I always thought it would be fun to have twins. Matching babies are so cute dressed up in identical outfits, wheeled out on display in a double stroller for the world to stop and coo over. The reality of having two babies at once is so much different than the dream world of matching outfits and adorable pictures.
When I read Genesis 25, I think that Rebekah and Isaac must have felt as ill prepared as any first-time parents. They had waited so long for these twin babies through the grueling journey of infertility. Rebekah’s pregnancy was so difficult that she cried out to God, asking Him what was going on within her.
No mother wants there to be animosity and fighting between her children, whether it’s a simple argument in the backseat or, as in this family’s case, a full- blown war. In addition to a difficult pregnancy, Rebekah had the stress of know- ing that her boys would cause the family constant anguish through their hostility.
After the twins were born, Rebekah and Isaac’s circumstances must have been both anxious and exhausting. So I want to be as understanding as possible toward this couple of inexperienced parents when it comes to naming their twin boys. But it seems odd to me in a family with such a rich history of naming stories that they didn’t put more thought into the process. In fact, they seem to have chosen the first names that popped into their heads when the boys were born. That’s the only explanation I can think of for the unusual names these twins ended up with.
Their firstborn was covered from head to toe in red hair, so they named him Harry, which in Hebrew was Esau. Original, right? When they got really creative with a nickname, they called the kid Edom, or Red. No baby-naming books needed here. They just went with their first impression.
As Esau was born they noticed that a little hand was tightly gripping his heel, as if to say, “Oh no you don’t! I want to be first!” The new parents took one look at that little hand and named their baby Grabby, which to us is the name Jacob.
Perhaps more than in any other story in the Bible, Jacob’s character was shaped from the beginning by his name. It not only rejected the circumstances of his birth, since he was grabbing at his brother’s heel, but in some contexts Jacob also means “Deceiver,” “Taker of What Is Not His.” This unfortunate connotation had a deep impact on the person Jacob would become.
Most biblical names were given with one of two purposes: to mark the circumstances surrounding a person’s birth or to describe specific character traits or gifts the child would grow to have.
Jacob’s name was both. His name started out as one that told the story of his birth—grabbing his brother ’s heel—and ended up describing the character trait for which he was best known—grabbing what was not his. The double meaning of his name had unintentional consequences as Jacob grew into his name and its character. Sometimes our names do come to have double meanings.
As a pastor, I find it’s always an amazing privilege to baptize people, whether adults or little children. When we are baptizing children, we always begin the ceremony by asking the parents a simple question: “What name is given this child?” In answering, the parents are given a chance to state the child’s name out loud to their community of faith. They are introducing the child publicly into a new family and declaring aloud the name they have chosen, the name by which this child will be known by family and friends and by God Himself.
In reality, parents answer the question “What name is given this child?” far more times than once. There is, of course, the moment they have to fill out an official birth certificate, but after that there will be countless opportunities to speak words over the child that will mark his or her future with either hope and promise or disappointment and despair. There are proper names we all go by, but there also are names that are hidden—seldom spoken descriptions that we receive branded on some internal name-tag.
In some families, children are marked with beautiful, positive words that will help them grow in confidence. In others, they are scarred with words that will become unofficial nicknames of negativity, names that brand them in ways they will struggle with for a long time. If we’re honest, most of our families have given us both.
The truth is that our internal name-tags are filled with both kinds of names: those that we have been given by people who shower us with encouragement and admiration, and those that have been given in careless moments of criticism. The reminder that we are also accountable for naming the people we love with our words is a sobering and sacred responsibility.
The challenge in life is to sort out the names on our internal name-tags. We need to recognize and accept the names we have been given that God nods and smiles at, ones given by people speaking with God’s Spirit and His character. He definitely uses people as His mouthpieces to push us forward in life to discover the identity that He has created for us.
We also need to identify which names are ones that don’t fit God’s vision and identity for us—harmful names spoken in haste or hate or anger, names that we will be better off allowing God to erase. For most of us, discovering and changing those names will be a lifelong endeavor, but awareness is a crucial first step.
The names that matter, the names that should stick, are the names given us by our heavenly Father. The Bible is full of the beautiful, life-giving names that God so lovingly gives us.
God often speaks to us through His words in Scripture. He can also speak through people who love and affirm us. And on certain occasions He speaks directly to our hearts. The names God gives are the ones that should stick for a lifetime. All others must fade away to make room for His dreams for us.
Jacob’s story teaches us that words matter, no matter how small. As we continue to follow his story throughout the week, I hope it also will teach us that no name is permanent if God wants to change it. It doesn’t matter how it is given or who gives it or how much it seems to mark us for life; God always has the power to start us over on a better-named path, showering us with His grace.