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