Why are certain people in the Bible called by different names?

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Like today, Bible characters were also called by different names. Names were given in the Bible to identify different things like ethnicity (Doeg the Edomite of 1 Samuel 21:7), parentage (John and James, the sons of Zebedee in Matthew 10:2), place of residence (Mary Magdalene in Matthew 27:56), or a characteristic trait (Matthew 1:21). Numerous individuals mentioned in the Bible were known by different names:

  • Moses’ father-in-law was known both as Reuel and Jethro (Exodus 2:18; 3:1).
  • Gideon acquired the name Jerubbaal because he destroyed the altar of Baal at Ophrah (Judges 6:32; 7:1; 8:29,35).
  • Pharaoh Necho changed the name of King Josiah’s oldest son, Eliakim, to Jehoiakim (2 Kings 23:34).
  • The apostle Peter is sometimes called Peter, Simon Peter, Simon, and Cephas (Matthew 14:28; 16:16; 17:25; John 1:42; 1 Corinthians 1:12).
  • Saul is called Paul (Acts 13:9).
  • Pharaoh called Joseph’s name Zaphnath-Paaneah (Genesis 41:45).

God occasionally changed the names of certain individuals to establish a new identity that God wished them to embody:

  • Abram – Abraham: high father – father of many. God changed his name as a sign of His promise that Abraham would be the father of many nations (Genesis 17:5).
  • SaraiSarah: my princess – mother of nations. God intended Sarah to be the mother of many nations as well (Genesis 17:15).
  • Jacob – Israel: supplanter – he who has the power of God. Jacob rose to position by manipulating his brother into giving him his firstborn birthright and then tricking his father, Isaac, into giving him the firstborn blessing. God wanted to make it clear that it was He who gave Israel power and position, not his own conniving ways (Genesis 32:28).
  • Simon – Peter: God has heard – rock. On his own Peter was not a rock. With the Holy Spirit, however, Peter became the stabilizing influence for the new church (John 1:42).

And at the end, God will give new names to all believers “To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it” (Revelation 2:17).

In His service,

The BibleAsk Team

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