Exodus 1; 1 Samuel 25
What’s in a name, for a rose by any other name would smell as sweet
What’s in a name? It’s that age old question that made Shakespeare famous (not really, but sort of). What does a name really mean? Well, as it turns out, names mean a great deal in the Bible. When we read Scripture it’s important to recognize them, because we have to remember that the Bible is written from a particular perspective. It is written from the perspective of God. From God’s perspective, as you might imagine, situations in the Bible seem very different. Names in the Bible are often used by God to emphasis greatness. To have your name written down, means that you are the center of emphasis and important to the narrative. Likewise, God also uses people’s names in the Bible to characterize them. What God names a person in the Bible, often says a little about how He sees them.
One example of God characterizing people with names is in the story of Nabal and Abigale (1 Samuel 25:2-11). Nabal was arrogant, stupid, and foolish in his dealings with David. In fact, David was on his way to execute his judgment (and Nabal) when Abigale enters the scene. She is gracious, beautiful, and kind. Interestingly enough, the name Nabal means “fool”. On the other hand, the name Abigale means delight or joy. It looks like a real beauty and the beast story. Was Nabal named “fool” by his parents when he was born? I like to think most parents are more hopeful than that, but a “fool” is how God characterizes him. If you read the story, I think you would probably see that the name is very appropriate for Nabal.
Another example of the importance of names is in the story of Exodus. During this difficult time in the life of the people of Israel there is a cosmic showdown between the Pharaoh and his gods, and the God of Israel. In this story we begin with two slave midwives who are named Shiphrah and Puah who the king (who is unnamed) order to kill Moses. Notice anything odd? The narrator (God), names these two slaves and a baby, but the story fails to start in that very common Old Testament way… “in the days of king so and so” and the king, who is generally a prominent figure in any story, is left nameless. Now… it is incredibly odd to include the names of slaves or midwives in any story in ancient near east literature, the Bible included, but it is even more abnormal to omit the name of the king. Also left out of this story are the names of the various deities toward which the ten plagues of blood, frogs, lice, flies, livestock, boils, fire, locust, darkness, and death are all directed. They do have names. They are Hapi, Hekt, Khephera, Hathor, Im-Hotep, Nut, Senehem, Amon-Ra, and finally, Pharaoh who was often associated with Horus and was worshiped as a god in Egypt. But the names of two slaves who disobeyed the nameless king are written down in God’s word and etched in time. Why, because in the struggle of Exodus 1 to see who was the most powerful god, it is the people who feared the God of the Bible who are remembered. All the others who were there and were following the Pharaoh and his deities are as forgotten now as they were when the story was written. Even today, there is great debate as to which Pharaoh it was in Exodus, because the absence of his name is so unusual, but there is no confusion about the names of the slaves that followed God rather than a ruthless and merciless ruler who was in the position to make their lives incredibly difficult or incredibly short. Their names are Shiphrah and Puah.
For those that fear the LORD, their name will be remembered. As God said of Israel…
I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
Isn’t it nice to have a God who knows our name? One who recognizes us as we seek Him? If you were characterized by God, what would He name you? Faithful? True? Kind? Generous? Would we even get an honorable mention in the story, or be a glaring omission like the unnamed Pharaoh and his cronies? I really don’t know. I hope that I can aim a little higher than Nabal, but for Paul, “good and faithful servant” was more than enough.
P.S. By the way, in case you wondered, the Hebrew Midwives Shiphrah and Puah’s names mean “one who makes better” and “one who soothes cries”. Interesting choices for two women that save a baby from being killed don't you think? :-)