My next “journey” of flipping through the pages of my old Bible, is the many interesting names that I’ve underlined or otherwise noted. God has a Book of Life filled with names; according to the Talmud, the book is opened on Rosh Hashanah. The Bible itself is a different kind of name book; so many characters come in and out of the long story. I won’t even scratch the surface here. The long genealogies that we find in, for instance, Genesis and 1 Chronicles add many people to the Bible in addition to those found in the book’s various narratives.
Then parents choose biblical names for their own children. Recently I visited our family cemetery in rural Illinois and thought about some of the biblical names. As I mentioned, my grandmother’s name was Grace—the most wonderful of biblical concepts—and my grandfather’s name was Josiah, one of the few righteous kings of ancient Judah. In the same graveyard, my 1800s cousin Tabitha is presumably named for the woman in Acts 9:36-42. A blacksmith named Moses Cluxton, Sr., is interred a few yards away from Tabitha, and near both is an ancestor of mine, named Comfort. That’s a now archaic girl’s name that surely derives from a biblical notion of comfort.
Also buried nearby is the grave of another nineteenth-century cousin, named Cyrene, which though biblical is a place rather than a person (Luke 23:2, Acts 2:10, and elsewhere). But I also know a place that was named for a biblical person: Loami, Illinois, near Springfield, named for Hosea’s son (“Not my people,” Hos. 1:8-9). A branch of my family, the Colburns, settled there in the 1800s.
Biblical names are still popular today, of course. My daughter has had classmates named Jacob, Sarah, and Matthew, and her middle name is Elizabeth. As I check my Bible dictionary, I discover biblical names that you might (or might not) consider for your children include: Dodo (Judges 10:1), Phallu (Gen. 46:9), Put (Gen. 10:6), Phuvah (1 Chr. 7:1), Muppim, Huppim, and Ard (Gen. 46:21), Anub (1 Chr. 4:8), Koz (1 Chr. 4:3), Ziph (1 Chr. 2:42), Hazo (Gen. 22:22), and Hazelelponi (1 Chr. 4:3). I used to know a girl named Hazelelponi (not really). The Bible features a few longer names, too: Sennacherib, Isaiah’s son Maher-shalal-hash-baz, and others that don’t appear in baby name books.
I was a long-time user of Aunt Jemima® products when I learned that the first Jemima was a daughter of Job—his second set of children (Job 42:13). I knew about Salmon Chase, Lincoln’s treasury secretary and later U.S. Supreme Court chief justice, but I’d not realized his name was not only fishy (his own regretful estimation) but biblical: the original Salmon was Ruth’s father in law (Ruth 4:20-21).
I’ve a genealogical chart, purchased on eBay® a few years ago, that is filled with biblical names. The chart is “The Adam and Eve Family Tree” published by Good Things Company (Norman, OK, 1975), published “to improve the reading and understanding of the Bible for the glory of God.” The chart color-codes all the twelve tribes of Israel. Jesus is the last name under the tribe of Judah, and Paul is mentioned with the tribe of Benjamin. Incredibly, the names are quite readable and are expertly arranged so that everyone fits onto a 24×36 chart.
I love studying this chart, and figuring out who’s who. Under the genealogy of Esau, there are listed several “dukes”: Duke Nahath, Duke Zerah, Duke Shammah, Duke Mizzah, and others. “Dukes”? That’s the KJV rendering; the RSV translates the title “chief” and the NRSV as “clans” (Gen. 36:15-19).
I call these people “walk ons.” Not all the Bible’s walk ons are unimportant. The other day our pastor preached on Exodus 1:8-2:10; every time he mentioned the midwife Puah (Ex. 1:15) I thought he was saying hoo-wah! But those midwives (the other was Shiphrah) have a notable part in the biblical drama. We all know the story, even if we don’t recall their names.
The Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40) figures in only a few verses but he certainly becomes an example of how the Holy Spirit “networks people.” Philip came along right when the Ethiopian needed him—and they were near water for baptism!
Here’s a fellow named Diotrephes, whom we know from only one biblical reference because he “likes to put himself first” (3 John 9). We’ve all known people like that—maybe we are like that!
Melchizedek’s original story is limited to three verses (Gen. 14:18-20), but what an amazing walk on! The author of Hebrews uses the king-priest Melchizedek (and the absence of a genealogy for him in a genealogy-filled book) to develop a theology of the eternal priesthood of Christ (Heb. 7:1-17).
Looking up the Queen of Sheba, too, I realize she has a surprisingly small role (1 Kings 10:1-13; 2 Chr. 9:1-12), considering that she’s also mentioned in the New Testament (Matt. 12:42, Luke 11:31), the Qur’an (27:23-44), and is the subject of artwork, music by Handel and Gounod, and many cultural references. The unnamed monarch captured the popular imagination over the centuries.
You might be surprised how little a role Adam and Eve play as named characters in the Bible, although their influence is everywhere present. After Genesis 4:1, Eve isn’t mentioned by name again in the Old Testament, and later only in 2 Cor. 11:3 and 1 Tim. 2:13. Adam does figure in the Pseudepigrapha and other non-canonical writings.
Can you consider the four horsemen of the Apocalypse a “walk on”? (I’m being lighthearted.)
You may be familiar with the stories of Moses’ childhood. Well, then, did you realize that twelve woman appear in the first two chapters of the book of Exodus? I didn’t, and neither did blogger Rabbi Avinoam Sharon at first. Rabbi Sharon writes that, with a moment or two of thought, can name all twelve of Jacob’s sons from memory, but only recently had he noticed these several women at the beginning of Exodus. The twelve are: Shiphrah and Puah (Ex. 1:15), Pharoah’s daughter (Ex. 2:3), Miriam (unnamed in Ex. 2:4, 7-8 and named in Ex. 15:20), Jochebed (unnamed in Ex. 2:1-2 and named in Ex. 6:20), Zippora (Ex. 2:21), and her father Reuel’s other six daughters (Ex. 2:15). Rabbi Sharon’s point is that we tend not to notice each other. Moses, on the other hand, noticed the suffering of the Hebrew slave, and also the injustice of the shepherds at the well (Ex. 1:1-12, 17).
On a sunny weekend morning, I paused from all my reading, daydreaming, and studying, and I thought about that: the importance (or lack of importance) of people around us…. A few years ago I noticed an obituary in my local paper. I lived in a community of about 200,000, small enough to run into people you know, but too large to “know everyone,” as is true in smaller towns. The obituary was for a man who worked at a grocery store where I shopped occasionally; I’d noticed him collecting shopping carts. He wasn’t very old when he died: mid-fifties. I never spoke to him besides a hello.
How many people do I pass each day who are just “hello” people? They’re always there, sometimes acknowledged, and nameless. I’m certainly a nameless, “hello” person, too, for instance to the folks who work at my local grocery.
John 9 has a story about the man born blind. It’s a familiar story. Jesus heals him, and the rest of the chapter is exchange between the man and the religious leaders who can’t believe he was healed. Their stubborn incredulity is a kind of syllogism: Jesus is a sinner (because he heals on the Sabbath), but God would not empower a miracle through a sinful man, and so Jesus could not have performed the miracle. The religious leaders are stuck in a way that many of us become stuck: something happens contrary to our expectations and preconceived notions, and we can’t see it or make the mental jump to acceptance.
The crowd’s reaction is interesting. “‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’ Some said, ‘It is he’; other said, ‘No, but he is like him’” (John 9:8-9). People had seen the man every day as a beggar. But even granting that miracles elicit incredulity, some of the people had not, apparently, paid enough attention to him to know. (A similar story is the man in Acts 3 who seeks financial help, but apparently he is accustomed to no one making eye contact with him, for Peter and John told him, “Look at us.”)
I strongly believe that an indispensable outcome of Bible study is the humility, compassion and kindness that makes us notice one another and care about each other’s pain. We need to be able not to avoid certain kinds of people but to look at them, make human contact with them, and inquire about their needs. We must discover ways to reach out to those in economic distress, those whose lives are different from ours. We cannot be sentimental about the Bible’s authority if we’re not prepared to love people, including people we don’t care for.
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)
One of our most spontaneous, Bible-related questions can be this: to whom can I today show kindness, in name of the Lord?
And that brings me back to that heart-cutting verse my professor Davie Napier pointed out: Jeremiah 22:16: He judged the cause of the poor and needy… Is not this to know me? says the Lord.
The pleasures of Bible reading often return me to this theme, because if you want to know a set of “characters” that pervades the scripture, it is the people variously and generally called the poor, the widow and orphan, the needy, the oppressed, the alien, and the stranger. Study the book’s pages and you’ll find so many verses. With my Topical Bible and other sources, I’ve “collected” a very small selection of the total: Exodus 22:22; Leviticus 19:10, 15; Deuteronomy 10:19, 14:28-29; 15:7-8; Job 29:12; Psalms 14:6, 82:3-4; Proverbs 14:21, 14:31, 17:5; Isaiah 58:6-7; Ezekiel 16:49; Matthew 19:21, 25:35; Luke 4:18, 12:33, Acts 9:36, 10:4; Galatians 2:10; James 1:27; 1 John 3:17-18.
I’ve been inspired by Jewish friends and their concern for tzedakah (or zadaqah), “righteousness” or “charity,” which has replaced the biblical sacrifices as a response to God. Many Jews are quick to “give back to the community” and to take the side of the needy (not necessarily the Jewish needy!) in their donations and political convictions.On the other hand I’ve known Christians, including some pastors, who love the Lord to the point of becoming teary-eyed about God’s blessings, and yet those same Christians express a harsh political outlook toward the poor. How many times have I heard Christians speak disdainfully of the poor, as if all poor people were lazy, out to cheat the system. I feel shame when I think of my own hard-heartedness toward the poor: for instance, a time when I became silently impatient in a grocery line as a young couple up ahead paid for their groceries with food stamps.
I believe there are many ways to know God, because we all have different personalities, talents, abilities, cultural backgrounds, and experiences. The variety of the Bible’s theological perspectives attests to the importance of variety among people’s religious walks. But this way to God haunts me and always has, from which my conscience can never escape: that trumpet call of Micah 6:8, that rhetorical question of Jeremiah 22:16, those clear words of Matthew 25:40.
And a way to keep my conscience sensitive is to weave Bible reading into my hectic life….
 Phyllis Trible writes that the stories of Eve and the Canaanite goddess Asherah share qualities such as a sacred tree, a snake, fertility, and so on. But unlike the fertility goddess, Eve experiences trouble with the tree and the snake and suffers. The New Interpreter’s Bible Dictionary, D-H, Vol. 2 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007), 359-360.
 The link to Rabbi Sharon’s blog for January 2, 2005, although long since broken, was found at http://www.moreshetyisrael.org/2005_01_01_archive.html and was accessed by me in 2008.
 The Mishnah contains this teaching concerning Torah study: “Seek not greatness for yourself. Covet not honor. Your study should lead to practice. Crave not the [luxurious] table of kings, for your table [of learning] is grater than their table [of food], and your crown is greater than their crown. And faithful is your Employer to pay you the recompense for your work.” Tractate Avot 6:4, quoted in Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky, eds., The Book of Legends, Sefer Ha-Aggadah, Legends from the Talmud and Midrash (New York: Schocken Books, 1992), 409.
 I’m oversimplifying varieties of economic and social distress by using the phrases “the poor” and “the poor and needy.” There are those who are unwilling to work, but there are people who work very hard, and even hold down more than one job, but still struggle to make ends meet. Some people have crushing debt not because they were greedy with their credit card use but because they had to survive through some challenge like unemployment. People are laid off from their jobs or face a medical calamity, and their savings become depleted. Others were victims of some injustice, like the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis. There are elderly folk whose savings or insurance (or public funds) go for their room and medical care. Economic need, as well as economic and social distress and poverty (both permanent and temporary) come in different forms. Here, I use the biblical phrase for the sake of simplicity of language.