Is Changing Your Name Biblical?

Dear Family,

Many when joining a monastic community change their name as I myself did. Why do we do this? What is the meaning of it?  Is it something the Catholic Church dreamed up or is there a biblical basis for the practice?  In my last post I shared how I changed my name and why.  The following for those who are interested is the biblical foundation for the practice. I pray you all enjoy and comments welcomed.

1.  Woman to Eve

The first time we see someone changing their name in the Bible is in the Garden of Eden. Initially when Adam is introduced to the one who God made for him he says,
"This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; She shall be called woman, because she was taken out of a man."1

At this point she is simply known as someone who was taken from man/Adam. Then after the fall but before they are evicted from the garden Adam changes his mind and gives the woman a new name.

 "And Adam called his wife's name Eve, because she was the mother of all living."2
At this point as far as we know Eve has had no children and may not even have a clue as to what childbearing is about.  So in this case I believe it is to give her a vision of what she was to be and to give her, her own separate identity.  Now instead of just being known as someone taken from her husband, she is known as Eve, the mother of all living. In Hebrew, the name means life-giver and that was what she was.  Over the years she would give birth to many sons and daughters who reproduce, covering the whole earth.3

2.  From Abram to Abraham

 "No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you a father of many nations."4
The name Abram means high father. Abram could think, I have a son Ishmael who will inherit everything.  I have and continue to carry on my name.  That could be seen as God has kept his promise by "giving" Abram a son.  However, God has other ideas.  He wants Abram to see that Ishmael was not God's choice for an heir.  However, because he is Abram's son God will bless him.  God wants Abram to see two things.  First, that he will have a son by Sarai, his wife, even though he is a hundred and his wife is in her 90's at the time.  Then, second, he wants Abraham to see himself, not as the father of one or two sons, but as the father of a multitude.  So he gives Abram a new name, embracing that concept Abraham meaning father of a multitude or of many.  Though not totally fulfilled in Abraham's lifetime, today it has been literally fulfilled as all who are children of faith are children of Abraham.5

3.  Sarai to Sarah

"...As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. And I will bless her and also give you a son by her; then I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of people shall be from her".6

The word Sarai comes from a Hebrew word meaning dominative.  So she is a woman who likes to be in control and have things her way.  This we see when she talks Abraham into marrying her slave, Hagar, producing Ishmael. However, God has other ideas.  He changes her name to Sarah meaning mistress, a noble lady, a princess.  This was a total role reversal.  Instead of being a dominator, a controller she would and become like a noblewoman or princess.7   She wasn't like that when this prophecy and name change was made.  Even after the name change she could still revert to the old self, as when she takes the lead and basically ordered her husband to kick out Hagar and Ishmael.  Abraham tries to resist but ultimately gives in to his wife’s wishes after being told by God to do so.  However, she learns to change to the point she even calls her husband lord.8  The word lord used here can refer to God but can also mean master or sir.  So she goes from being a controller to one who submits to her husband. Therefore we still honor her as a great woman of faith along with her husband.

4.  Jacob to Israel

The next person we find in the Bible who has a name change is Jacob. Jacob means heel catcher, conniver or supplanter.  In the womb Jacob is fighting with his brother Esau for mastery.  Once born, with Esau coming out first and therefore the oldest, there continues to be a fight for who is going to be the master and control everything.  Twice Jacob steals from his brother.  First the birthright (birthright entitled the eldest son to a double of the father's possessions when the father dies over what anyone else gets).  Second, he steals the father's blessing by pretending to be Esau to the point his brother begins to plot to murder him.  Thereupon Jacob flees to his uncle's home where the trickster gets out-tricked himself some 10 times, over a 20 year period.  He then decides to go home to where he grew up, and it’s on that journey that he has his name changing experience.

On the way back they stop at a place called Peniel or Penuel where Jacob is all alone.  There appears an angel of the Lord who wrestles with him all night. When dawn breaks the angel begs Jacob to let him go, but Jacob refuses until the angel blesses him. So the angel blesses him.

"...Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel; for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed."9

Israel means one who will rule as God, or one who has power with God. It is my belief that when we see the words angel of the Lord in the Old Testament it is quite often referring to Jesus Christ in His pre-incarnate state. If that is the case then Jacob wrestled with Jesus Himself. That would be life changing for him. Instead of trying to strive to make things go his own way he would learn to trust in God and be lead by Him. From this point whenever he trusts in his abilities/flesh to get what he wants he is called Jacob. However whenever he is trusting in God and being led by him he is called Israel. In this case then the name change reflects something going on in Jacob's life at that moment that would lead to him to further trust God and his leadership.


5.    Naomi to Mara to Naomi again

In the book of Ruth we read of a woman, Naomi, who, with her husband and sons leaves her home to move to Moab.  There her husband dies, as do both of her sons after marrying wives but producing no children.  One daughter-in-law goes back to her own people.  Ruth refuses to leave Naomi and together they travel back to Bethlehem.  Upon their arrival, all of her friends and family rejoice but Naomi takes exception saying,

"...Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me..."10

The name change here reflects the reality of what the woman is going through at the time.  She has lost her husband, two sons, all her wealth, and is now returning home with nothing.  In her bitterness she blames God and gives up hope, choosing to wallow in her despair instead.  However, God has a plan, and Ruth ultimately gets married and has a son. This makes Mara a grandmother, and all of a sudden everything looks rosy again and she goes back to being called Naomi.

The name Naomi in Hebrew means pleasant.  At first, it seems with a husband, two sons, wealth, and two daughters-in-law, everything is great and very pleasant for her, but there comes a time when all is taken from her and life is not so pleasant anymore.

Mara means bitter... life does not seem as good and pleasant as it once was. It seems like everything is against her.  She doesn't understand and begins to see her life as hopeless and God is the one to blame for it all.  She returns to Bethlehem as a last resort, having nowhere else to go so go back to, where family and friends are.  However, she is still bitter over it all and complains to everyone who comes to welcome her home, just how bad she has it, how miserable she is, and who she blames for it all.  She doesn't realize God is working things out for a great blessing for her.  When that finally happens and Ruth has Obed, the grandfather of King David, all of a sudden all the bitterness is forgotten and she is back to being Naomi again. That makes Ruth one of the ancestors of Jesus and only one of three women mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus Christ.


6.  From Petros to Petra

The next one I would like to look at is Simon Peter. His first name, Simon means hearing.  However there is something else Jesus is after here.

" And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock will I build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it."11

This is often a very misunderstood verse.  Jesus is doing a play on words. First, he calls Simon Peter.  In the original Greek, the word is petros, meaning a piece of rock, or something that can be easily thrown.  That is a very apt description of Peter's life at the time, when he was seemingly always getting his foot caught in his mouth, making great professions only to fall in the next instance.  He is, seemingly, all over the place.  When Jesus talks about the rock upon which he will build his church, he uses the word petra meaning a rock that cannot be moved.  There are two possibilities here.  One, the rock refers back to Peter's confession of faith as Jesus as the Christ the Son of the living God.  That is definitely unmovable, and the only way one can be a true Christian, that is by having made that confession at some point in our lives.

However, there is another possibility here that fits in with our name change theme.  Here Jesus could be saying you are Peter/Petros.  That is, you are easily swayed, all over the ballpark, can't be counted on at present.  However, you will become Petra or something which is immoveable.  We know after Peter denies the Lord, is restored and filled with the Spirit that he is a totally changed man.  Never again will he deny his Lord, but will remain steadfast to his death by crucifixion years later.  If the latter is the case, then it would show that Jesus was trying to plant a vision of what Peter could become.  Yes, he was a pebble, easily flung about, but he could become petra, or something immoveable that stood firm, no matter what.


7.  From Saul to Paul

As I close this study I want to look at the Apostle Paul, Originally called Saul. He was a persecutor of the church and zealous in what he felt God wanted him to do. Then he has a vision of Jesus and became a changed man, who ultimately becomes the Apostle Paul.

Saul is a Hebrew word meaning to ask or demand.  The first King of Israel, Saul, though nominally Jewish, persecuted David, the true man of God and the one whom God had anointed to replace him when he died.  In the same manner, Saul, a Pharisee, strict observer of the law, believing he was doing God's will, persecuted the Christians, thinking that would please God.  Then, after getting permission from the High Priests he goes to Damascus with the intent of persecuting the Christians there. However, before he gets to that he encounters Jesus and is changed forever.

The name Paul comes from a root word meaning to pause, stop, restrain, quit, desist, come to an end.  It can also mean to cease, leave, and restrain. This is a very apt description of the Apostle Paul.  He immediately ceases to persecute the church and instead becomes the Christian's greatest defender. He writes about 1/4 of the New Testament.  So in his case, the name change would have been a reflection of what was going on in Paul's life, and what he would become.  It was indicative of what had happened in his encounter with Jesus.  The old Saul, persecutor of the church, was dead.  The new Paul, defender of the church, was born.

In summation then Biblical name changes took place either:

1.  To plant a vision in someone

2.  As a reflection of where they are at the moment, and where God is taking them

3.  As a reflection of where a person was, and what they could/would become


Is a name change for everyone?  No, if you are happy with your name and have no desire to change then don’t.  Keep your name and be happy. However, if one wants to make a new start, wants to establish their own persona, and God is leading them in the decision, it may be a very good decision.