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