Phil Cox

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What's in a Name?

23rd July 2011

Romeo asked, "What's in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Well, would it? Do our names matter?

Once again, a "celebrity" has given his child an unusual name, and the newspapers have been discussing whether the name is a good one or a bad one. "Celebrities" giving their children unusual names is not a new thing, of course. Are you, like me, old enough to remember Zowie Bowie and Moon Unit Zappa? Most of us choose names to help our children fit in, not to help them stand out, but perhaps in the world of "celebrity" standing out from the crowd is important, and perhaps the child of a "celebrity" might survive an unusual name rather well. But unusual names can be a source of embarrassment. I read once of a couple called Mr and Mrs Pipe, who wanted to name their son "Duane". I really hope they didn't.

The use of unusual names goes back much further than we might think. The prophet Isaiah had a son called "A Remnant Shall Return" (see Isaiah 7:3) and another called "The Spoil Speeds, the Prey Hastens" (Isaiah 8:3). These were God-given, prophet names, and part of God's redemptive purposes. But let's look this week at two other unusual biblical names, that were given by parents, not by God:

Genesis 25v24-27
When the time came for her [Rebekah] to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb. The first to come out was red, and his whole body was like a hairy garment; so they named him Esau. After this, his brother came out, with his hand grasping Esauís heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when Rebekah gave birth to them.
The boys grew up, and Esau became a skilful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was a quiet man, staying among the tents.

Isaac's and Rebekah's first child had a body like a hairy garment so, with great wit and originality (they may have thought) they named him "Hairy" (that's what "Esau" means).

As their second child was being born, they found he was grasping his elder brother's heel so, with the same wit and originality, they named him "He who Grasps the Heel" (that's what "Jacob" means). The problem with that was that "Jacob" also means "cheat" or "deceiver".

You might say that Isaac and Rebekah were being prophetic in the way they named Esau and, particularly, Jacob. Alternatively, you might think (as I do) that they were being foolish. How surprised should we be that the elder boy, Hairy, so called because he looked like an animal, covered with fur, became a skilful hunter, a man of the open country And that his younger brother, Deceiver, was a quiet man, staying among the tents.

How surprised should we be that:

Genesis 25v29-34
Once when Jacob was cooking some stew, Esau came in from the open country, famished. He said to Jacob, "Quick, let me have some of that red stew! Iím famished!" (That is why he was also called Edom.) Jacob replied, "First sell me your birthright." "Look, I am about to die," Esau said. "What good is the birthright to me?" But Jacob said, "Swear to me first." So he swore an oath to him, selling his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau some bread and some lentil stew. He ate and drank, and then got up and left. So Esau despised his birthright.

Esau (or Hairy) was only interested on food, like an animal, and Jacob (or Cheat) took advantage of him to steal his birthright.

And we read in Genesis 27v1-40 that, advised by his mother, Jacob dressed in his brother's clothes and even put animal skins on his hands, to deceive his father into thinking that he was Esau, in order to cheat Esau out of his blessing.

All this makes me wonder about how we speak to each other. Most of us have "ordinary" names, like "Phil". But our parents, our friends, our workmates, and even our churches, find harmful ways to describe us. And these descriptions can shape our self-image in the same way as "Hairy" and "Deceiver" were shaped by their names.

For example, I know many Christians whose name is "You can't sing". It's easy to spot them by the quiet, apologetic way they worship in the Sunday meeting. I know a lot of people who've been named "You'll never amount to much". Most of these people, like Esau and Jacob, live up to their name. I know people called "ugly" or "stupid" or "lazy" or "not wanted" by their natural family or their church family. We should not be surprised when these people develop a self-image that grows into a reflection of their name.

What's your name? I don't mean the actual name you were given at birth (for most of us, anyway). I mean the name you've been given by those who know you.

Did your parents, friends and workmates call you the names they did because that's what you're like, or are you like you are because of the names you've been called?

Heavenly Father, may we think of ourselves they way You think of us. Please heal us of the damaging names that others have given us, and give us a right self-image.