There are 14 characters in the Bible that underwent name changes. Two of the more famous name changes occur in this week’s Torah portion – husband and wife duo Abraham and Sarah.
Some of the more obvious questions which are asked by Biblical commentators throughout the ages are: Why change a person’s name? What is the significance of a name in the first place? What does a name symbolize? Is there any correlation between a name change and the destiny of the person whose name is changed?
The Babylonian Talmud states that one of the things that can annul an evil heavenly decree is changing a person’s name. Jewish tradition teaches that a person’s name is the root cause of everything that happens to them, and one has the power to change his fate by changing his name.
The change in Abram and Sarai’s names came immediately before God reiterated his promise to give the couple children. These name changes seemingly allowed Abraham and Sarah to bear children after decades of bareness.
In Genesis 17:5 Abram, which means “noble father,” became Abraham, which means “father of many.” Sarai, meaning “princess,” is changed to Sarah, meaning “mother of nations.”
Two reasons are provided for these particular name changes. Firstly, the change in Abraham’s name symbolized his separation from his past life along with his efforts to create a new reality with a newly realized sense of being for him and his descendants.
The second explanation that is often given is that his name change symbolized his immigrant status in his new home – the Promised Land.
Many of the name changes which occur throughout the Bible signify a change in one’s relationship with God, a change of location or proclaiming allegiance to a particular master or monarch.
In all but one of the instances in the Jewish Bible where a person’s name is changed, the change was initiated by other people. One exception is Naomi from the Book of Ruth who changed her name out of her own volition.
Naomi left her birth place of Beit Lehem in Judea for the nation of Moab. Her affluent husband and two sons died there, leaving Naomi and her two daughter-in-laws with nothing. She returned years later to Judea with only the clothes on her back. Due to the radical change in her life, Naomi felt it was necessary to change her name to bring about an alteration in her life (Ruth 1:20).
Status changes are another evident reason for name changes in the Bible. When the kings of Judah lost their autonomy and became vassals of Babylonian kings, they were forced to change their names in order to show their demoted status. (2 Kings 24:17)
Throughout the Bible, as a person’s identity changed, so too did their name. The bolder the change, the more significant and altered their life became.
So what does your name signify about you and how do you identify with it?