All parents have stories about naming their children. Some demonstrate strong ties to ancestry or culture. Others reflect the values and traits the parents hope to instill in their young ones. And some simply show the parents’ affinity for the sound of a specific name. Even though many of us share these stories with our children, they rarely think about what it means to hold a particular name. In the eyes of God, names hold power. In this lesson, your children will have a chance to explore the power of being named and saying a person’s name.
Begin the time with your children by discussing the names you each have for one another. Talk not only about each person’s given name but also the pet names you call one another. If your children are readers, you can make a list of all the names you call each person to help them see the number and variety of names you use for each other. Then talk about the contexts that you use each of these names. For example, you might use a playful name for your child at home, but in public, you call her by her given name. Also, note the way these names change over time. For instance, my son called me “Mommy” for several years, but now that he’s a teenager he refers to me as “Mom.”
Follow your family’s discussion of names with a reading of Genesis 32:22-31. (You may want to provide a bit of context for the story since this text “jumps in” partway through Jacob’s journey home. Jacob and his family have stopped to rest on the journey. Jacob sends his wives and children ahead of him and decides to spend the night alone. That evening he has this unusual experience.) Focus in on the part of the story where the mysterious man wrestling with Jacob asks his name and then renames him Israel. Ask your children who they think this man might be. Then ask them why they think this man changed Jacob’s name.
Next, share a bit more information with your children about the names Jacob and Israel. Tell them Jacob has a few levels of meaning. When Jacob was born, he grabbed the heel of his twin brother Esau’s foot, so he was given this name because it means “he takes by the heel” (Genesis 25:26). But Jacob also has another meaning. It also means “he supplants.” (You’ll likely want to use the more child-friendly word for supplant: replace.) This layer of his name shows itself when Jacob tricks Esau into giving up his inheritance by pretending to be his brother when his father gave him this blessing (Genesis 27:1-29). Have your children consider what Jacob’s name says about him as a person.
Then tell your children about the meaning of the name Israel. Israel means “one who strives with God.” (Again, you may want to use a synonym for strives such as tries or attempts.) Ask your children to think about what Jacob does in this story that shows he is trying with God. Note that the man Jacob struggles with is God. He is trying to figure out what his relationship with God is and, ultimately, he is given a blessing by God in the form of a new name. This name, Israel, becomes the name of the nation where the people of God live. Jacob’s new name has power that extends beyond him.
Follow this story by exploring the idea of names with your children. You can choose one or more of these activities or you may create one of your own:
- Reflect on the meanings of each of your family members’ names. You can search online for the origins and translations of your names. Do your names fit with each family member’s personality? Why or why not?
- Pretend each person in your family could choose her own name. Brainstorm particular traits each person has that are essential. Search for names that reflect that meaning. Then discuss how life would be different if this was the person’s new name.
- Explore the power that saying a person’s name has. Create a list of the names of famous people. Talk about what you associate with each person’s name. Also, talk about the power of saying the name of someone who is forgotten. For older children, you may want to look at the ways activists use names to remind us of the need for justice in our world.
- Look the experiences of people who were renamed. Research stories of immigrants coming to the United States whose names were changed as they entered the country. Be sure to look at instances of names being changed by customs officials as well as those who chose to modify their names on official records. Talk about how these changes might have affected these people as well as their decedents.
JOELLE BRUMMIT-YALE is the director of children’s and youth ministries at Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. When not at the church, she can usually be found at home with her son and husband caring for their many animals and developing their family homestead.