“His Name Is John”

Name John

The word name engraved in a stone surface

When the Bible makes a big deal about a baby’s name, you better pay attention.

No, I’m not talking about Jesus, though his name is significant. It means, “Yahweh saves,” and is also the name of the man (Joshua) who led the Israelites into the Promised Land, which is not without its own significance.

But for now I’m talking about John. John was born to an old priest named Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, who is way beyond her child-bearing and has been unable to conceive. One day Zechariah is serving in the temple when an angel appears and announces that Elizabeth will give birth to a son, and he is to be named John. When Zechariah expresses astonishment and disbelief—wouldn’t you?—the angel renders him mute until all this is fulfilled.

The child is born, and on the eighth day Zechariah and Elizabeth present him to be circumcised, which is the time when a child is named. Zechariah cannot speak, of course, and it’s not a woman’s place in that time either to speak or to name the child. Elizabeth, however, does both when the priests doing the circumcision try to fill the speechless Zechariah’s shoes and name the child after his father.

The priests object, noting that there is no one in their family who is named John. They turn to Zechariah, who takes a tablet and writes, “His name is John.”

“John” is the English form of the Greek “Yohannes,” which derives from the Hebrew “Yochanan.” It was not a common Hebrew name, at least in the Bible; there are only six men with this name in the Old Testament, none of any significance. Three are mentioned only in brief genealogies. “Yochanan” (Johanan in our English Bibles) means, “Yahweh is gracious.” Could it be that the reason so few people were named this was because the ancient Israelites didn’t see God this way?

There are only two places where the phrase, “Yahweh is gracious” appears. Psalm 111:4 says, “The LORD (Yahweh) is gracious and merciful,” while Psalm 145:8 expands that to, “The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

It is this latter form that Jonah invokes in his protest against God for sparing the wicked city Ninevah of Assyria: “O LORD! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” (Jonah 4:2) Then Jonah wishes to die.

The book of Jonah presents one side of an ongoing debate within Israel that started in the 500’s B.C.E. and was quickly settled—with Jonah’s side losing. The debate was over the inclusion of foreigners as part of the covenant people. Though the covenant God made with Abram in Genesis 12 explicitly stated that Israel was to be a blessing to all the nations, after the Babylonian exile many Israelites opted for exclusion and isolation. This movement, led by Ezra and the group that produced Chronicles, sought a “pure” Israel unsullied by the unclean blood of foreigners. Ezra forbade mixed marriages and insisted that Israelite men put away their foreign wives.

The writers of Jonah saw it differently. They took the phrase from Psalms 111 and 145 and used it to describe God’s attitude toward foreigners, and not just any foreigners, but the enemies of Israel. Isaiah also was part of the group who took a more expansive view of foreigners. Jonah and Isaiah lost that debate, and the Ezra/Chronicles view is the one that prevailed on into Jesus’ day.

It is also the view that led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the obliteration of the nation of Israel by the Romans. Jesus tried to warn his fellow Israelites that their extreme nationalism and anti-foreigner positions would destroy them. Jesus embraced the side of Isaiah/Jonah, and the gospels, the book of Acts, and Paul’s letters all forcefully push this viewpoint as central to the kingdom of God.

“John” is a common name in the New Testament. The “disciple Jesus loved” is John, and a gospel, three epistles, and the book of Revelation are attributed to him.

Yahweh is gracious to all, and by all, they mean all. We should be too.

Photo by © Can Stock Photo / trgowanlock

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