Featured Items Ritchie Christian Media

Occasional Letters: What’s in a Name?

D Newell, Glasgow

It was, I think, Mark Twain who once remarked that what troubled him most about the Bible was not the things he could not understand but the things he could. Simply put, the Bible’s key teachings are on the surface. Although of course it takes spiritual illumination to assent to divine truth, matters like the awesomeness of God, the sinfulness of man, and the inescapability of eternal divine judgment are so woven into the texture of Scripture that they cannot be sidestepped. It is worth keeping this in mind whenever we read the Word. A keen eye for the obvious is a vital requirement for every Bible student. Sometimes we are prone to probe for novelties and mysteries which are not there at all, as though the plain, face-value meaning of Scripture were somehow inferior. A book which created a mild sensation some years back, Michael Drosnin’s The Bible Code, was a particularly extreme and absurd manifestation of an obsession with the arcane. Occasionally people become fixated with numerology (that ancient pseudo-science which purports to find mystical significance in numbers) almost to the exclusion of the surface sense of the text. Another fascination for some of us is the meaning of Bible proper names. The rush for the lexicons whenever a geographical or personal name appears may serve only to demonstrate how linguistic authorities disagree among themselves.

And yet Biblical names are often of profound significance. One way to be absolutely confident that we are not reading too much into the inspired text is to concentrate on those occasions where the reason for a name is built into the record. Take, for example, the tribes of Israel. I was recently rereading the story of Jacob and his two wives. Poor Leah, it seems to me, usually gets a raw deal, perhaps because most readers are automatically drawn to the romantic tale of Jacob and Rachel. After all, as they say, the whole world loves a lover!

"Laban had two daughters: the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah was tender eyed; but Rachel was beautiful and well favoured. And Jacob loved Rachel…" (Gen 29.16-18).

Well, of course he did – Rachel was clearly what we used to call in my youth a cracker, and she passed her good looks on to her son Joseph (Gen 39.6). And what is wrong with being attracted to physical beauty? Nothing whatever. On the other hand, we might pause just a moment to wonder whether Leah’s features (those tender eyes) suggest a greater gentleness of disposition. In this fallen world a beautiful outside and a beautiful character do not always go hand in hand (Prov 31.30). Rachel, the beloved wife, deceived both her father and her husband by surreptitiously filching Laban’s household idols (Gen 31.19,32). And is it not remarkable that, in God’s providence, it was not Rachel but Leah who was the ancestor of the Lord Jesus? Levi, who would typify Christ’s priestly office, and Judah, the actual physical ancestor of Messiah, were sons of the despised wife. The account of her first four children’s birth is of interest, because we learn why she named her sons as she did:

And [Jacob] loved also Rachel more than Leah…And when the Lord saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb…And Leah conceived, and bare a son, and she called his name Reuben: for she said, Surely the Lord hath looked upon my affliction; now therefore my husband will love me. And she conceived again, and bare a son; and said, Because the Lord hath heard that I was hated, he hath therefore given me this son also: and she called his name Simeon. And she conceived again, and bare a son; and said, Now this time will my husband be joined unto me, because I have born him three sons: therefore was his name called Levi. And she conceived again, and bare a son: and she said, Now will I praise the Lord: therefore she called his name Judah; and left bearing (Gen 29.30-35).

The narrative can be read in at least three ways. First, and most obviously, it gives historical information about Leah’s experience, and an insight into her state of soul. The fact that the children were named by the mother rather than the father is not unusual in the Old Testament, but it does, I think, testify to Leah’s personal confidence in Jehovah. It cannot have been pleasant to be known as the second-best, always overshadowed by her more scintillating sister. The gift of four sons she immediately and gladly traced to God’s merciful hand, finding in them the hope of a possible amelioration in Jacob’s attitude to her. She saw her firstborn, Reuben ("behold, a son"), as God’s gracious response to her sorrow at being the unloved wife. Her words are wistful: "now therefore my husband will love me". Simeon ("hearing") again was a result of divine intervention, for one of the great teachings of the Word is that God "heareth the cry of the afflicted" (Job 34.28). Levi ("joined") hinted at the tragic gulf between Jacob’s physical intimacy and his distant heart. Like any wife, Leah longed to be joined to her husband in genuine mutual affection. And the fourth son, Judah ("praise"), embodied her warm gratitude to God: "Now will I praise the Lord". Spirituality is by no means the exclusive prerogative of the males: women who know the Lord rejoice to see His hand at work in their lives.

Second, the story may be seen obliquely as a pictorial anticipation of the Messiah, for the Lord Jesus would in reality be Jacob’s physical descendant through Judah (Mt 1.1-2). Although, as Genesis testifies, Leah’s sons were themselves all failures, the meanings of their names make us think of One who was not. Reuben reminds us of His divine Sonship, confirmed both in God’s word of commendation (Ps 2.7; Mt 3.17) and the divine work of resurrection (Rom 1.4). This is the Son all believers are glad to behold. Simeon hints at His unwavering, instant obedience to the Father’s will, for His ear was always open to heaven (Is 50.4-5; Jn 5.30). In Levi there is a glance towards the Saviour’s ministry of uniting His redeemed people to Himself, for by grace "we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones" (Eph 5.30). The significance of Judah’s name was fulfilled perfectly only in Christ who in all He did brought undiminished praise to God (Heb 2.12; Jn 13.31), and is Himself the object of our praise for all eternity. We have here an advance glimpse of the beloved Son.

Third, would it be too much to suggest that the passage also has a moral application to believers today? While the Lord Jesus is the Son in a totally unique sense, all His redeemed people are children of God by new birth and sons of God by adoption (Gal 3.26). We therefore have to live up to an immense privilege. The Lord Jesus was the Son who conformed perfectly to His Father’s desires, but all who have come into the good of His atoning work are under the solemn obligation of practical obedience: "If ye love me, keep my commandments" (Jn 14.15). And if we have been joined to the Saviour in an indissoluble union, we are responsible to join regularly with His people in the joy of holy fellowship (Acts 2.42). Salvation amazingly bonds together folk who otherwise have nothing in common (1 Cor 1.10). Finally, praise is the goal of all our service and the reason for our living, for we are to "do all to the glory of God" (1 Cor 10.31). It is a mistake to restrict praise to the Breaking of Bread meeting; rather, it should be the life-blood of our collective spiritual exercises and the atmosphere of our daily walk. What’s in a name? If its meaning is explained in the text of Scripture, there is likely to be much not-to-be-missed spiritual sustenance for our souls.

To be continued.


Back issues are provided here as a free resource. To support production and to receive current editions of Believer's Magazine, please subscribe...

Print Edition

Digital Edition

Copyright © 2017 John Ritchie Ltd. Home