Monday, October 13, 2008
It’s an intriguing question that’s been around for as long as parents have given their children names: Do our names influence our personalities and character? When we named our oldest son Henry, we didn’t take seriously the meaning of his name–“ruler of the household”–and the possible ramifications on our family until it was too late. He sure thinks he’s the ruler!
But I digress. Aside from New Age claims by numerologists, most psychologists see no determination of character or personality based on name only. They do agree, however, that given names can influence the formation of self-concept. That is, how we think of ourselves has at least some to do with our names and how others attribute certain characteristics to us based on, among other things, our names.
I noticed recently that all four of the major presidential and VP candidates bear biblical names, an unusual coincidence this time around. And I began to wonder if there was any connection between the men and woman who are running for the White House and their biblical namesakes–John, Sarah, Joseph, and Barack. So, for fun, I have done a little research on the biblical characters for whom our prospective presidents and vice presidents are named. And you can judge for yourself if there is any relationship at all.
There are two major biblical figures named John (Hebrew = Yochanan): John the Baptist and the Apostle John.
John the Baptist was a non-conformist, a prophet who spoke truth to power. He bucked established, polite categories and opted to simply go down to the Jordan River, calling people of all stripes to a new way. He wasn’t afraid to rock the boat or offer a little straight talk to those who were too big for their britches. At one point, John called some uptight Pharisees and Saducees a “brood of vipers” to their faces (Matthew 3:7). Talk about uncouth. But it was John the Baptist’s fearless and–dare I say it?–maverick streak that ultimately was his undoing. John denounced King Herod Antipas because Herod had married his brother’s wife Herodias. So Herod threw John in prison (something like a POW?) to silence him. But Herodias carried a grudge against John. And when her daughter won over the king’s favor, Herodias took advantage of the situation, asked for John the Baptist’s head on a platter, and got it (Matthew 14:1-12 & parallel).
The other John, the apostle, was a revered figure in the early church. A humble fisherman by trade, John followed Jesus and became a member of the inner circle, along with his brother James and Peter. He often referred to himself anonymously as the “beloved disciple,” humbly deflecting any credit–kind of like Country God First. Church tradition holds that the sagacious apostle eventually settled in Ephesus (in Asia Minor) and lived to be–ahem–very old.
Brash truth teller, or wise old leader? You be the judge.
The name Sarah means “princess,” and with the news that Sarah Palin is related to the late Princess Diana, the name takes on a new dimension. Sarah, the wife of Abraham, was a very *cough, cough* beautiful woman (Genesis 12:10). But unlike Governor Palin, the biblical Sarah was unable to conceive children. Only when Sarah was 90 years old did God finally give her a son, Isaac. In that way, both Sarahs knew what it was like to give birth in old-ish age. On the flip side, we catch a glimpse of Sarah’s scheming, manipulative nature in Genesis 16. Desperate to have a son, Sarah took matters into her own hands: Abraham would sleep with Hagar, Sarah’s slave girl, and their offspring would be considered her own. There were even some not-so-subtle whispers around that the child was actually not Sarah’s, but that’s beside the point…really. And, of course, this created a messy, scandalous soap opera that God had to sort out in the end using an ethics investigation. All shortcomings aside, Sarah is regarded as a great matriarch of the faith, an ancestor of the Messiah (see Hebrews 11:11).
Beautiful princess, or manipulator extraordinaire? You be the judge.
Like John, there are two major Josephs (Hebrew = Yosef) in the Bible: Joseph the son of Jacob and Joseph the foster-father of Jesus.
The Old Testament Joseph was the favorite son of Jacob and stars in his own, long-winded, complicated, interminable novella (Genesis 37, 39-50). Joe was a prideful little scamp, always willing to gush on about his privileged status in the family and his dreams that featured him ruling over his brothers. Of course, all this irritated the dickens out of his brothers, who (for good reason) considered killing him. But as he matured and faced the realities of life, Joseph became a competent man who stuck to his principles. By the way, Joseph son of Jacob and Joseph Biden know what it’s like to rise through the ranks only to be stuck playing second fiddle to a more powerful man.
The New Testament Joseph got a raw deal in life. Just when things seemed to be getting on track, his fiance turned up prego with someone else’s child! What a blow to his life! How would he respond? He could have folded and moved on with life–leaving her as history. But Joe dug down a little deeper and found his inner family man; he was a “righteous man,” after all (Matthew 1:19). Joseph pushed on and took Mary as his wife and raised Jesus as his own, fiercely protecting him from all the dangers that faced him. (see Matthew 2:13-14).
Obedient defender of his family, or self-absorbed twirp? You be the judge.
Frankly, Sen. Obama drew the short straw when it comes to names. Barak (note the variant spelling here) means “thunderbolt,” which is 37 kinds of cool. But Barak the man was less than electrifying. It turns out he had a woman problem. In those days before the kings, Deborah–a woman prophet–was judge over Israel. Speaking God’s word, she summoned Barak to take 10,000 soldiers and go out to defeat the evil king’s armies, who were led by a general named Sisera. It was an assured victory; a clear message from the Lord! But Barak buckled. His faith caved, and his cowardly nature shone through. Barak said to Deborah–a woman–“If you go with me, I will go; but if you don’t go with me, I won’t go” (Judges 4:8 NIV). So Michelle Deborah held his hand and accompanied him into battle. And, of course, by God’s sure decree, Barak routed Sisera’s armies and pursued them until no one was left alive. But there was no honor for Barak, because the Lord handed Sisera over to–yes, that’s right–the woman Deborah (Judges 4:9). No, Barak was never much of a closer. In fact, Sisera fled and was eventually killed by–drumroll, please–a woman named Hillary. No, I’m just kidding. Her name was Jael, the wife of Heber (Judges 4:17-22). Barak was a good soldier, and there is nothing in the Bible that questions his integrity. But he was no leader. In fact, he relied on a strong woman to give him direction and another strong woman to finish the job for him–something that overshadows his achievements on the pages of the Bible.
Able foot soldier, or cowardly mama’s boy? You be the judge.