Educators have known for years that elementary students will taunt kids with unusual names. In a study of this phenomenon, two psychologists, Herbert Harari and John McDavid, uncovered the powerful perceptions tied to names.
They had papers — supposedly written by grade four and five students — turned into teachers for marking. The only element changed in these reports was the name of the person who wrote it.
Some of the papers were supposedly written by students with popular names such as David and Michael, while others by students with unusual names such as Hubert and Elmer.
Despite the fact these papers were identical, David and Michael scored on average a full grade higher than the other two names.
“Teachers know from past experience, that a Hubert or Elmer is generally a loser,” the authors said. These perceptions — formed in elementary school — were now firmly entrenched in the minds of the teachers.
Jacob’s name change
I believe Joseph’s father, Jacob, had a similar encounter with name perception. After Jacob’s all-night wrestling match with the Angel of God (Genesis 32:26-28), the patriarch clung to the angel until he bestowed a blessing.
So what was that blessing? The angel changed Jacob’s name to Israel.
Only God would consider a name change a blessing? The rest of us would be looking for a new Cadillac or home.
But in Israeli culture, names often reflected significant events associated with both people and geographical landmarks and set the stage for how these were perceived from that point on.
Jacob’s name meant ‘deceiver’, ‘supplanter’ or ‘one who grabbed the heel.’ This name was given at birth, when it appeared that Jacob was trying to supplant his older twin brother Esau as the firstborn of the family by grabbing Esau’s heel (Genesis 25:24-26). The negative connotation associated with Jacob’s name foretold the overt favouritism Jacob’s father Isaac would show his eldest son Esau (Genesis 25:28).
Everytime Jacob’s name was called, the word deceiver was driven home in his young impressionable mind. Slowly, the young boy developed a tragic impression of how his dad and ultimately God looked upon him.
Though second born, Jacob fulfilled his name destiny by deceptively defrauding Esau of his rightful inheritance as the first born of the family (Genesis 27).
God’s gift to his aged patriarch was the choice name Israel which meant ‘to prevail.’ Essentially the new Jacob would be known as a man who could influence the hand of God, a man who was no longer rejected, but favoured by his Father.
A new name is waiting for you
There is an interesting promise in the Book of Revelation:
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, to him I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, and a new name written on the stone which no one knows but he who receives it.’ (Revelation 2:17 NASV)
All of us will be given new names which I believe will reflect what God really thinks of us.
1. Ries, Al and Jack Trout, Positioning: The Battle for your mind, (Warner Books: New York, NY) p. 78