By Israel Drazin
It appears that many ancients and modern people changed their names because of alterations in circumstances, for better or worse, or the hope that circumstances would improve. Examples of hopeful improvements in Judaism include the practice of some Jews changing the names of very sick people with faith that the angel of death, who is looking for an individual with a certain name, won’t be able to locate him or her since the name is different. A similar superstitious practice is to take a new name when one has bad luck. On a positive side, many Jews dropped Diaspora names and took on biblical names to identify with the reestablished State of Israel. Also, many ancient and current monarchs, Jewish and non-Jewish, used different names when they became kings. The biblical commentator Rashbam states that it is customary to change a person’s name when his status changes, as in Numbers 13:16 and Daniel 1:7, where Joshua’s and Daniel’s names were changed.
Four prominent early biblical figures had their names changed. Three were men and one a woman. The new names of one man and one woman, Abraham and Sarah, stuck. The substitute name of one, Joseph, is mentioned once, but never again. The fourth, Jacob, received the name Israel, and was thereafter sometimes called Jacob, his former name, and sometimes Israel, the latter one. One prominent biblical figure, Isaac, had no name change.
(Many commentators suppose that Abraham and Sarah received an additional Hebrew letter hay to their name because for Abraham the additional letter made his name mean “the father of a multitude of nations” (Genesis 17:8) and for Sarah it caused her name to mean that “she shall be a mother of nations” (17:16). Actually their former names Abram and Sarai already indicate this and the hay adds no additional meaning. Others argue that the hay indicates “God”: they were both elevated spiritually because God entered their lives. However, the Bible states clearly in several places that Abram and Sarai had contacts with God at an earlier time. Additionally, while many people use a hay today to indicate God’s name without writing the name in full, this practice did not exist during the biblical period, so the hay was not a substitute for God’s name. We have no idea of the significance of this hay)
Why were these names changed? It appears that the new names indicate the assumption of new roles. Abraham and Sarah would now bear a son who together with Abraham’s former son and the children they and their descendants would have would make them the father and mother of nations. Since this role focuses on future events that will not change, their new names remain. In fact the Babylonian Talmud, in Berakhot 13a, wonders why Nehemiah 9:7 uses Abram. It explains that Nehemiah was speaking about Abraham’s early life.
Joseph was given a new name by Pharaoh, Zaphenath-paneach, to mark his contribution to Egyptian society. We no longer know the meaning of the name. Some scholars think it is Hebrew and means he who unraveled what is hidden. Others think it is Egyptian because Pharaoh would not give Joseph a Hebrew name. The sage Abraham ibn Ezra quipped “If this is an Egyptian word. We do not know its meaning; if it is a translation [of the Egyptian name], we do not know Joseph’s [Egyptian] name.” In any event, since this name change focuses on a past deed, and has no significance regarding the Israelites, the Bible does not call Joseph by this name.
Jacob was named Israel because he “wrestled with God and men” and prevailed. Whenever Jacob showed this courage, he is called Israel. (Is it possible that some rabbis interpreted some biblical verses which mention the name Jacob as referring to women because they disparaged women? This practice continues today with some schools that teach girls being called Bais Yaakov.)
It may be that Isaac received no a new name because he was involved in no significant biblical act other than being passive in the story of his near-sacrifice by his father and being tricked by his wife and son who stole the blessing he intended to give to Esau.