Wrestling with a Name

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Wrestling with a Name

Genesis 29:31–30:24

When the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren. Leah conceived and bore a son, and she named him Reuben; for she said, “Because the Lord has looked on my affliction; surely now my husband will love me.” She conceived again and bore a son, and said, “Because the Lord has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also”; and she named him Simeon. Again she conceived and bore a son, and said, “Now this time my husband will be joined to me, because I have borne him three sons”; therefore he was named Levi. She conceived again and bore a son, and said, “This time I will praise the Lord”; therefore she named him Judah; then she ceased bearing.

When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister; and she said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die!” Jacob became very angry with Rachel and said, “Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?” Then she said, “Here is my maid Bilhah; go in to her, that she may bear upon my knees and that I too may have children through her.” So she gave him her maid Bilhah as a wife; and Jacob went in to her. And Bilhah conceived and bore Jacob a son. Then Rachel said, “God has judged me, and has also heard my voice and given me a son”; therefore she named him Dan. Rachel’s maid Bilhah conceived again and bore Jacob a second son. Then Rachel said, “With mighty wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister, and have prevailed”; so she named him Naphtali.

When Leah saw that she had ceased bearing children, she took her maid Zilpah and gave her to Jacob as a wife. Then Leah’s maid Zilpah bore Jacob a son. And Leah said, “Good fortune!” so she named him Gad. Leah’s maid Zilpah bore Jacob a second son. And Leah said, “Happy am I! For the women will call me happy”; so she named him Asher.

In the days of wheat harvest Reuben went and found mandrakes in the field, and brought them to his mother Leah. Then Rachel said to Leah, “Please give me some of your son’s mandrakes.” But she said to her, “Is it a small matter that you have taken away my husband? Would you take away my son’s mandrakes also?” Rachel said, “Then he may lie with you tonight for your son’s mandrakes.” When Jacob came from the field in the evening, Leah went out to meet him, and said, “You must come in to me; for I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes.” So he lay with her that night. And God heeded Leah, and she conceived and bore Jacob a fifth son. Leah said, “God has given me my hire because I gave my maid to my husband”; so she named him Issachar. And Leah conceived again, and she bore Jacob a sixth son. Then Leah said, “God has endowed me with a good dowry; now my husband will honor me, because I have borne him six sons”; so she named him Zebulun. Afterwards she bore a daughter, and named her Dinah.

Then God remembered Rachel, and God heeded her and opened her womb. She conceived and bore a son, and said, “God has taken away my reproach”; and she named him Joseph, saying, “May the Lord add to me another son!”

Matthew 12:38–42

“The Sign of Jonah1

Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth. The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here! The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here!

Naming was done in such a way as to present hopes or to express sentiments of the parents, especially during the birth of their children. With the importance and danger of childbirth in the ancient world, and the way, even today, childbirth has a powerful way of creating the social construct of family.

Just doing the role call at a family gathering would recount years of family conflict. The twin acts of deception and jealousy, which had characterized Jacob himself, through much of his life, flows through the pages in our hands, trickling down across the generations, through marriages, and raising children like a generational curse. This plot twist became a generational curse that would take God’s chosen people from their life in Canaan, ultimately into slavery in Egypt, due to their own jealous and deceptive acts, taught by their parents, and given to them in their very names. If you want to see all the mess that family can be, you will find a buffet of problems in the first book of the Bible alone.

Names can be blessings as well. For the most part, names themselves are not guarantees for either good or bad. The blessing of a name, and really any blessing for that matter, usually comes with the possibility of a downside if we do not handle it well. This may be why we struggle to be as thankful for these gifts as we perhaps could otherwise.

What about the name Jesus? What does it mean? The Bible tells us that it means “Savior”. I think our understanding of ‘savior’ is often a little shallow though. Jesus as our savior does more than just pull us back from the fire at the last moment. His work in saving us reflects God’s work in creating us from the beginning and the Holy Spirit’s work in transforming us today. The name of Jesus, the name of our God (to me at least) is the One who makes something good out of nothing. This was the name that Jonah knew God to be, and the reason he wanted to stay away from Ninevah. He wanted to keep God for the worthy, at least in his own regard, and Ninevah had no one who qualified. Solomon, on the other hand, knew he was nothing when he was made king. He made his first act as king to be seeking out this God who makes something good out of nothing and God did not disappoint Solomon.

What does God’s name mean to you?

What kind of meaning does your name have to those around you?


  1. (Lk 11:29–32)

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