For the writers of the Bible, names are important. Abel’s name (הבל; Hevel), meaning “vapor” or “mist,” underscores the fact that he won’t last long. Noah (נוח; Noach), meaning “rest,” foreshadows the ark “resting” on dry land after the flood. Likewise, the Hebrew terms in the beginning of Ruth can clue us in to what’s coming in the narrative; the names that we encounter in Ruth highlight the difficulties of human existence, but also point to God’s presence and provision in the midst of uncertainty.

The opening verses of Ruth contain a wealth of meaning that we might not see when reading in English: “In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the field of Moab…. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife was Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion” (1:1-2). Starting with the final two names, Elimelech’s sons are called Mahlon (מחלון) and Chilion (כליון), which mean “sickly” and “frailty,” respectively. Thus, as with Abel, the reader is not surprised when, only three verses later, the text states that “Mahlon and Chilion died” (1:5).

While these deaths might have been expected, the writer of Ruth also notes that their father Elimelech (אלימלך)—which means “My God is King”—also dies suddenly (1:3). Although the father’s name alludes to the ever-living God, he dies suddenly and without explanation. The irony of Elimelech’s death is heightened by the fact that “there was a famine in the land” (1:1)—particularly, in the family’s hometown of Bethlehem (בית לחם; Bet Lechem), which means “House of Bread.” Thus, there is no food in the one place we would expect an abundance of sustenance. Even Naomi—“My Delight” (נעמי; Na’omi)—changes her name to Mara (מרא) to reflect the “bitterness” of her losses in life (1:20).

Although Ruth begins with emptiness, the story gradually begins to refill the lives of its protagonists. Tragically, Naomi is left without a husband or sons, but “Ruth” (רות) likely comes from the Hebrew word for “companionship” (רעות; re’ut), so that Naomi continues to have a loyal friend after the loss of her family. More, one of the probable meanings of Boaz—the man who redeems Naomi and Ruth—is “In Strength” (בעז), which alludes to the strength of God to bring redemption out of tragedy. Therefore, while some of the names in Ruth serve to underscore initial emptiness, other names—like Ruth and Boaz—remind the reader of God’s ongoing provision and the divine desire for the ultimate good.

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26 COMMENTS

  1. Names! I was just pondering this topic a few days ago. The names given to a person as a newborn appear to be prophetic/divinely inspired to encapsulate the essence of what that person was to be/become. When that person experienced a metamorphosis of their essence, their name would be changed.

    • Deborah,
      Are you living up to your G_D given name?
      Are you a bee?

      Hard working. Sustaining the community, but with a sting in the tail for those who oppose you.

      • Donald, only the Lord knows whether I am living up to and fulfilling all that He has called and created me to be. It is my constant prayer and faith in His Goodness and Rightousness that He who began a good work in me will be faithful to fulfill it.

  2. Naomi seemed to have expected that her life circumstances would reflect the essence of her name. When her temporary circumstances didn’t reflect the essence of her name, she requested a name change. But her name wasn’t changed because ultimately the circumstances of her life mirrored the essence of her name.

    • Will never negate names given by God who sees us like no Human can. Not quite sure how a name divinely inspired would change when circumstances changed. I tend to think that we place too much emphasis on names given by parents. somewhat like Birthday and astrological signs. Witchcraft?

      • Alan, I strongly recommend that you read Rabbi Jonathan Cahn’s new book, The Oracle. It’s an interesting presentation, “one fact or factor at a time,” and deals with some historical people with significant names we might not have expected!
        Shalom!

  3. The essence of Elimelech‘s name was true as well. The God of Elimelech is King and reigned supreme in Elimelech‘s family’s ultimate circumstances, even after Elimelech went to sleep with his fathers and was silenced and not able to advocate for his family. Elimelech‘s God reigned with the final say/word.

  4. As a student of the Lord, understanding the meaning of names in the Old Testament is so important. The Hebrew meaning of names brings revelation and the intent of heaven while studying the Old Testament. Blessings

    • Kris, thanks for reading, and for your question. Orpah means “gazelle,” so it’s fitting that she ends up leaving Naomi (as gazelles are known for their flightiness).

    • Israel Bible Center equips you with the tools you need to enter into the Jewish world of Scripture. We provide first-rate teaching, and the opportunity to learn from some of the world’s top scholars. As a student, you will be able to interact personally with our teaching faculty, and gain access to hundreds of hours of Bible courses, including The Jewish Gospel of Matthew and The Hebrew Psalms: How To Worship God. Become a part of the community of teachers and students at Israel Bible Center today!

    • The precise meaning of Esther is debated, but it could be related to the words for “star” in multiple Semitic languages and in Persian. Alternatively, it may be related to the Medio-Persian word “astra,” which means “myrtle.” This latter option would cohere with the alternative name that the Bible gives to Esther: “Hadassah” — which also means “myrtle” in Hebrew (see Est 2:7).

    • Thank you for this enlightening article and for all that you all do at IBC! I thank the Lord that when I don’t have an understanding of a matter, I ask the Lord, in all humility, to open my eyes of understanding and I don’t speak ill of His word.

  5. Have you seen Chuck Missler’s discovery? Ie the names from Adam through Enoch down to Noah. The meanings: Man, Appointed, Mortal, Sorrow, (but!) The blessed God, Shall come down, Teaching, His death shall bring, The despairing, Comfort. Ie the gospel in a nutshell. Every word of God is perfect!

  6. I’m puzzled. Which new mom is going to name her baby “sickly” and “frailty”????? It’s speaking forth disaster….. I WILL NOT DO THAT! I’m not saying that isn’t what those Hebrew words mean….
    Unless so sadly, so there was already so much hopelessness present at when they were born.

  7. Dr. Schaser, I have learned that Methuselah means “man of the spear” or “his death shall bring”. He was the longest living person and died in the same year of the Flood. His father Enoch “walked with God” after Methuselah was born, declared a prophet by Jude. Can you confirm?

    • Thanks for your questions, Peter. Methuselah likely means “man of the spear/javelin,” but it does not mean “his death shall bring” (this latter translation misunderstands the Hebrew). Methuselah is the longest living person in the genealogy of Genesis 5 and he’s the son of Enoch (see Gen 5:21-22). The Second Temple text of First Enoch is quoted in Jude 1:15, but 1 Enoch was not written by the Enoch of Genesis (it is a pseudepigraphical text that is written much later than the time Genesis records).

  8. The saving power of Christ overrules the meaning in any name. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life”. (Jn.3:16). Whatever your name is, if you have Christ, you’re saved otherwise you’re lost.

  9. Abel was a righteous godly man who even suffered so much and was killed by his own wicked brother Kain. But how is possible his name meaning be only sth temporarily as mist or vapor, as he lives forever with God as all other righteous saints will be raised for eternal life in heaven. Is it possible the name Abel to comes from Abba and Elohim as the Lord G-d is his eternal Father

    • Thanks for your question, Soniya. The name Abel has no relationship to abba or elohim. The meaning of Abel’s name (mist/vapor) reflects his role in the narrative of Genesis 4 (he doesn’t last long in the narrative, so his name is appropriate). The name relates to his experience while on earth, not in the afterlife. For more on Abel’s name, see the following IBC article: https://weekly.israelbiblecenter.com/meaning-abels-name/

    • We are very happy that you’ve joined our discussion forum. Would you believe that these articles are only a taste of what Israel Bible Center has to offer? We also provide comprehensive teaching on a variety of biblical, historical, and cultural topics. You might begin with The Jewish Gospel of Matthew or The Hebrew Psalms: How To Worship God. You’ll be amazed at the Jewish world that awaits you. Don’t delay another minute: enroll now!

  10. Dr. Schaser, Thank you for how you help to educate us. I’ve often wondered what my name means, but I received several different answers. Some include: gift of God, messenger of God, or Godly warrior. If you have time, would you tell me what Gabrielle means?

    • Thanks for reading, Gabrielle. Your name comes from the Hebrew “Gavriel” (גבריאל), which means “God is my warrior” or “God is my hero.”

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