The Importance of Biblical Names
Although, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” the same cannot be said for biblical names. Most who study the Scripture are aware that biblical names have significance. A name may say something about a character’s personality, or contribute in some way to the narrative in which that person appears. One of the most obvious examples of this is the name Jesus. Matthew relates the following instructions by the angel of the Lord to Joseph: “You shall call his name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). Of course the name, Jesus, or in Hebrew, Yeshua, comes from the word “to save,” and means “He will save.” On a few occasions, names are purposely changed in Scripture to suggest that person’s destiny, as in the case of Abram’s name being changed to Abraham (Gen. 17:5), or Jacob’s name being changed to Israel (Gen. 32:27-28). The same is true in the New Testament, where Jesus changes Simon’s name to Peter (Matt. 16:17-18).
I have found in my own experience in Bible study that names usually have some significance for the narrative in which they are found. Sometimes the biblical authors draw attention to the significance of the name (as in the cases above), but more frequently, the reader is left to see the significance for him or herself. For those who would have originally read these texts in Hebrew or Greek, the meanings of these names and how they relate to a particular story, or carry a particular significance, would have been more obvious. But since all of us are separated from the original culture of the Bible–being some two-to-three thousand years removed from it–and since a majority don’t read the Bible in the original Hebrew or Greek, the significance of many biblical names goes unnoticed.
From time to time on this website I’ll be posting articles on biblical names whose significance might not always be clear to those reading an English Bible. I’ve decided to launch this series by looking at the biblical character Abner, and the meaning of his name. Abner was the cousin or uncle of Saul (it’s not quite clear which he was), and commander of Israel’s army. The following information consists of several excerpts from my book Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel (the excerpts are placed in italics with a few minor alterations for the sake of this article). The excerpts are taken from the chapter entitled: “Abner: Strong Man in a Weak House.”
Abner: The King-maker
Abner’s name means, “my father is Ner,” (the first time Abner’s name occurs in the Hebrew text, it is spelled “Abiner.” Abi = “my father”). On nine occasions he is called “the son of Ner” (the passages are: 1 Sam. 14:50; 26:5, 14; 2 Sam. 2:8, 12; 3:23, 25, 28, 37). The name Ner, however, means “lamp,” and thus “Abner” means, “my father is a lamp.” In my opinion, it is interesting that “ner” is found in the name “Abner,” and also that he is called the “son of Ner” nine times! This seems excessive by any stretch, and suggests that the author has a deliberate reason for including it so many times. The word “lamp” is used on several occasions in the books of Samuel and Kings to refer to kingship (2 Sam. 21:17; 1 Kings 11:36; 15:4; 2 Kings 8:19), and several verses hint at the fact that Saul’s family was desirous of the kingship from the beginning (1 Sam. 9:20–21; 10:14–16). Abner is not only a powerful man, but, as we shall see, also a man who likes to wield power. Therefore, it is no accident that this man (whose name means “My father is a lamp”—think “king”) is introduced as the king’s right-hand-man, and later will fancy himself as a king-maker (2 Sam. 2:8; 3:12). The story of Abner is intimately connected with the story of the “ner ” (lamp/kingship) of Israel. (Family Portraits, pp. 136-137)
Abner Makes Ish-bosheth King (2 Samuel 2:8-9)
Following the death of Saul, David is anointed king in Hebron over Judah (2 Sam. 2:1–3). This could have been an opportunity for the entire nation to unite under David’s leadership, but instead we are informed that “Abner the son of Ner, commander of Saul’s army, took Ishbosheth the son of Saul and brought him over to Mahanaim; and he made him king” (vv. 8– 9a). Note the two ways Abner is identified in verse 8. First, Abner is called the “son of Ner”—as if we need reminding! This is the first of six uses of this appellative in 2 Samuel 2–3, its high concentration suggesting its connection with kingship. As “son of Ner” Abner acts as king-maker. Second, Abner is identified as “commander of Saul’s army.” It is his rank and the loyalty of his troops that give him the ability to make Ish-bosheth king. (Family Portraits, pp. 139-140)
Abner Seeks to Make David King of All Israel (2 Samuel 3:12-21)
Following a break with Ish-bosheth (probably because Abner realizes that David is much stronger and will soon rule all of Israel), Abner seeks to bring all Israel under David’s rule. After rallying the support of Benjamin, Saul’s own tribe, Abner sets off with a delegation to seal the deal (v. 19). Once again Abner regards himself as a king-maker, as he says, “I will arise and I will go, and I will gather all Israel to my lord the king, that they may make a covenant with you, and that you may reign over all that your heart desires” (my translation—v. 21). Note the triple “I” with Abner as subject, balanced by the triple “you” referring to David. Abner is proclaiming that he is the one who will make David’s dreams of kingship come true. Furthermore, it is probably not accidental that the appellative “son of Ner” is found on people’s lips four times in this section (v. 23, a soldier; v. 25, Joab; v. 28, David; v. 37, the narrator), reminding us that the “lamp man” is at work once again, attempting to put his own stamp on the kingship of Israel (Family Portraits, pp. 148-149).
Conclusion: Biblical Names Can Enhance the Meaning of a Character or Passage
In conclusion, Abner’s name contributes to his actions in the story. Just as he is constantly seeking to have a say in who will be king, so his name, Abner son of Ner, declares that he sees himself as a king-maker. The irony in Abner’s name is that he resists the real king (David) and when he finally reconciles himself to David’s kingship, it is too late. Joab’s sword puts an end to any hopes that Abner might have had of being second-in-command, or perhaps of manipulating David the way he had Ish-bosheth. Abner always backed the wrong horse. First it was Saul, then it was Ish-bosheth. This so-called “king-maker” did not recognize the real king until it was too late. And thus, Abner’s own name reveals that he is not the man he, and perhaps others, thought he was.