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Hebrew Corner 13: What is in a Name? (Isa 9:6) by John H. Walton
Since we are now in the advent season, it would be appropriate to explore one of the primary passages that is a topic for advent studies, Isaiah 9:6. In this passage there is a proclamation concerning the name of the ideal king. In Isaiah’s own time, this could have been part of a coronation ceremony for a new Davidic king. Even if that is the case, the oracle contained idealistic elements that expressed the hope for that eventual Davidic king who would fulfill the prophecies that all faithful Israelites longed for (see Isaiah 2:1-5 as well as the immediate context in Isaiah 9).
The Hebrew issue that I would like to focus attention on is the name that is given in Isaiah 9:6 (Hebrew, 9:5). The debate can be seen by comparing the KJV rendering with modern translations. The KJV offered five names: Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Most modern translations combine the first two (Wonderful Counselor) with the result that there are four names. Given either of these arrangements, it is not uncommon for reference to be made to the apparent result that two of the child-king’s names suggest he is divine ("Mighty God" and "Everlasting Father"). Were this the case, it would be the only example in the Old Testament where the future, ideal, Davidic king (later to be labeled the Messiah), was attributed deity. But perhaps we have jumped too quickly to that conclusion.
W. Holladay some time ago (Isaiah: Scroll of a Prophetic Heritage) had suggested that the verse offered only three names with the middle one being viewed as "theophoric." A theophoric name is one that makes a statement about God. Any casual survey of personal names in the Old Testament would reveal that it was common for Israelites (and most everyone else in the ancient world) to use theophoric names. The name "Isaiah" itself is theophoric: "The Lord Saves." Even English readers will notice the large numbers of names that end in –iah (representing the name of God, Yahweh; also present in names that begin with Jo-- or Jeho-- ). Likewise names that begin or end with "El" represent a statement about Elohim (e.g., Samuel, "God has heard"). Obviously these individuals are not being attributed divine status—their names are expressing hopes or giving praise to God. Many emphasize an attribute of God.
Now, armed with some new ideas, let’s return to the passage and look again. NIV translates "He will be called"—this is an acceptable English expression for name-giving, but it sidesteps a thorny Hebrew issue: The Hebrew text says "And he will call (active verb, not passive, with unidentified subject) his name (singular)." By rewording, the NIV did not have to decide what to do with the fact that the Hebrew word, "name" (shem) is singular. The text does NOT say "His names shall be called." This should lead us to at least consider the possibility that the verse gives one (very long) name.
Before we get to the name itself, it should be noted that Isaiah, in just the previous chapter, had already shown his propensity to offer unusually long names. Mahershalalhashbaz is often cited in Bible quizzing as the longest name in the Bible. It is made up of two parallel phrases each of two parts: "Quick to the plunder, swift to the spoil" (NIV Study Bible note). Even in ch. 7 Isaiah is playing with names, evident in the name of his son, Shear-Jashub (7:3) and Immanuel (7:14) to make theological points.
In 9:6, then, we might suggest, based on 1) the singular use of "name"; 2) the prevalent use of theophoric names; 3) the lack of precedent for messiah being attributed deity; and 4) Isaiah’s fondness for long names, growing increasingly complex; that we have just one long, complex name: Pele’-yo’ets’-el-gibbor-’avi-’ad-sar-shalom. Like Maher-shalal-hash-baz it is a name made up of two parallel lines. Each of these lines is theophoric and has four components. The resulting translation would be: "A Supernatural Planner is the Mighty God; The Father of Time is a Prince of Peace." The power of the name is that it expresses the hope that this ideal king will usher in the long-term prophetic plan of God. The God who is mighty in all things has a plan that transcends any mortal’s ability to conceive or fathom. This God who is the Master of all time will bring about peace and well-being for his people. Peace on earth, good will toward people everywhere.
John H. Walton (PhD, Hebrew Union College) teaches Old Testament at Wheaton College Graduate School. He is the author or coauthor of several books, including Chronological and Background Charts of the Old Testament and the forthcoming A Survey of the Old Testament (Third Edition).
by Michael E. Wittmer
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