Not only are names of Hebrew origin still tightly associated with the Judean tradition, but they are also very much a part of the naming conventions among all people throughout the western world as well as Islam. Hebrew is one of the oldest languages known to man attesting back to the tenth century B.C., part of the Canaanite group and Semitic family of languages. The Old Testament, near and dear to both Jews and Christians alike, was written in Classical Hebrew. Ancient Hebrew became nearly extinct in the late classical era except as a literary and religious language of the Jewish people which eventually evolved into various medieval dialects and finally revived as a spoken language in the late 1800s. When we talk about Biblical names from the Old Testament, we’re basically talking about Hebrew names (although some may have been borrowed from other ancient languages such as Egyptian, Aramaic, Phoenician, or Greek).
The most common names we get from Hebrew come from the Hebrew Bible (Torah) or the first five books of the Old Testament as well as the writings of the prophets, kings, judges, etc. These time-tested and long-enduring names include Adam, Eve, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, Rachel, Leah and so many more. Names were given and meant something specific and non-coincidental. Adam for instance means ‘man, earth’ and Eve means ‘living, animal’. Abraham means ‘a father of a multitude of nations’, Sarah means ‘princess’, Rachel means ‘captivating’ and Leah means ‘languid’. Other names provide the circumstances around one’s birth. For instance, Isaac means ‘laughter’ because people laughed when his mother Sarah bore him in her old age. Jacob means ‘at the heel’ because he followed his twin brother Esau out of Rebecca’s womb. Hannah means ‘God has favored me (with child)’ because she had to pray mightily to conceive Samuel. Reuben’s name means ‘Behold! A son’ (as Jacob’s first son) and Joseph means ‘God shall add (another son)’ since he was Jacob’s eleventh son. Benjamin was the last of Jacob’s twelve sons and his name means ‘son of my old age’. God changed Jacob’s name to Israel in the Bible which means ‘struggled with God’. It’s really fascinating how the names are so connected to these ancient stories.
Hebrew names were among the most fun for us to research because of the name’s significance in the Hebrew Bible and Old Testament. In most cases, the etymology of the name tied in closely with the Biblical story in which that character was featured. Moses for instance is said to mean ‘born of God’ but also ‘saved from the water’ (which is where we get the Moses baskets). Aaron, the brother of Moses, has a name that means ‘mountain of strength’. Cain means ‘acquired’ and Abel means ‘breath, vapor’ which is interesting since Cain took Abel’s life. Caleb means ’dog’ apparently in reference to his undying devotion to God. Other names’ meanings remind us of the all-powerful being God, such as: God is my judge (Daniel); Yahweh is God (Elias/Elijah); God is with us (Emmanuel); God is my oath (Elizabeth); God strengthens (Ezekiel); God is salvation (Isaiah); God has listened (Ishmael); Yahweh has established (Jeremiah); God is gracious (John/Jonathan); God heals (Josiah); God is salvation (Joshua); Gift of God (Matthew); God has given (Nathan/Nathaniel); comforted by Yahweh (Nehemiah); God hears (Samuel); and Yahweh remembers (Zachariah/Zachary). Oh, and let’s not forget Joel which translates to “God, God” (God-squared). That’s a lot of God and Yahweh to celebrate.
The biblical archangels also have Hebrew roots. Michael means ‘who is like God?’ and Gabriel means ‘man of God’. Raphael means ‘God has healed’ and Uriel means ‘God is my light’. The great kings also have interesting etymologies. Saul means ‘asked/prayed for’; David means ‘beloved’ and Solomon means ‘peace’. Then there are Biblical places with Hebrew origins used as first names such as Eden (place of pleasure); Jordan (flowing down); Judah (praised); and Zion (utopia, the Promised Land).
It should be noted that we are providing the generally used modern forms of these ancient Hebrew names – otherwise you wouldn’t recognize them in their original formation. Yôsēp̄ (Joseph); Dāwiḏ (David); Miryām (Maria/Mary); or Ḥawwāh (Eve) should give you some idea of what we’re talking about. These ancient names made their way to the modern world mainly through the Greeks and then eventually adapted into the Latin language during Antiquity and especially as Christianity spread like wildfire. In the early 17th century King James I of England commissioned the translation of the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into English which we know as the “KJV” (King James Version). Of course over time, the original names have evolved and mutated but they still retain their root etymologies.
In 2009, the 10 most popular male names in Israel among Jewish boys were Noam, Itai, Ori, Daniel, David, Yonatan, Yosef, Ido, Moshe, and Ariel. For girls they were Noa, Shira, Maya, Tamar, Yael, Talia, Sarah, Hila, Noya, and Michal.