“So Joseph was put in charge of all Egypt. And Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘I am king, but no one will move a hand or a foot in the entire land of Egypt without your approval.’ Pharaoh renamed him Zapenathpaneah.”

-Genesis 41:43b-45a

Ever had a nickname you hated?  Sometimes nicknames aren’t even bad. When I was in middle school a group of people started calling me Frank for reasons unknown to me. I didn’t care and eventually it faded. Some nicknames though don’t bring out the best in people.  Sometimes nicknaming or name calling is used to bully, degrade, or subjugate people.  Most everyone knows someone or has heard a story about someone who earned a nickname in a bazaar way usually at the expense of their health or emotional welfare. Often times an event can begin to define someone and we can spend what seems like a whole lifetime trying to crawl out from under other people’s perceptions of us.

Naming in the Bible has huge theological significance. It was thought in the ancient world that people are born with their personality and it never really changes (this might give us some insight as to why the gospel writers didn’t include much of Jesus’ life before his public ministry). A person was usually a product of there parents and named a family name or was named based on an experience. Jacob’s name in Hebrew means “the supplanter” because he took hold of Esau’s heel (Genesis 25:26).  Esua means “hairy” (Genesis 25:25). Sarah was told to name her son Isaac (which means laughter) because she giggled at God’s promise. Family, appearance, and action played a huge role in naming and naming had lifelong significance. To know someones name was to know their character and their destiny–“She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21).

Names have weight.

Occasionally God intervenes and changes names.  Think Abram to Abraham; or Sarai to Sarah, or, “God said to him, ‘Your name is Jacob; no longer shall you be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.’ So he was called Israel” (Genesis 35:10). God renames him to show him his destiny. Names are powerful especially when they come from God.

After Abraham and Sarah are renamed by God they are consistently referred to by their new names throughout Scripture. After Jacob is renamed you occasionally see him referred to as “Jacob” but usually only to distinguish between Israel the person and Israel the nation.

God’s renaming matters.

After Joseph is bailed out of jail to interpret Pharaoh’s dream he is put in charge of  all of Egypt, “You will manage my household and organize all my people. Only I [Pharaoh] will have a rank higher than yours” (Genesis 41:40). Many interpret this as the hour of God’s favor on Joseph and the soon nation of Israel.  Joseph gets Pharaoh’s signet ring on his finger, beautiful clothing, gold chains, a chariot.  It’s like he has won the Showcase Showdown on the Price Is Right! Pharaoh even gives him a wife…and a new name–Zaphenathpaneah. That is a mouthful. I wouldn’t want that bad boy for a nickname.

Now this isn’t a horror nickname like four-eyes or baby-face.  Biblical scholars best guess at the meaning of Zaphenathpaneah is, “God speaks and lives.”  Pharaoh sees the power of God in Joseph and gives him a flattering nickname.  And remember, this is Pharaoh–“so shall it be written, so shall it be done” type of dude. If anyone’s nicknames should stick it would be his right? Guess how many times the Bible refers to Joseph as Zaphenathpaneah going forward? Answer: None! The very next verse the Scriptures call him Joseph as if nothing ever happened. Why? Joseph’s name means “he [God] will add” and that destiny is not done.

God’s names and God’s purpose for someone’s life outweigh even the power of Pharaoh!

Again I ask the question: ever had a nickname you hated? Do you feel defined by a moment, a dumb decision, by something done to you by someone else? I have news for you: what God calls you matters more!

For those who are in Christ Jesus, God calls us: sons and daughters of the king, righteous, beloved, beautiful, powerful, holy, pure, redeemed, little Christs. Your mom may have called you hopeless; God calls you destined. Your friends in high school may have called you weak; God calls you strong. Perhaps you were the type of person who got lots of looks but not because people thought you were attractive; God calls you beautiful and perfect. People from your past may only see the old you when they look at you but when you accept Christ he calls you: chosen, redeemed, pure, holy.

God’s names for you matter more.