Name Game

‘What’s in a name? That which we call a fart by any other name would smell as raunchy.’ – Juliet in Romeo & Juliet (Beavis and Butt-head version).

To most of us in this culture in this century, a name is simply that which we call ourselves – for better or worse (I had a friend many years ago named Christy Butt – not much embellishment necessary to get to Crusty Butt; oh the hilarity).

But even if our handles are funny, few of us are defined by them.

Look at me. Robert means ‘bright fame’ and Garth means ‘gardener.’ Given the state of my yard, I’m not likely to become a famous gardener. Infamous, maybe.

And if my parents had chosen to name me Garth Robert instead of Robert Garth, chances are I’d still live in north Calgary, I’d still be a writer and I’d still be married to a pretty red-haired girl. (Counterpoint: as Jerry Seinfeld put it, if you name your baby Geeves, he’s more likely to grow up to be a chauffeur than a hitman. Counter-counterpoint: I have a relative who named his son Damien [after the movie demonchild; I asked], and the boy is very sweet and well-behaved – so far.)

But as most of us are aware, the same is not true for names in biblical times. Names defined people, or at least some aspect of them.

The best example of this is Jacob, whose name means ‘he grasps the heel,’ a Hebrew idiom for ‘he deceives.’ No, I’m not pulling your leg.

Now, given that Hebrew was quite a young language during Jacob’s lifetime, I’m a little suspicious about how and when this name came to have this particular meaning. It seems quite plausible to me that ‘Jacob’ came to mean ‘deceiver’ during or after his lifetime, as a direct result of his actions. Jacob was an extremely iconic figure in Hebrew history, and he was undeniably a very deceptive rascal, after all.

But the traditional view is that I have the cause and effect backwards. Merely after seeing Jacob’s hand grasping his twin brother’s ankle at birth – and knowing full well of the double-meaning of the ‘leg-puller’ name and the fact that in their culture, your name was your identity –  Isaac and Rebekah decided to effectively call their son Liar. ‘Hey, Liar – will you pass the mutton?’ It’s a tough pill to swallow, but let’s take that view at face value for the sake of this discussion.

If that’s really the case, no wonder Jacob turned out to be a dishonest person for most of his life. And no wonder God eventually decided to rename him Israel, which means ‘He struggles with God’ – after their famous wrestling match in Genesis 32:28.

God had a habit of re-naming people in biblical times, didn’t he? Abram (High Father) became Abraham (Father of a Multitude of Nations); Sarai was changed to Sarah (both words mean princess, but the focus of the latter might mean a global princess, rather than a local one). Simon (one who hears) became Peter (rock).

Now, in the past I pretty much assumed that the same was true of Saul of Tarsus – that God gave him his a new name (Paul) either during or soon after his Road to Damascus (RTD) encounter with Jesus. And I don’t think I’m the only one who thought that way.

But that ain’t what the Bible says. Luke, the writer of the Book of Acts, doesn’t really talk about how or why, he essentially just refers to him as Saul for a while, then switches to Paul without much explanation.

A fairly romantic – and certainly credible – explanation about why Mr. O’Tarsus started using the name Paul stems from the fact that Saul means ‘prayed for,’ and Paul means ‘small.’ As a Pharisee and self-righteous anti-Christian crusader, Saul may well have considered himself to be the answer to the prayer of those who felt threatened by this upstart sect, making ‘Saul’ imminently fitting for the pre-RTD dude. But when he came face-to-face with the Almighty, he realized how shallow, weak and insignificant he truly was, and then embraced his Paulness (Smallness), to serve as a constant reminder of the One who is much greater – to keep his human ego in check.

Now, it might be worth noting that the name Paul is first mentioned in Acts 13:9: ‘Saul was also known as Paul…’ Not that he became Paul, but that he was ‘also known as’ Paul.

A little ‘factoid’ I found online (and all information you find online can be taken at face-value, right?) is that the two names were both his, all along. Saul was his Jewish name, Paul was his Roman name – he was a Jew who happened to be a Citizen of Rome, after all.

So maybe our possibly shared inference that Saul discarded his Jewish name because, as a new creation in Christ, it was no longer fitting, is incorrect. Maybe he started going by Paul for simple, practical reasons – because a Roman name was a more effective handle for Christ’s apostle to the residents of the Roman Empire.

Not that this cheapens the change in any way, in my opinion. It might simply be one of the ways that Paul became “all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” – 1 Corinthians 9:22b

And if the more practical and less exciting origin of Saul’s Paulness is accurate, we don’t need to beat ourselves up too badly for rewriting this bit of his history. After all, we make God in our own image on a daily basis; by comparison, doing the same thing with Paul has to be small potatoes (er, paul potatoes?).


Speaking of Simon (as I was several paragraphs ago), I’ve often wondered if Simon is the New Testament equivalent of the Old Testament name Simeon (one of the 12 sons of Jacob/Israel). So I finally looked it up, and sure enough, it is.

Ditto for Mary (Jesus’ mom) and Miriam (Moses’ sister) and Jonathan (King Saul’s son) and John (the Baptist and the Apostle). Perhaps most notably, Jesus’ name was actually Yeshua, which the First-Century equivalent of the Old Testament name Joshua (both names mean ‘Jehovah is salvation’). That sheds new light on the Messiah’s Handle for me. Maybe the reverence we Anglophones assign to the name Jesus seems a little arbitrary; maybe Hispanics have the right idea here.

There’s another perfectly good Old Testament moniker that didn’t fare so well in the New Testament Equivalency category: Judah (another of the 12 sons ofJacob/Israel). This name, which means ‘praised’ and is the basis for the words Judea and Judaism, had by the months after Jesus’ ascension evolved into a name with decidedly unpraiseworthy connotations.


Notice how God never re-named Mr. Iscariot – the disciple who betrayed Jesus and handed him over for crucifixion. His name still means ‘praised.’ And yet in Christendom on Earth, his name is almost synonymous with ‘cursed.’

I sometimes wonder how God would have re-christened the ex-disciple.  Would he be Betrayer Iscariot? Unredeemable Iscariot? Fall Guy Iscariot? God’s Left Hand Iscariot? How about Forgiven Iscariot?

I often ponder whether Jesus the Man chose Judas to be his disciple because he thought Judas would make him a good disciple – or if Jesus the God chose him because he thought Judas would make a good betrayer. And if the latter is true, I wonder if I have any business being a bit freaked out about it.

As you can see, I’m still Israeling on this one.


Have you ever wondered why God doesn’t change people’s names anymore? Outside of the Bible, I’ve never heard of Him saying to someone, ‘Your name is no longer Cletus. From now on, you will be known as Elvis!’ What gives? Is God less present for us than He was during biblical times?

I don’t think so.

He still speaks to us – through other people, through our dreams and thoughts, and more often than we think – directly in that Still, Small Voice. But as I said before, in the 21st century in North America, our names are not tied to our identities, so changing my name from Rob to Bert wouldn’t do anything but confuse me and my friends. God isn’t in the Name Changing Business – He never was.

He was and is in the Identity Changing Business, and as soon as we turn to Him, He quickly and gladly gives us a new identity.

I came to you as Sinner – lost and sad and lame
And now I’m different, but everything’s the same
Thanks to you, my Saviour, I have been remade
I still sin, but Sinner’s not my name!

When you let Jesus save you, Sinner ceases to be your identity; in God’s eyes, you’re Saint.

‘Only let us live up to what we have already achieved.’ – Philippians 3:16

Peace be with you.

Writer’s notes:

Much of this was inspired by (stolen from) sermons given by my friend Brad Huebert, pastor at Dalhousie Community Church ( in northwest Calgary and fellow WordPress blogger (, and I just realized I haven’t acknowledged that yet. There may be nothing new under the sun, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give credit where it’s due. Thanks and sorry, Brad!

– To my knowledge, there isn’t a Beavis and Butt-head version of Romeo & Juliet. But there oughta be!


About robpetkau

Communications professional by day, amateur musician by night, worship leader (at Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Calgary) on weekends and aspiring Bible teacher in my dreams. Grateful husband to the woman who completes me. Doing-the-best-I-can dad to the son and daughter who keep me on my toes. Striving disciple of the GodMan who came, taught and died for me. Thanks for stopping by!
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One Response to Name Game

  1. Pingback: One Word at a Time | Disciplehood

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