What Does Your Name Mean?

(Based on an excerpt from my upcoming book, Reading the Bible with Rabbi Jesus (Baker, 2018).

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International communications trainer Sarah Lanier has traveled the globe to teach about cultural differences. In her book Foreign to Familiar, she tells about how she handled some Arab boys who were taunting her with catcalls on the street one day. To their surprise, she turned and in fluent Arabic asked their names.

Startled, the boys identified themselves, wondering why she wanted to know. Because, she would tell their fathers about their behavior, and how they were being an embarrassment to their families. Horrified, the boys apologized profusely and pleaded with her not to do such a thing.1

Sarah Lanier asked the boys their names because she knew that their family’s public reputation, their “name,” was of critical importance in their society. Knowing this helps us decode a much misunderstood word in our Bibles, the Hebrew word shem, which overlaps with the English word “name” but is actually much broader. In older translations we often encounter the word “name” being used in odd ways. Grasping what shem actually means will often help us a lot.

 

Your Shem is Your Communal Identity

The key to the puzzle of shem is to consider the Bible’s collective context, where a person’s identity within the wider community was of utmost significance. There, the word shem is much more about…

When You Read the Bible, You Need to “Be” There

Years ago, I signed up for summer Hebrew course in Israel. That way, I’d be able to absorb the sights and sounds of the land as I studied. The class was held at a retreat center a few miles outside Jerusalem, and everywhere you looked you could see evidence of the ancient Israelites.

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Judean hillside

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We’d meet for class all morning, and then the afternoons were dedicated to homework and review. Each day after lunch I’d make a point of hiking into the countryside and doing my homework under a tree, so that I could enjoy the hoo-hoo-hoot of the mourning doves and the wafting scent of the cedar trees.

These terraced limestone hills had been farmed by Israelites thousands of years earlier. A person didn’t need to look far to find an ancient basin hewn into the rock where a farmer had once stomped his grapes to press out juice for wine. Or, a pottery shard from a water jug hefted by a peasant girl in King David’s time. Biblical reminders were everywhere. I could just imagine the characters alive around me once again.

Every day as I headed out after lunch for my favorite tree, I’d walk past a group of college students who were also in my class. They’d be clustered tightly in a corner of the air-conditioned reception office, where they’d…