Recently, the subject of names became very important to me, as my wife and I anticipated the birth of our first child. Being from an Ashkenazic background, our choices of names were narrowed—and aided—somewhat by the tradition of naming one’s children after deceased relatives. But even then we discovered, as multitudes of other Jewish parents had before us, that we faced a dilemma.
How could we name the child after relative A” without offending “B’s” side of the family’ Oh yes, names are important—so important that choosing them can give you a headache!
It’s not only for the sake of family peace that names are important. Names matter also for the sake of the psychological well-being of the child. Who could succeed in life with a name like Murgatroyd Farnsworth? Who could live happily ever after with a “handle” like Cinderella Lipschitz? And why bother living at all with a name like Brentwood Klotz? Yes, names are very important.
The story is told of a mother who was dressing her child in his best clothing in preparation for his very first day of public school. “Now, be sure to smile at the teacher, Tattele.” “Don’t get your shirt dirty when you eat, Tattele.” And with all of this coaching ringing in his young ears, he was off to school.
That afternoon, when he returned, his proud mother could hardly wait to hear the glowing reports of her young genius’ first day in the halls of academia. “Nu, Tattele, so tell me what you learned today?” Looking chagrined, he replied, “I learned that my name is Irving!”
Names are very important. They matter to children, to parents, and to families alike.
Names also mattered to the sages of Israel. They reflected on the one hand that “It is the custom of the righteous to name their children from some event which has occurred” (Exodus Rabbah on Exodus 2:22). On the other hand they said, “The ancients, because they could avail themselves of the Holy Spirit, named themselves in reference to [forthcoming! events…” (Genesis Rabbah on Genesis 10:25).
Naming a person with reference to a future event is in accord with how God Himself engages in granting names. The names which God has bestowed tell much about the destiny of their bearers and of the Jewish people as a whole.
For example, God changed Abram’s name to Abraham in order to signify that he was to become the father of many nations (Genesis 17:5). Jacob was given a new name when his lifetime of struggle culminated in a nighttime wrestling match with a heavenly being. This heavenly being declared that Jacob would henceforth be called Israel—one who strives with God—because he had striven with God and prevailed (Genesis 32:28).
What Names Tell Us
In Biblical times, the correlation between a person’s name and his very being was recognized as total. A striking example may be found in the experience of Moses as recorded in Exodus, Chapter 33. Moses asks God for a more intimate revelation of Himself: “Then Moses said, ‘Now show me your glory.’ And the Lord said, ‘I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence.'”
God responded to Moses’ request to know Him more fully by promising to reveal His Name to Moses, thus equating knowledge of the name with knowledge of the person.
Against such a background, it is not surprising to discover that the rabbis of Israel sought diligently to ascertain the name, or names, of the Messiah; for to know the Messiah’s name would mean to have a more intimate knowledge of the Messiah himself. In exploring this matter, the rabbis drew upon their intimate knowledge of the Jewish Scriptures. In some cases, they deduced the Messiah’s name from passages which were clearly Messianic. In other cases, their deductions involved texts which would not normally have been considered applicable, but which were thought to have a hidden Messianic meaning. The following passages from midrash commentaries are typical:
“What is the name of King Messiah?” Rabbi Abba B. Kahana said: His name is ‘The Lord’;
as it is stated, “and this is the name whereby He shall be called ‘The Lord is our Righteousness.'” (Jeremiah 23:6) The school of Rabbi Shila said: The Messiah’s name is ‘Shiloh’;
as it is stated, “until Shiloh comes.” (Genesis 49:10) The school of Rabbi Hanina said: His name is ‘Hanina’;
as it is stated, “I will not give you Hanina (favor).” (Jeremiah 16:13) The school of Rabbi Jannai said: His name is ‘Yinnon’;
for it is written, “Ere the sun was, His name is Yinnon (will continue).” (Psalm 72:17) Others say, “The Messiah is called by eight names:”
Yinnon (Will Continue)
‘Avi ‘Ad Shalom (Eternal Father of Peace)1
It is fascinating to note, however, that when the Messiah of Israel did enter human history, God chose for him a name which was different from all the names which the rabbis postulated. Yet his name summarizes and encompasses much of what the Scriptures have to say about the Messiah.
What The Scriptures Say
The naming of the Messiah is recorded in the first chapter of the Gospel According to Matthew. In that account, Matthew describes an angel’s visit to Joseph, who was to become the guardian of the Messiah. (Angelic visitations preceding the birth of significant figures in Biblical history are not unusual. The births of Isaac and of Samson, for instance, were each preceded by an angelic visitor.) In Matthew’s account, the angel speaks to Joseph of the birth of the Messiah in these words: “She (Miriam) will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Yeshua, because he will save his people from their sins.”
Much may be learned about the Messiah from considering this brief text. The name Yeshua is necessarily the name of a human being: “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Yeshua.” Although it may seem obvious to many that the Messiah would be a human being, it is necessary to reaffirm this fact because we live in a day when religious thought is influenced by science fiction. And indeed, many allusions to a Messiah figure can be found in sci-fi films and books. But no, the Messiah could neither be an angel, nor some kind of extraterrestrial humanoid. He had to be a man. This is necessary for a number of reasons:
First, he had to be a man in order to satisfy the demands of prophecy. The prophets predicted numerous times that the Messiah would be born as a human being. Isaiah wrote of him: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on His shoulders…Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end.” Clearly the Messiah would be a human being.
Secondly, he had to be a man in order to satisfy the demands of God’s justice. The Scriptures reveal that one of the Messiah’s tasks was to offer Himself as a korban—a sacrifice—for the sins of His people. Although this understanding seems foreign to many Jews today, it was once widely accepted. For example, in the Midrash on the Book of Ruth, an allegorical interpretation is given to explain Ruth 2:14: “At mealtime Boaz said to her, ‘Come over here. Have some bread and dip it in the wine vinegar.”‘ The following is written: “The fifth interpretation (of Ruth 2:14) makes it refer to the Messiah.’Come hither’ means approach to royal state. ‘And eat of the bread’ refers to the bread of royalty; ‘And dip thy morsel in the vinegar’ refers to His sufferings as it is said, ‘But He was wounded because of our transgressions (Isaiah 53:5).”‘ If the Messiah was to suffer because of our transgressions, as our substitute, it is appropriate that he be a man.
Thirdly, the Messiah had to be a man to satisfy our need for a compassionate high priest. While it is well known that the Messiah would be a king, not so well known is his function as a priest—i.e. one who represents his people’s cause to God. Yet this is what the prophet Zechariah declared in Zechariah 6:13, where he said that the Messiah would sit as a priest upon his throne.2 In order for him to be a compassionate high priest, he needed to be one of us.
More Than A Man
Not only is Yeshua the name of a man, but Yeshua is necessarily the name of one who was to be more than a man. Indeed, the Jewish Scriptures say that the Messiah would be called God. Two passages often used by the rabbis in reference to the Messiah clearly teach this: “The days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up to David a righteous branch, a king who will reign wisely and do what is right and just in the land. In his days, Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. This is the name by which he will be called: The Lord Our Righteousness” (Jeremiah 23:5-6). “And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).3
Finally, Yeshua is necessarily the name of the only one through whom we can find salvation. An examination of the meaning of the name and its background in the Jewish Scriptures reveals why this is so.
Yeshua means “the Lord saves.” It involves a combination of the name YHWH (the Ineffable Name) and the Hebrew root YASHA’.4 YASHA’ is related to an Arabic word, “to make wide, to make sufficient” as contrasted with TSARAR, meaning “narrow.” Wideness came to connote “freedom” or “safety” which led to the root YASHA’, having the meaning: to be delivered to a position of freedom or safety.
In the Tenach, God is presented as the source of salvation, “Our God is a God who saves” (Psalm 68:20). Human agents are effective only as they are empowered by God. Ultimately, salvation had only one source—The Lord:
“…And there is no God apart from me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none but me. Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other” (Isaiah 45:21b,22).
Although many of our people assume that the Tenach speaks only of salvation from physical distress, this is not so; the concept developed in the sacred writings to specify the promise of salvation from sin:
Salvation From What?
“They will no longer defile themselves with their idols and vile images or with any of their offenses, for I will save them from all their dwelling places where they sinned, and I will cleanse them. They will be my people, and I will be their God…” (Ezekiel 37:23).
“Save me from bloodguilt, O God, the God who saves me, and my tongue will sing of your righteousness” (Psalm 51:14). “Help us, O God, our Savior, for the glory of your name; deliver us and atone for our sins, for your name’s sake” (Psalm 79:9).
Indeed, in Jeremiah 17:14 salvation is portrayed as a means of healing the effects of sin in our life and our relationship with God: “Heal me, O Lord, and I will be healed; save me and I will be saved, for you are the one I praise.” Jeremiah also specifies that God’s chosen agent of salvation is the Messiah. We see this in the passage quoted earlier (Jeremiah 23:6).
The Inevitable Name
The divine choice of Yeshua as the name for the Messiah has a “holy inevitability” and an iron clad logic. Salvation comes only from the Lord. The Messiah is the One through whom God accomplishes and culminates salvation. No wonder, then, that the angel told Joseph, “You are to give him the name Yeshua—the Lord saves—for he will save his people from their sins.”
It is Yeshua who brings us deliverance from the distress of our sins, bringing wholeness instead of woe.
“But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities, the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).
Why should the name Yeshua be important to us to day?
“Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
- Quoted in The Messiah Texts, Raphael Patai. Avon, NY. p. 21-22. First quote from Lam. Rab. 1:51 p.36 ad Lam. 1:16; second from Midrash Mishle, ed. by Solomon Buber. Published in Vilna, 1893, p.87.
- See Numbers Rabbati Soncino edition, page 734 for evidence that ancient Jewish opinion applied this passage to Messiah.
- That ancient Jewish opinion accorded these passages Messianic significance may be seen by examining the Midrash passages quoted earlier in this article.
- Material on word derivation From Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Harris, Archer, Waltke, eds.; Moody Press, Chicago, 1980, pp.414-416.