The importance of names

Growing up, I was always called Peter. But when I started college, a friend started calling me Pete. Then I became a pastor and people seemed to want to call me by the more formal version, regardless of how I introduced myself, so I was Peter again. But I much prefer the more friendly version, so I’ve switched it back to Pete.

I know. It sounds like I can’t settle on what to call myself. Perhaps. But what I believe it shows is that names are all about relationships. What we are called and what we call others shapes our relationships with them. In my case, people who prefer a more formal relationship with me always call me Peter, even if I’ve introduced myself as Pete. And those who prefer a less formal relationship with me have always called me Pete, even when others called me Peter.

In biblical times, according to Johannes Pedersen, your name was the sum of who you were. You were your name. Because of this, names were chosen with great care. So, when Rachel gives birth to her final child and is dying after delivering him (Gen. 38:18), she names him Benoni, which means “son of my sorrow.” But Jacob immediately changes the newborn’s name to Benjamin, which means “son of my right hand” or “son of my strength.” Jacob isn’t about to let his final child have a cursed name and therefore a cursed life.

Likewise, there are biblical characters whose names as recorded in the scriptures were definitely not the names given to them by their parents. Nabal means “fool’; a name no mother would give. But when we look at the story he appears in, he was a fool for standing against David, God’s anointed, and died because of it (1 Samuel 25). Similarly, Ish-bosheth means “man of shame.” Even though he was named Eshbaal (“man of mastery”) at birth (1 Chronicles 8:33; 9:39), he became known as Ish-bosheth because he too stood against David (2 Samuel 4). In the telling of these stories, nicknames replaced birth names as a way of identifying who these people truly were by the defining actions of their lives.

Our names shape us. And we shape our names. We make a name for ourselves.

Also, how we use the names of others determines what kind of relationship we’ll have with them.

The third commandment tells us not to abuse the name of God, not to treat it lightly, not to use it flippantly. What we do to the Name determines how we’ll be in relationship with the God behind the Name.

Because of this, when I learned Hebrew, we were taught to say elohim (“Lord”) whenever we came across the divine name Yahweh. Most of our Bibles do the same by replacing Yahweh with LORD in all caps. This ancient reading tradition seeks to maintain the weight that our Lord deserves in our relationship with him. (This is why I join Jewish writers in capitalizing the word Name, since it refers directly to the divine name, while not capitalizing pronouns, which are just pronouns.)

I love that the founder of the Jewish Hasidic movement was called the Baal Shem Tov (“Master of the Good Name”). His name was tied to God’s Name, the revered Name.

When we move from the Hebrew Bible to the New Testament, we discover an interesting change. The Name now refers to Jesus. (See Acts 4:7-12 and Philippians 2:9-11 for a couple of examples of this.) People are now speaking in the name of Jesus (i.e. by his authority). People are now healing in the name of Jesus (i.e. by his power). People are bowing to the name of Jesus (worshiping him).

Names are important. It changes things if you call me Pete or if you call me Peter. Or if you call me What’s Yer Name. Names matter. We are addressed or dismissed by them. We are elevated or ridiculed by them. We are embraced or rejected by them. This is just as true about you and me as it is about God.

Frederick Buechner writes, “In the Book of Exodus, God tells Moses that his name is Yahweh, and God hasn’t had a peaceful moment since.”

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