Despicable Names


Why do some of the names in the Old Testament have such bad meanings?  Can’t they be self-fulfilling prophecies?



What a great question!  We would like to add an explanation for people who are new to ancient Jewish wisdom. We frequently mention, on our TV show and in our resources, that every Hebrew name in Scripture has a meaning. Even relatively little known names provide information about the person or the generation he or she represents. So, as we explain in our audio CD, The Gathering Storm, the names representing the generations spanning Adam to Noah (Genesis chapter 5) tell us what sort of decline was taking place during that era. Your question might refer to someone like NaVaL (or in English, Nabal) from I Samuel: 25 whose name translates as despicable.

As you correctly point out, parents who give a child a name such as that, would start the child off with something of a handicap in life. For this reason, many countries or jurisdictions reserve the right to reject certain names on a birth certificate, while some countries even provide a list of pre-approved names from which parents must choose their baby’s name.

On occasion, Biblical names are Divinely bestowed as in the case of Isaac (Genesis 17:19). His correct name in Hebrew is YiTZCHaK which means ‘and he will laugh.’ Others, such as many of the twelve tribes, are given a name by their mothers or fathers with a specific meaning in mind.

When it comes to someone like NaVaL, we don’t think that is what his parents called him. It is a name that came after the fact and represents how those around him saw him, along the lines of ‘Honest Abe.’ The name is who he is; not a prophecy or prediction given at birth. Perhaps the man NaVaL even celebrated his character and relished that name just as Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili adopted the name Stalin, with its implications of combining the strength of steel (stal) with a tribute to Lenin.

Thanks for keeping us on our toes,

Rabbi Daniel (in Hebrew, God will be my judge) and Susan (in Hebrew, Shoshana- a lily) Lapin



7 thoughts on “Despicable Names”

    1. Jacob received a new name, from which a nation would come, but only after he wrestled with God and man, and ultimately did have to admit that he was a trickster, as he was asked his name (even though it was most likely already known). I think, here, Jacob was rewarded for having acknowledged, that despite his own despicable nature, he was aware that it did not overshadow the grace of God or the extent of His power to bless him. And so God did bless Jacob with a new identity, of which’s nobleness was limited only by the Lord’s nature, His will, rather than that of Jacob. However, That he walked with a limp for the rest of his life might have been an effective note to self about how he should continue his walk thereafter.

      1. The name Jacob, in Hebrew, Yaakov, does not mean trickster. In ancient Jewish wisdom he is not seen in a negative light, both before and after his new name is given. (He isn’t perfect, but there is no perfect person in Torah.) What is interesting about Jacob is that, once given a new name, he is still often called by his original name. There’s a lot to discuss about him, and maybe we can go more in depth in another venue.

  1. Another well-known example is Jabez (there is a little book by Bruce Wilkinson about him); see I Chron 4: 9-10. It states that the Hebrew name means “who causes pain”, hardly auspicious for a child. But the Lamsa translation says it means “Our Eyes”, and verse 10 is a lovely prayer of benediction. Unity’s Metaphysical Bible Dictionary points to “an inner assurance of desired good”. The Rabbi and/or Susan may have more to add here.

    1. Deb, we haven’t looked into this name in depth but in order to translate this name as pain, you have to switch two of the letters. One of the four letters of the name is the letter whose meaning is ‘eye’ but at first glance we’re not seeing where that translation comes from either. Worth exploring as is every other Biblical name.


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