Why did biblical people so fluidly change their names? With Amminadab meaning “my kinsman [are] noble”, did he change to that name later on or was his family cocky when he was born?

Why do individuals change their names so often in the bible? One reason might be literary convenience. I have always read Ruth as a fictional allegory, kind of like the text Everyman, which has characters who stand for things–Good deeds, Fellowship, Death, etc.–because the characters aren’t the point, just concepts in the moral message of the story. I read once that the Wizard of Oz is just such a story, where the Wizard is a populist president like Trump running OZ (DC?) from behind a curtain, while the  other characters also have political significance: Dorothy is the heartland, and Scarecrow, Tin Woodsman, and Cowardly lion represent various political responses to the heartland.

If we read Ruth the way we read the allegory Everyman, we realize that this short story would have been understood as a morality tale by Hebrew-speaking people. In a morality tale, names are symbolic from the start, which makes them easy to change. Why would a parent name her child “sickness”? Bad luck!  It’s like a friend of mine who named his cats “Speedbump” and “Antifreeze” because he wanted to be prepared for disaster. That’s why I would argue that Ruth is an allegory, where all the characters represent a quality in a moral drama, much like the English story “Everyman.” The names tell us to read this story as a morality tale, not a biography.

By the way, I think Genesis 2.2’s creation story is kind of similar. You have a character named “Clay” who meets a character called “Life-Breath” and they marry. They have a child named “Breath” who dies young, and another child named “Compensation” (Seth) as a replacement. So either God named these characters with a sense of irony, or Genesis 2.2’s creation story was always meant to be read symbolically, not literally. I realize that’s a controversial position to take.

On the other hand, maybe people really did change their names. If you google this question, you’ll get lots of Christian web sites that analyze the name changes as transformation, and that’s certainly what happens in Ruth. But is that always what happens? For example, in Genesis God changes Jacob’s name to Isra-el to show Jacob’s connection to the nation. But why didn’t God start Jacob out with that name? I have always thought the name changes solves a problem in the sources, where the character has one name in the southern text and another in the northern text. In Exodus, for example, Moses goes up “Mt Sinai” in one source and “Mt Moriah” in another. Let’s say one source, probably E, used Israel and another, probably J and P, used “Jacob.” (The first name has El in it, the second Yahweh). The the editor merged the sources and used the name change to explain why there were two different names in the source.

Now let’s look at an example of a character we are sure existed. According to tradition, Paul’s name changed to Saul on the road to Damascus after he had a vision about Jesus saying “Why do you persecute me, Saul?” What was the point of that name change? Well, first, according to Acts, the name change actually happened way after the conversion, in Cyprus, but the story was revised so name change coincided with Paul’s conversion. Perhaps Paul saw it as a kind of “rebranding moment.” What do I mean by that? The truth is, most Jews had a Hebrew name (Saul) and a Greek name (Paul). So when the Jewish Saul changes his name to the Greek Paul, he might have been making a point about abandoning his Jewish destiny for his world destiny (Greece being the world, according to the author of John’s gospel.)

For another take, a scholar named Timothy Seymour argued in 1983 that people in the ancient near east associated names with destinies, and that the ultimate greatness was for God to speak one’s name. People equated names with souls, so it would make sense that if one’s destiny changed because of God, one’s name would too. Here’s a link to his article: https://escholarship.org/uc/item/3dg0m1cj

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