What's in a name? (Jacob's sons)
by Suzanne R
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‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me.’ Apart from the nasty names, ask people who have been given the dubious honour of a highly unusual name, a strangely spelt name or even just a downright ugly name, and see what they say! I once knew a Korean fellow named ‘Dung’. After a week in Australia, he took on the English name ‘Peter’. Similarly, a friend taught a young Chinese man who had taken the English name ‘Liver’. Why? Because he loved life and lived it to the full! Nothing my friend said would cause the student to change his English name. What’s in a name? Quite a lot, actually.
Why were you given the name you carry? Was it because it sounded nice? Perhaps your parents liked thinking about the meaning of the name. How many Christian kids do you know with the very excellent names of ‘Nathan’ (gift of God), or ‘Joanna’ (God’s grace)? Meanings are not so relevant with English names anymore, but still very important in some other languages. I love my Chinese name, Suhui, meaning ‘the grace of Christ’. My English name is perfectly serviceable, the shortened forms are not bad, but I daresay my parents did not consider an important factor the meaning, ‘lily of the valley’, when then named me ‘Suzanne’. That’s okay. Many people are given names to remember loved members of an earlier generation, particularly in the west. In China, some generations all have part of their name the same, and each successive generation takes a different generational name in order to eventually complete a Chinese idiom. This results in a very strong sense of identity as part of that family on through centuries. But does our name really matter? In the west, hardly. In many cultures, though, yes, it matters a lot.
The patriach Jacob (whose name meant ‘deceiver’), later renamed ‘Israel’ (meaning ‘to struggle with God’ – Gen. 32:28), had no say in naming any of his twelve sons except for the last. In fact, this family was extremely dysfunctional, and the names of many of the sons bear witness to that. Yet the names given to these boys were to continue on not just for their lifetimes, but over millenia as Jews identified their ancestry. Furthermore, over centuries, the high priest wore a magnificent garment with the names of the twelve sons of Israel engraved on onyx stones, set in gold settings, hung on braided chains of pure gold, and all this against a background of blue, purple and scarlet linen. This was to be a memorial before God. (Ex. 28:6-14). The names given to those twelve baby boys weren’t even just to stand for millenia – the Bible suggests that in the new heavens and the new earth, the gates of the New Jerusalem will be named for the twelve tribes of Israel (Rev 21:12). There is some confusion over the sons of Joseph, who formed two tribes of Israel (Ephraim and Manasseh), while the Levites never had land as they were the priestly tribe. Anyhow, back to Jacob’s sons. How were such important names, which were to be remembered throughout the rest of history, actually chosen?
The first four sons were born to Jacob’s first wife, but this was the wife he had never wanted – Leah. The eldest son, Reuben, has the name meaning ‘he has seen my misery’, the implication being that surely Leah would finally receive some love now, for God had seen how miserable she was (Gen. 29:32). The second son, Simeon, has a name with a good meaning – ‘the Lord hears’. The implication, though, is that the Lord had heard this: Leah was not loved (Gen. 29:33). The third son, Levi, the father of the priestly tribe, has the name meaning ‘attached’. That’s a good name for the tribe that was to keep the people attached to God through performing the role of priests. In the original context though, the implication was that surely after bearing him three sons, Leah’s husband would be attached to her (Gen. 29:34). The fourth son, Judah, has a great name – it means ‘to praise the Lord’ (Gen. 29:35).
Jacob’s next two sons were born to Rachel’s maid. Rachel was the favourite wife, but the one who just couldn’t seem to bear a child. Rachel’s maid actually bore the children, but Rachel named them … not a bad deal! The first son born to Rachel’s maid was named Dan … a good strong name … but meaning ‘vindication’ (Gen. 30:6). Finally Rachel felt vindicated – she had given her husband a son. Rachel’s maid went on to have another son, whom Rachel named Naphtali – meaning ‘my struggle’. This was to commemorate the struggle Rachel had with her sister over her inability to bear children and win their husband’s favour … and Rachel now felt that she had won the struggle. Naphtali would be an ever present reminder of that sweet triumph.
Not to be outdone, Leah gave her maid to her husband to bear children on her behalf. The maid gave birth to another boy, and Leah named him Gad, meaning ‘good fortune’ (Gen. 30:11). Yet another son followed, and Leah was very happy about that, so named him ‘Asher’ meaning ‘happy’ (Gen. 30:13).
Following a bizarre incident concerning sisters trading mandrakes for opportunities to sleep with Jacob, their husband, Leah again fell pregnant. The next son she named Issachar, meaning ‘reward’, believing that God had rewarded her for giving her maid to her husband to bear him children (Gen. 30:18). Now that’s an interesting concept! Yet another son followed, this time named Zebulun, meaning ‘honour’, because after six sons of her own let alone those of her maid, she felt that her husband would surely now treat her with honour (Gen. 30:20). Leah was certainly an optimist!
After all this time, Rachel finally fell pregnant herself. Instead of giving her precious newborn son a name that praised and thanked God, she named him Joseph, meaning ‘to add’ – the implication being ‘I want another one’ (Gen. 30:24)! Many years later, she was granted her wish, although it also resulted in her death. As she lay dying, she named this beautiful little boy Ben-Oni, meaning ‘son of my bitterness’… poor little mite! Thankfully, at this stage, grief-stricken Jacob stepped in and changed the name to Benjamin, meaning ‘son of my right hand’(Gen. 35:18).
Twelve sons, whose names would continue on for millenia and which would remind the world of one messed up family. These twelve men would not only make some pretty awful mistakes themselves, but their descendants would continue to experience conflict, pain and disunity as long as this world keeps turning. Yet these sons of Jacob were very much in God’s plan for the world and for His redemption of the world. Judah’s line really shines with people like King David, King Solomon and ultimately the Son of God, the Messiah, come to ‘save the people’, as the name ‘Jesus’ means (Mt 1:21). It is interesting to note that Jesus was named by God Himself … He wasn’t leaving that to man!
What can we learn from the names of Israel’s sons? Well, like them, as believers we are chosen and cherished by God regardless of our dysfunctional messed up heritage. Are there any perfect Christian families? Some seem to be better than others, but I’ve yet to meet the perfect one. In the same way that the Old Testament high priest would have the names of Jacob’s twelve sons engraved on a magnificent garment that he would wear into God’s presence, our names are also engraved somewhere even more precious – on the hands of God Himself (Isaiah 49:16)! Isaiah 49 is a magnificent passage pointing to the Messiah who would come to bring the people of Israel back to God … and who would restore not only the tribes of Jacob, but also the Gentiles (Isaiah 49:6, 22). This is a rich passage, worthy of further study. For now, though, it is enough to know that no matter how messed up our family or even our own lives, God will not forget us – we are engraved on the palms of His hands. Perhaps this prophecy looked ahead to the nails of the crucifixion – after his resurrection, Jesus retained visible scars on his hands and feet (Luke 24:40). Our names are also written in a very important book – the Book of Life (Phil. 4:3, Heb. 12:22-23, Revelation 21:27). God knows our name, He knows our background and He has recorded our name in the Book of Life despite it all, making us holy through Jacob’s descendant, the Messiah! We are chosen and cherished by Almighty God.
Do you dislike your name? Do you want to avoid the constant reminder of your messed up background? If so, there is good news for you. The Bible teaches that after this messed up world is dealt with, we will be given a new name (Isaiah 62:1-2, Isaiah 65:15 and Revelation 2:17)! Personally, I like my name … do I have to get a new one? How will it work? It could be a tad confusing, couldn’t it? Who cares! To be made righteous, to have sin finally obliterated … that will be fantastic and I’m more than ready to throw off the ‘old me’ and take on the name given by God Himself.
What’s in a name? Our names sum up who we are and where we’ve come from. God knows our weaknesses, He knows that we come from a dysfunctional world, and He accepts us anyhow. One day, when this old world is finished with and God has ushered in His kingdom in all its fullness, our names really will mean nothing … for we will be like Him!
I still wonder about those pearly gates though. Will they really bear the names of Jacob’s messed up sons, just so that we won’t forget?
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This is such interesting reading. My favorite lines: "For now, though, it is enough to know that no matter how messed up our family or even our own lives, God will not forget us â€“ we are engraved on the palms of His hands. Perhaps this prophecy looked ahead to the nails of the crucifixion â€“ after his resurrection, Jesus retained visible scars on his hands and feet (Luke 24:40)." I never connected those two Scriptures, yet it makes perfect sense! Thank you for this---and thank you for your comment on my "Original Masterpiece" story. Yes, I love Joseph Seiss' book, and I have more I could share (see footnote links on "Original" story). By the way, are you "China Rose?" Pleased to meet you!
Dear Suzanne, Couldn't help but be drawn in to your article as I just finished reading Genesis and was captivated by the names of Jacob's sons. When I think of their names on heaven's pillars, when I think of their application to walking with God, I cannot help but be reminded of God's promise to "restore the years the locust ate." This dysfunctional family, like my dysfunctional life, will be restored, redeemed, with new meaning now attached to my name as the beloved Bride. Wonderful article. Thanks so much. By the way, "lily of the valley" paints a beautiful picture of Christ. I love it. Blessings, DeAnna