To the Israelites of Bible times, the name of a person had much more significance than it does in most countries today. This applies to the giving of names and the usage of names.

Names given for a purpose

Many factors influenced Israelite parents in their choice of names for their children. In some cases the name was connected with happenings at the child’s birth (Gen 10:25; 25:24-26). In other cases parents gave names that expressed their joys or sorrows at the time of the birth (Gen 29:32-35; 35:16-18), or expressed their hopes for their own or the child’s future (Gen 30:24). God at times directed parents to give names that were a prophecy of coming events (Isa 8:3-4,18; Hosea 1:4,6,9). People in positions of power could give new names to those within their authority as indications of blessing or appointment to places of honour (Gen 17:5,15; cf. Phil 2:9).

In some cases a new name may have been given to indicate a new character (Gen 32:28). Where there was such a connection between name and character, the request to know a person’s name was a request to know the character indicated by the name (Gen 32:29; Exod 3:13; Judg 13:17). Sometimes people remembered a new revelation of God’s character by calling him by a special name that summarized the revelation in a few words (Gen 22:14; Exod 3:14; 17:15; Judg 6:24). To know a person’s name (in this sense) was to know the person (Exod 33:12; Ps 9:10; 79:6).

The name meant the person

Since the name represented the person, Israelites considered it important to have descendants to carry on the family name (Num 27:4; Deut 25:5-6; see INHERITANCE). It was a matter of great shame for the family name to be blotted out (Josh 7:9; 2 Sam 14:7; Prov 10:7). To honour a person’s name meant to honour the person; to dishonour a person’s name meant to dishonour the person (Exod 20:7; Lev 18:21; 1 Kings 1:47; Isa 29:23; Matt 6:9; Rom 2:24; 1 Tim 6:1). When an Israelite was called by the name of another person, it meant to be associated so closely as to belong to that person (Deut 28:9-10; Isa 4:1; Jer 14:9; 15:16; 25:29; Matt 28:19; 1 Cor 1:13-15). In the same way, to speak or act in the name of another person meant to speak or act as if one were that person (Deut 18:20; 1 Sam 25:5; Matt 18:20; John 16:23-24; Acts 3:6,16; 9:27-29; Col 3:17). According to this common biblical usage, to make known a person’s name meant to make known the person’s character and activity (Ps 22:22; 99:3; John 17:6; Acts 9:15). Anyone who did something for the sake of a person’s name acted as the person’s representative and therefore was concerned with upholding the person’s good character (Ps 109:21; Acts 9:16). To call upon a person’s name had the same significance as actually calling upon the person (1 Kings 18:24; Ps 99:6; Acts 2:21). Therefore, those who called upon the name of the Lord could be assured that the Lord himself would save them (Ps 54:1; Acts 4:12; Rom 10:13).

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