” meant “holder of the heel” or “one who supplants,” and though our culture today celebrates the name as a reference to the man who would father the twelve tribes of the covenant nation, the origins of “Jacob” are a bit unscrupulous. As his brother, Esau, is lamenting to their then-blind father, Isaac, about the blessings that Jacob deceitfully stole by impersonating him, he angrily asserts his cynicism: “Is not he rightly named Jacob? for he hath supplanted me these two times” (Genesis 27:36). Translate that to modern terms, and it’s as if Esau shouted, “This brother of mine keeps stealing from me! How appropriate that his name would be Jacob! That swindler!”—the implication being that “Jacob” was synonymous to “trickster” or “manipulator.”
The new name that Jacob was assigned after his “face to face” with God at Peniel was “Israel.” As Logos Bible Software’s prized Faithlife Study Bible commentary acknowledges: “Here, the reasoning for the name Israel (yisra’el, in Hebrew) is the verbal phrase ‘you have striven with (or struggled with) God.’” Again, yisra’el is partially derived from the sarai/sarah roots, which, as stated a page or two back, relates to the meaning “‘to struggle,’ ‘to strive,’ or ‘to fight.’ The name yisra’el itself could mean ‘God will struggle,’ ‘May God struggle’ or ‘God fights.’”[iv]
So, considering that this conversation between God and Jacob occurred just after Jacob wrestled and struggled with God (in a theophany; appearing as “a man,” Genesis 32:24) all night until the break of dawn, the Julietism here would be: “Jacob wrestled/struggled/fought with God at Peniel. Obviously he was given the name that means ‘wrestled/struggled/fought’ for that event, alone. It doesn’t have to be a prophecy.” But then we are given the rest of the Old Testament. It’s a little more than coincidence or irony that the nation called “Israel” (not the man, Jacob) would go through such intense times of struggle with Yahweh in the generations to follow this astounding moment in Scripture. “Israel” ended up being the very description and definition of the nation long after Jacob was gone.
This could be why the ancients believed in the more mystical connections between that seemingly meaningless “sound in the air” and destiny. Biblically speaking, names are more than just a moniker or a sticker the Israelites put on their T-shirts at social mingles and tea parties. To the people of God, the Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary states, “a name expressed essence.” This source immediately goes on to say:
To know the name of a person was to know that person’s total character and nature.…
The knowing of a name implied a relationship between parties in which power to do harm or good was in force. That God knew Moses by name occasioned the granting of Moses’ request for divine presence (Exod. 33:12, 17). The act of naming implied the power of the namer over the named, evidenced in the naming of the animals in Gen. 2:19–20 or Pharaoh’s renaming Joseph (Gen. 41:45; cp. Dan. 1:6–7; 2 Kings 24:17).[v]
Both men and women were allowed to name their children (somewhat surprising considering how infrequently women were given authority over the household or its dealings in nearly every other way). Choosing a name for one’s offspring could be related to how a mother or father felt about the birth, or just after it; to commemorate a special event; to mark them for a high purpose or destiny; to dedicate them to God and His will; to keep strong familial bonds or alliances; or to carry a message from God, such as some of Jesus’ names would do for His people (for instance, “Immanuel,” meaning “God is with us” [Matthew 1:23]).
So, do children grow up acting in a way that suits their name because this is what is expected of them, and this title is all they believe themselves capable of? Or do they grow up fulfilling their name as a destiny because there was a mystical, prophetic connection between their soul and name at birth, and they never truly had a choice concerning what they would become? It’s easy to assume the former: Toddler Jacob feels rebellious during time-out one day and says, “Mom and Dad wanna name me ‘trickster’? Fine! I’ll show them ‘trickster’!” Then he spends the rest of the afternoon devising plans to take all he can from Esau…I mean, why not? It’s a decent theory.
On the very heavy other hand, there are occasions in history when people have accomplished something astounding that their names prophetically pointed toward, and there is no explanation for how they could have known to arrange that—even if they had wanted to.
As only one example, consider Daniel. The name is derived from the Hebrew din, “judge” and el, “God,” which translates, “God is my Judge.” The meaning here is that there is no other—no human nor little-g god—that would suffice as the guiding judge over this man’s life from birth. The biblical account of Daniel shows that, through the Babylonian captivity and within circumstances outside of his own control, Daniel was repeatedly placed before human judges and subjected to laws that were not of Yahweh. It was as if sinister forces were alive in the universe at that time that wanted him to be stripped of his name and any association that he may have had to it. In fact, when Daniel was first brought to Babylon, the chief official declared that his new name would be Belteshazzar (“Bel protects his life,” an appeal to the Babylonian god Bel for provision) as a way of divorcing Daniel from any connection to the God of his people. (This was done to Daniel’s friends, also [Daniel 1:7]; Hananiah [“Yahweh is gracious”], Mishael [“who is what God is”; “high place”], and Azariah [“one whom Jehovah aids”] all had their names changed to references of Babylonian deities. Hananiah became Shadrach [“command of Aku”]; Mishael became Meshach [“who is what Aku is”]; and Azariah became Abednego [“servant of Nebo”].) One important thing to note about this particular renaming, however: Unlike the other accounts mentioned wherein God changes what someone will be called for a divine purpose, in the case of Daniel, pagan captors made the decision. Daniel’s destiny would therefore remain tied to the “God is my Judge” moniker that he was given prior.
The attack on Hebrew names was only the first act the Babylonians carried out in an attempt to place distance between the Jews and their God. From the moment they were brought into the new, dark land, Daniel and his friends were expected to eat and drink the king’s food and wine, which were spiritually unclean as per Israel’s laws (cf. Daniel 1:8–16). When Daniel requested to eat only vegetables and drink only water, the chief servant of the king—the earthly judge over Daniel’s spiritual matters in that moment—stiffened, afraid that Daniel and his friends would not work as hard, and the chief would be held accountable to his earthly judge (the king). But Daniel’s True Judge had given Daniel “favor and compassion” in the eyes of the chief (1:9). He suggested a ten-day trial wherein the Hebrew servants would eat only vegetables and drink only water, and the chief could observe for himself whether their work achieved, or lacked, the necessary ethic. Amazingly, the chief agreed to the trial—submitting himself, as well as Daniel and his friends, to the Judge who was by his very name the One presiding over Daniel in the spiritual realm—and the results were surprising. Not only did Daniel’s Judge come through to sustain him to accomplish all the work on his docket for that ten days, the Hebrew servants actually looked healthier—“fatter in flesh”—than the non-Hebrew servants (1:15).
This chief would not be Daniel’s judge. Nor would this Babylonian king. Daniel was “marked,” or “destiny-ed” if you will. (Yes, I’m aware that “destiny-ed” is not a word. But it fits here; it should be read differently than “destined,” which our culture has made synonymous with “determined.” Besides, it’s fun to say…) Daniel would have his actions ultimately judged by Yahweh and no other.
Really, Tom? A guy hatches a plan to eat garden salad, and you see a connection between names and destinies?
Not by any means would it stop there. Many who are familiar with the book of Daniel know where this is going, and how it climaxes in the supreme judge/Judge showdown. As often happens in the Word, when dealing with real men and women and their finite strength, one test leads to another, each becoming grander than the last. Small victories beget greater tests, which beget more astounding victories, and so on. We should never despise small beginnings (Zechariah 4:10), because, when we are faithful with little, we will be trusted with much (Luke 16:10).
So, fast-forward a short time, and King Nebuchadnezzar was experiencing disturbing dreams and night visions that would not let him rest. He called for the “magicians, the enchanters, the sorcerers, and the Chaldeans” (2:2) to come and interpret his dreams. When they failed, Nebuchadnezzar ordered that all wise men of Babylon be killed (2:12), including Daniel and his friends. Without panicking, crying, or stopping to write a last will and testament, Daniel calmly, “with prudence and discretion” (2:14), asked for the cause of the death sentence.
Why did he react this way? Because he was fearless? Because he loved the Babylonians he worked for and was willing to march into the execution room to prove a point for his king? Because the other Hebrews looked up to him and he didn’t want to cause a panic amidst his people? I suppose some of those reasons could have been a factor, also. But in my personal opinion, Daniel remained calm because he already knew who his Judge was. He was aware of what he had been “destiny-ed” to be through the calling of his name.
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Nevertheless, there stood Daniel cooperating with his own death warrant as the king’s men came to collect him for execution. When he discovered that it was a matter of dream interpretation, he requested an appointment with the king, went home, and asked his three best friends—now known by their Babylonian names Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—to pray for guidance from the Judge he already knew would have the last word over his own destiny. Then, believe it or not, he went to bed and slept on it. (Who else, besides a very confident man, would be able to sleep at a time like that?) In the night, the same Judge who was knitted into the fabric of Daniel’s very name revealed all of what the king’s dreams meant, and Daniel awoke with praises on his lips.
The next morning, he was brought to Nebuchadnezzar. Unlike the others before him, Daniel had not been told the dream before the interpretation was expected. On the contrary, as soon as Daniel entered the room, the king asked if he knew both the dream and its interpretation (2:24–26). Daniel explained that no wise men, magicians, enchanters, or any other mystics of that sort would be able to help Nebuchadnezzar, because the king’s dreams were actually from the God of the Hebrews!
I imagine in this moment Daniel standing there observing the king’s reaction carefully yet confidently as he proceeded to tell Nebuchadnezzar the secret thoughts of his slumbering mind that nobody could possibly know, followed by the interpretation of these thoughts nobody could know. I can almost see Daniel watching the countenance of his earthly judge—the man who only the day before had decreed his death—alter from pompous disbelief to skepticism to surprise and then to worshipful gratitude for Daniel’s God. When Daniel finished speaking, Nebuchadnezzar fell on his face, declared that the Hebrew God was greater than all others (“God of gods”) and the Leader of every high seat upon the earth (“Lord of kings”), and then promoted Daniel to rule over all of Babylon (2:47–48). Daniel was immediately granted his only request: that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego be assigned to rule alongside him.
That’s right, I like to imagine Daniel thinking at that moment, I was never destiny-ed to die today. God, alone, is my Judge.
Poetic, isn’t it? It’s almost as if no other baby name Daniel’s parents could have chosen would have more integrally related to God’s plan. But, we are far from finished.
Unbelievably, though Nebuchadnezzar had just acknowledged that Yahweh was the “God of [all] gods” and “Lord of all kings,” he quickly went on to build an idol of gold, demanding that everyone was to stop what they were doing and worship the idol anytime they “hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music” (3:5). If they refused, they would be thrown into a fiery furnace and burned alive. At this proclamation, some Chaldean opportunists who weren’t fond of their Hebrew supervisors stood and officially accused Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego of disobeying the idol-worship law. The king was naturally enraged, so he sent for the Hebrew administrators and made sure they heard, and understood, his expectations. After repeating the law they were to obey and the death verdict that would be carried out if they didn’t, Nebuchadnezzar essentially asked, “What god is gonna save you then?” (3:15). Obviously, the king didn’t know the destinies these Hebrew men also had embedded into their original names (again: Hananiah [“Yahweh is gracious”], Mishael [“who is what God is”], and Azariah [“one whom Jehovah aids”]) before the Babylonian officials rebranded them. (Had he known, his experience with the other Hebrew lad, whose name was “God is my Judge,” may have given him a heads up regarding what was to happen next. But since this reflection is more about Daniel than the story of the furnace, I will be brief.) In an answer to the king’s taunt, the three Jews explained that they would be delivered from the furnace, but that, even if they were not, they would give up their lives before they worshiped any idol or any god other than Yahweh Jehovah.
Nebuchadnezzar, more livid than before, had the furnace heated to seven times its usual temperature and ordered his men to throw Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego into the flames. The furnace blazed so hot that it killed Nebuchadnezzar’s men who drew near. The three Jews, however, walked amidst the flames unharmed, and the king was shocked when he saw that they were joined by a fourth man (at least an angel, though most theologians agree this is a theophany [appearance of God as a man], and many believe it was a Christophany [appearance of Christ as a man]). Nebuchadnezzar then called to Daniel’s friends, and as they emerged from the fire without so much as a singed hair on their heads, the king once again acknowledged and magnified the glory of Yahweh throughout the kingdom, declaring that death would befall any person found slandering the Hebrew God. The three victorious men were, once again, promoted.
Later in Daniel’s story—after he had interpreted the second dream of Nebuchadnezzar that announced his downfall…and the subsequent handwriting on the wall that announced his son Belshazzar’s downfall—King Darius the Mede, who had taken the kingdom from Belshazzar, appointed Daniel as a high official over all other officials and satraps (viceroys, of sorts, to the king, with a high level of authority and autonomy). The satraps were (not surprisingly) jealous of Daniel’s position and, just like their conniving predecessors, set out to sabotage his relationship with the king. After joining in number, they went to the king and convinced him to make a new law stating that, for thirty days, nobody in the kingdom would be allowed to worship or pray to anyone except the king. Those found in defiance of this law would be thrown into a den of hungry lions and devoured alive. Darius, probably without giving the matter much thought, signed the injunction. Daniel, as faithful to Yahweh as ever, made no changes to his daily routine of prayer and supplication to the God of the Hebrews, and he was spotted by the con artists who had set him up praying in his usual place by the window. They fled to the king to report him, and Darius, who cared about Daniel, fretted until sundown trying to think of a way to intervene on Daniel’s behalf. Sadly, however, it was a law of the Persians and Medes that once a king set forth an injunction, it couldn’t be revoked.
When Daniel was, in fact, cast into the den of lions, the king shouted after Daniel that his God might deliver him, and then the opening to the den was sealed with the king’s signet. From there, King Darius spent a sleepless night without food or entertainment, fearing what he would find when the den was opened the following day.
But Daniel knew something Darius probably didn’t know…Daniel had been “marked” for such a time as this. He had been “destiny-ed” to escape the judgment of an earthly, human king with his vain and finite decrees. “God is my Judge” was written upon Daniel’s spiritual nametag, and it would be this very night that his name fulfilled the pinnacle test of providence and calling.
In the morning, the distressed King Darius ran to the den, calling out to see if the innocent, condemned Daniel might offer an answer from the darkness below. Considering that this would be a literal impossibility on so many counts, the king must have looked irrational and overcome by lunacy to his men as he sought a response from someone whose alternate name may as well have been “the lions’ most recent meal.” After all, those lions had been starved to the point that a human surviving in their midst was inconceivable, and the kingdom officials knew it. Immediately after the whole ordeal, when Daniel’s several conspirators and their families were thrown into the den all at once (the condemnation of the wives and children being sanctioned by Persian law, not by the God of the Bible as a revenge endorsement, by the way), their bones were broken in midair by the jaws of the leaping, starving predators[vi] before their bodies ever hit the floor (6:24). That’s how hungry those massive felines were intentionally kept. So Daniel’s deliverance was far more than merely doubtful.
It simply wasn’t to be. Daniel was a goner. His life was over. Ended. Finished. Terminated. Devoured.
…Except that it wasn’t.
Why? Because, as Daniel’s birth name now declared with more miraculous authority from the Almighty and all the powers of heaven than ever before in his life, God was Daniel’s Judge. Not Nebuchadnezzar, not chief servants of the king, not Darius or his foolish advisors, not any little-g god or statue…just El, and El alone.
As the anxious king leaned over the sadistic feeding hole listening, the Hebrew promise upon the head of din el reverberated from that gnarly pit like a shout of rebuke to any person or pagan god that would oppose Yahweh in that moment: “O king, live forever!” Daniel’s voice rang out:
My God sent his angel and shut the lions’ mouths, and they have not harmed me, because I was found blameless before him; and also before you, O king, I have done no harm. (6:21–22)
Following this, King Darius wrote a doxology and spread it throughout the land, a word of widespread praise for the God who had saved Daniel from the mouths of lions.
Juliet, sweet Juliet…a rose doesn’t always smell as sweet by another name. Even a group of hungry, mangy lions from a sixth-century BC feeding hole could have told you that—that is, if they could have figured out how to unclench their jaws to do so.
And before it’s assumed that every account was as inspiring, there were a few “skunk cabbages” and “corpse flowers” in the Word, too. For instance, Baasha, meaning “wicked,” “offensive,” or “he who lays waste” was the name of the king of Northern Israel who gained his throne through offensive military maneuvers. Later he was told by the prophet Jehu that his rule would be like the house of Jeroboam as a result of his wicked leadership (1 Kings 15–16). Another is Bera, meaning “son of evil” or “to be wicked”; this was the name of the king of the morally dead city of Sodom (Genesis 14:2), which God destroyed. And these are only a couple of examples that could be grabbed from the beginning of the “B” section of The Exhaustive Dictionary of Bible Names.[vii] I could go on for a while longer, but you get the idea.
I think that, by now, the point has been made that, even if our modern world approaches choosing names with the same gravity as they do when choosing between Taco Bell, Burger King, or whatever sounds good today, that’s not the casual treatment that the Bible assigns to the subject.
There is no better proof for that fact than in the way the Word treats the names of God.
UP NEXT: The Mystery Of Names As it Pertains to God And Destiny
[i] Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible: Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988) 880.
[ii] V. P. Hamilton, Evangelical Commentary on the Bible Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1995) 22.
[iii] D. Brown, A. R. Fausset, & R. Jamieson, (n.d.), A Commentary, Critical, Experimental, and Practical, on the Old and New Testaments: Genesis–Deuteronomy: Vol I (London; Glasgow: William Collins, Sons, & Co.) 153.
[iv] J. D. Barry, D. Mangum, D. R. Brown, M. S. Heiser, M. Custis, E. Ritzema, … D. Bomar, Faithlife Study Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012, 2016), Genesis 32:28.
[v] C. Brand, A. Draper, S. England, E. R. Bond, T. C. Clendenen, & Butler (Eds.), Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003) 1173–1174.
[vi] P. W. Comfort, (Ed.), Cornerstone Biblical Commentary: Ezekiel & Daniel: Vol. 9 (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers; 2010) 391.
[vii] The Exhaustive Dictionary of Bible Names (North Brunswick, NJ: Bridge-Logos; 1998).