Why did God change people’s names in the Bible?
Beginning with Abraham, Sarah, and Jacob, and going into the New Testament when Jesus changes Simon’s name to Peter, God has been changing people’s names throughout Scripture. But to many people this is a strange thing.
God changes people’s names for several reasons. The main reason for name changes is that these people have an overwhelming experience with God. It presents a change in their character, their way of thinking, or even their way of life.
In Hebrew culture, a name is not just a designation like it is today. Every name has a meaning. That’s still true for names today. But in Bible culture, a name not only represents a designation and a meaning but your character and sometimes the way your life will go.
Jacob is an example of character change. He was in the midst of coming back home from being away for many years. On his way back he was worried about what Esau, his brother, would do to him and his people. So he split up his camp into two groups and sent one ahead.
That night, Jacob wrestled with an angel (Genesis 32:22-32). The angel fought with him until he dislocated Jacob’s hip. Jacob asked the angel to bless him. The battle was finally over when the angel asked Jacob what his name was. The name, “Jacob” means, “Heel grabber” or “Deceiver.”
Jacob was originally named because of the circumstances of his birth. He grabbed his brothers heel to try to be first. But Esau was the first twin to arrive on the scene (Genesis 25:19-28). For most of his life, this ability to deceive others was how he got ahead. But the angel was about to change everything.
His deceptive nature and character were exactly what the angel was addressing when it demanded to know his name. To know his name is to know his character. To speak his name is to tell of the kind of person he is.
The angel showed him that he did not have to deceive to get his way. He could live in the blessing of the Lord. But because of the experience of learning about his new character, Jacob’s name was changed to “Israel.”
The name is fitting because he becomes the father of the twelve tribes of Israel. But more than that, it is a name that constantly reminds him of fighting with the angel. “Israel” means, “He fights with God.” Every time Jacob heard his new name, he was reminded that he didn’t have to deceive to be blessed. He was reminded of the lesson the angel taught him that night.
Other times and name is given by parents for the situation of a person’s birth. Take, for example, Isaac. His name means, “laughter.” When God told Sarah that she would have a son in her old age, she laughed in disbelief (Genesis 18:9-15).
But when she had Isaac, they named him because of their great joy which overflowed and laughter (Genesis 21:5-7). He was named not for the laughter of disbelief but for the laughter of joy as the promised son.
Abraham’s name is changed when God gives them the promise of a son, an heir to continue the family name and receive the inheritance. His first name, “Abram” meant “Exalted father.” But Abraham means, “Father of many peoples.” And he becomes the father of several nations.
His first son Ishmael became the father of twelve nations. Today he is the great ancestor of the Arab peoples. Isaac would continue the line toward the Israelites. In between, several other nations are attributed to Abraham’s line.
In the New Testament, Jesus changes Simon’s name to Peter, which means “Rock” (Matthew 16:15-19). He does this after Simon Peter answers the question, “Who do people say I am?” Simon Peter says, “You are the Christ, the Son of God” (Matthew 16:16).
Jesus says that this wasn’t revealed to Peter on his own. It was revealed by the Father. And because of his foundational confession of faith in Jesus, Peter is named “Rock. ”Jesus builds his church upon this rock, the faith-filled confession that declares Jesus the Christ, the Son of God.
It didn’t hurt that Simon was quite the hardheaded person. Sometimes the name can be used in several ways for the person’s character. But name changes usually have to do with the change in a person’s life because they meet the God of the universe. And they are forever changed.
For every person who believes in Christ, there is a name change and a way of life change. We become “Christians.” And we are called, “children of God” (John 1:12; 1 John 3:1). We are new creatures in Christ and we have a new identity, a new way of life. When we meet the living God, our lives are changed forever. And a change like that requires a new creature in Christ to be named after his or her Creator.