In biblical tradition the task of naming a child generally fell to the mother (Genesis 29:31-30:24;
1 Samuel 1:20) but could be performed by the father (Genesis 16:15;
Exodus 2:22) and in exceptional cases by nonparental figures (Exodus 2:10;
Ruth 4:17). The last son of Jacob and Rachel received a name from each parent; Jacob altering the name Rachel gave (Genesis 35:18). Naming could be attributed to God originating through a divine birth announcement (Genesis 17:19;
Luke 1:13). Naming took place near birth in the Old Testament and on the eighth day accompanying circumcision in New Testament narratives (Luke 1:59;
The biblical concept of naming was rooted in the ancient world's understanding that a name expressed essence. To know the name of a person was to know that person's total character and nature. Revealing character and destiny, personal names might express hopes for the child's future. Changing of name could occur at divine or human initiative, revealing a transformation in character or destiny (Genesis 17:5,Genesis 17:15;
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's request for divine presence (Exodus 33:12,Exodus 33:17). The act of naming implied the power of the namer over the named, evidenced in the naming of the animals in
Genesis 2:19-20 or Pharaoh's renaming Joseph (Genesis 41:45; compare
2 Kings 24:17).
Proper names consisting of one or more terms consciously chosen by the namer conveyed a readily understandable meaning within the biblical world. Reflecting circumstances of birth Rachel called the child of her death, Ben-oni, “son of my sorrow” (Genesis 35:18). Jacob was named “the supplanter” for “he took hold on Esau's heel” (Genesis 25:26). Moses, the “stranger in a strange land,” named his son Gershom (Exodus 2:22). Conditions of the times proved imaginative as well: Ichabod, “The glory has departed from Israel,” (NRSV) came about by the ark of the covenant falling into Philistine hands (1 Samuel 4:21-22) and the symbolic names of Isaiah's sons: Shear-jashub, “a remnant shall return,” (Isaiah 7:3); Maher-Shalal-hash-baz, “swift is the booty, speedy is the prey,” (Isaiah 8:3, NASB).
Personal characteristics, Esau means “hairy”; Careah means “bald,” (Genesis 25:25;
2 Kings 25:23); and the use of animal names in early times, Deborah means “bee”; Jonah means “dove”; Rachel means “ewe,” are attested. Less frequently occurring are names taken from plants: Tamar meaning “palm tree”; Susanna meaning “lily.”
Simple names functioning as epithets, such as Nabal meaning “fool” and Sarah meaning “princess,” gave way to compound names factual or wishful in nature, such as Mattaniah meaning “gift of Yahweh” and Ezekiel meaning “may God strengthen.” Compound names in the main are theophoric, employing the divine names El and Yah (Elijah, Ishmael, Nathaniel). Titles and kinship terms (Abimelech, melech means “king”; Abigail, Ab(i) means “father”) and foreign names occur: Aramaic, Greek, and Roman (Martha, Salome, Alexandra, John Mark).
The patronymic pracice whereby a child received the name of a relative, especially the grandfather (Simon Bar-Jona is “son of Jona”) was common by the Christian era. Geographical identities are attested as well (Goliath of Gath and Jesus of Nazareth. See Family; Children; Birth; Birth Announcements; Names.