One of the more curious things about the Bible is how often its characters undergo name changes. Abram becomes Abraham; Jacob becomes Israel; Saul becomes Paul. Naomi says, "Call me Mara." Even Daniel and his three friends are given Babylonian names when they come into the kingdom of exile and take their place among the wise men.
Sometimes, we go along with these name changes. Once Abram becomes Abraham and Sarai becomes Sarah, they are forever Abraham and Sarah. Once Saul becomes Paul, he's Paul forever. Jacob only seems to be Israel when he's a father of a people, but when he's a son, he's still Jacob - as in "I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." Naomi is never once called Mara, not by anybody that we know of, anyway. And we maintain that Daniel is Daniel, but we call his three friends by their Babylonian names - Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego.
And then, there's Esther. Her Jewish name is Hadassah, but we always call her Esther - her Persian name.
It's enough to make your head spin, isn't it? Why do we hold on to some names, but let go of others? Why do we embrace the change in one character's story, but not in another's? Why is it Esther, out of all of these, that has me thinking about such things?
I don't know the answer to that last one, except to say that it just struck my heart and wouldn't let go. But as for the others, we can start thinking about these ideas in some critical ways and maybe start to see some patterns emerge.
Naomi's the easy one. Her name didn't really changed. She tried to change her name based on her circumstances, but the truth is that you're not what happens to you in life; you are who God created you to be. Her circumstances may have made her bitter (Mara) for a season, but her soul was still Naomi and always will be.
Abraham and Paul are easy for the same reason. Their names really changed. God changed their names. God slightly modified the spelling of each of these men's names to reflect a change in their heart or mission. He did it to demonstrate who they are, who they are becoming, instead of holding them to who they had always been. And when God changes your name, your name changes.
Jacob's a little trickier, but not by a lot. God changed his name, but only in relation to the story that he was creating, not to the story from which he had come. He was still Isaac's son and Abraham's grandson, which means there was a part of this man that was still fundamentally Jacob and always would be. At the same time, he was now the father of a holy people and a man who had wrestled with God, so there was a part of this man that was now fundamentally Israel and always would be. If you want to know whether you're talking about Jacob or Israel, you just have to know which part of his story you're drawing from so that you can pick the name that fits into it.
Daniel was given a new Babylonian name, but he never gave up what was very Hebrew about him. Throughout his entire story, he's putting his foot down and declaring that he belongs to the Lord God of Israel first and foremost and for always, so the greatest thing about Daniel is always his deep faith. Rooted in the Hebrew story, we're not about to give up his Hebrew name, then. He maintains that living in Babylon doesn't change him, and indeed, it does not.
What, then, about his three friends? They remained faithful even in the face of a fiery furnace, so shouldn't we hold onto their Jewish names, too? Maybe, but maybe not. The fiery furnace is a turning point for Nebuchadnezzar; it's a point in time where he realizes that the Hebrew God is an incredible, amazing, powerful and present God. When three men are thrown into the fire and four men are seen walking around, Nebuchadnezzar declares something about God that he couldn't have fathomed before. Now, if we have three Jewish men in the fire, we lose something of that. This could just be the Jewish God. But if we have three men so thoroughly known by their Babylonian names, three men in a countless people in the largest nation on the earth, then you pay a little more attention to the God that rescues them. Their Babylonian names make them anybodies, rather than merely Jews, and that helps to frame the story.
Which brings us to Esther. Her Jewish name is Hadassah, but her story is thoroughly Esther. And I can't help but wonder if that has to do with the way her story of faith connects with the story of the world.
Esther was a Jew, but she was also queen of the Persians. Most of the persons in Persia didn't really know she was a Jew, apparently; it came as news to the king when she stepped forward to defend her people. Her posture came from her faith, but her power came from her position. And when we're talking about her position, it was a thoroughly worldly position. She was known not as the Jewish Queen of Persia, but just as the Queen of Persia. It's this that gave her the opportunity to approach the king. It's this that gave her the chance to speak on behalf of her people. It's this that ended up turning the tide in the Jews' favor. And I think the reason that we call her Esther is because when the world talks about this story, they don't talk about the Jewish princess, but the Persian Queen. When the world is looking for a place to connect into this narrative, it's through Esther, not Hadassah.
That doesn't mean Hadassah has nothing to offer. Not by a long shot. It's Hadassah's faith and connectedness in her own community and history that gives her the courage and the strength to move on her power and act on behalf of her people. It's more a question of...what kind of story are we telling here? For what audience? Who are we hoping to connect into it? It's one thing if a little Jewish girl steps up to speak for a people she loves dearly; it's another thing entirely if a powerful Persian Queen steps down to speak for a people she will not let go of.
It's just something I'm thinking about.
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