Jacob has long held the top spot for boys, but how ’bout the Old Testament patriarch’s other name?
Thanks to Shannon for suggesting Israel as our Baby Name of the Day
At first glance, he’s a place name. If children can be called Jordan, then why would this Middle Eastern nation be any different?
It is different, of course. Israel is the world’s only Jewish-majority state, officially established following the destruction and genocide of World War II, though Jews had been migrating to the area since the late nineteenth century .
Israel wasn’t quietly created, either. In 1948, David Ben-Gurion signed the Israeli Declaration of Independence and sparked the first Arab-Israeli War. He’d go on to serve as the first prime minister of the fledgling state.
And yet, it isn’t accurate to say that Israel is less than a century old. After all, Jerusalem is one of the oldest cities in the world, sacred to Christians, Muslims, and Jews. About 1000 years BCE, King David declared it the capital of the Kingdom of Israel. Israel appears in the historical record a few centuries earlier, in an account written by an Egyptian ruler. Jerusalem has been conquered, divided, occupied, and sacked over the years, but remains an incredibly important destination and world capital.
Long before there was the state or even the kingdom, there was Jacob. He wrestles an angel in the Old Testament – and wins. In Genesis, he’s renamed: Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have prevailed. Variant translations abound, but the gist is the same. Jacob becomes Israel, a name that signifies that one has persevered, has contended with God. Some suggest that the meaning is more accurately God contends, or God rules.
In any case, he’s a masculine given name ages before he appears on the map. Jacob has twelve sons, and those sons and their descendants are known as the Israelites.
Nonetheless, he’s been in use for centuries:
- The name appears in seventh century Albania and sixth century Egypt.
- Israel Hands was a pirate, second in command to Blackbeard. Robert Louis Stevenson borrowed the name for a character in Treasure Island.
- General Israel Putnam fought with distinction in the American Revolution, and there was a Union general in the American Civil War named Israel Richardson.
- Irving Berlin was born Israel Baline.
- In the twentieth century there’s Canadian media mogul, politician, and philanthropist Israel Asper.
- Israel Houghton has won Grammy awards for his contemporary gospel and worship music.
That’s a long stretch of men answering to the name, and not all of them are Jewish. The same is true of many Old Testament names today. You don’t have to be Jewish, Christian, or even observant of any faith to consider naming a son Noah, Elijah, Gabriel, Isaac, Isaiah, Levi, or Jeremiah.
In fact, Israel has ranked in the US Top 1000 every year since 1880, charting at #221 in 2011. That suggests that plenty of parents embrace his sound and some aspect of his meaning. After all, Zion – another name for Jerusalem – ranked #245.
If you’re looking for a stylish sound and a rich meaning, Israel is one to consider.