Names are interesting things. We are given them for a lifetime, yet have no say in what they are. That could be a good thing (Brian, Ashley) or a very bad thing (Moon Unit, Apple). We all know people who don’t like their names (any boy named Leslie), people whose parents couldn’t spell (Graclyn), and people whose names we wish we had (Rhianna, Powers Booth).
Names can make for interesting stories. My mother’s name is Blanche, which as you might guess is a relatively unusual name. When she was in high school, a guy trying to “chat her up” (sorry, too many British comedies on PBS) asked her her name. When she replied, he said, “Really, that’s my mother’s name!” Now, that line might work when your name is Susan or Melissa, but not so much when your name is Blanche. Except that it turned out his mother’s name really was Blanche. Small world.
Then there are our married (to each other) friends Ken and Barbie. Really. Not only are those their names, but they look like Ken and Barbie. They’re both blond and beautiful, drive a Jammin’ Jeep, and live in a 3-story dream townhouse. OK, I made those last two up, but they really do look like you would expect Ken and Barbie to look if they were real people. And, if your name is Barbie, can you really marry anyone except someone named Ken? Of course not, it would be a violation of the laws of the universe.
Today, we don’t pay much attention to name’s meanings when we’re handing them out to our kids. In Old Testament times, names meant something, so when your parent named you, they were putting words to your (future) character, for good or for bad (Jacob [Yaakov] means “deceiver”). If your character changed significantly enough when you were older, you were given a new name, e.g. Jacob’s name was changed to Israel (He who Strives with God) after his wrestling match in Genesis 32:24-32.
We handle things a little differently now. Instead of giving someone a new name, we give them an additional name, a nickname (from a mis-pronunciation of Old English “an ekename,” which meant, literally, “second name”). Nicknames are similar to our given names in that we usually don’t have any input, but they’re dissimilar in that they usually reflect something about us: our character, our abilities, or simply an affectionate name someone has for us. (I’m speaking of true nicknames, not stage names and not the phrases we used in seventh grade to belittle someone we didn’t understand.)
Nicknames can be cool (“The King”), intimidating (“The Rock”), or endearing (“Lady Bird”). They can speak to our abilities (“Sultan of Swat”), our actions (“Elvis the Pelvis”), or a random phrase applied to us that sticks (“Babe” Ruth). They can become so much a part of us that our given name is forgotten — do you know Billy the Kid’s real name? Wild Bill Hickock’s? Lady Bird Johnson’s?
I came across a great nickname this week. I’m reading through the Bible chronologically, so I’m in the middle of Genesis (this plan has Job following Gen 12). As I was reading about Jacob’s confrontation with his father-in-law in Gen 31, I ran across this phrase in Gen 31:42 (it’s still amazing to me how often we can read something in the Bible and still see something new every time):
The God of my father, the God of Abraham, and the Fear of Isaac … (emphasis mine)
A few verses later (v53), it says that Jacob swore by “the Fear of his father Isaac.” In both places, in most modern translations, Fear is capitalized, making it clear that the phrase isn’t referring to Jacob’s emotions, but to the same one alluded to in the phrase “God of Abraham.” In other words, “The Fear” is one of Jacob’s nicknames for God (these two verses are the only places in the Bible the phrase appears).
Is that a great nickname or what? “The Fear.” That makes “The Rock” look like “The Paper Mâché.” What’s really interesting is that, unlike our nicknames, this one doesn’t refer to part of God’s character or nature or abilities, but to how we should feel when we’re in His presence. The word translated “fear” here is most often translated “dread” or “terror” elsewhere in Scripture.
When we think of God, and His son Jesus, I think we should remember two things. We should remember that God spoke to Moses “as a man speaks to his friend,” that one of the last things Jesus told the disciples was that He once called them servants but now He called them “friends.” We should remember that God is our Father, He loves us, He loves to visit with us, He calls us His “friends” as well as His children.
And we should remember “The Fear.”