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Appearance of Names in the Torah

I’m trying to find a consistent pattern in the Torah regarding the identification of people. Sometimes very minor characters are named, while sometimes very significant ones are left anonymous. For example, the Torah mentions several Pharaohs – at the time of Abraham, at the time of Joseph, and during the Exodus – and they are never referred to as anything other than “Pharaoh” – even though history has identified many different Pharaohs. And these are among the most significant characters in the entire Torah.

On the other hand, the Torah and even more often the Prophets name very minor people, sometimes together with their lineage. One example is the Torah’s mention of Shifra and Puah (Exodus 1:15) – the two midwives in Egypt who defied Pharaoh and kept the baby boys alive. Thus, we have names for them but not for the king who commanded them!

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Thank you for your very good question. You are right that the Torah appears quite inconsistent in its identification of the figures which appear in its pages. As you note, sometimes very minor characters are fully identified while sometimes the most impactful ones are only vaguely identified or left entirely anonymous.

There are of course far too many examples of this phenomenon to discuss in a single response. So what I’ll do is discuss the issue very broadly and illustrate it with a few telling examples.

The most important principle to keep in mind is that the Torah is not a history book. It never identifies characters for the sake of providing historical detail or context. Rather, the Torah’s sole concern is teaching us the story of the Children of Israel – the growth and development of a nation which would fulfill a special mission to God and to the world. Details which are relevant to developing this theme were included in the narrative, while all other historical information, no matter how significant from a secular standpoint, was ignored.

A second principle is the significance of names in Jewish thought. Names are not just a convention, a convenient means of distinguishing one human being from another. They describe the essence of a person. When the Torah identifies a person by name, it is a way of saying that the person’s essence has been expressed in the current episode. On some level, the inclusion of his name is relevant to the story and lends deeper meaning to it.

A few telling examples (actually counterexamples – of unnamed characters) will help illustrate this. When Abraham sends his servant Eliezer to seek a wife for Isaac (in a long and detailed episode appearing in Genesis 24), Eliezer, in spite of his personal greatness, is never once identified by name. He is merely “Abraham’s servant.” Apparently his name was irrelevant. He was functioning as an emissary, completely subordinating himself to the will of his master Abraham (as his mission required) and never expressing his own individuality.

Likewise, when Abraham expels Hagar and Ishmael from his home (Genesis 21:9-20), Ishmael is never once identified by name. His is merely the “lad” – Hagar’s wicked son whom she takes with him. Quite possibly at that point of his life he was not living up to his name (Ishmael means “God will hear” – implying someone whose prayers deserve to be heard), and so did not deserve to be identified as such. He was merely a lad – neither worthy nor fulfilled.

Even more startling is the start of the Book of Exodus (Ch. 2), and the striking complete absence of names. “And a man from the House of Levi went and he took the daughter of Levi…” (v. 1). She bears him a “good” baby whom she is forced to hide away and later abandon in a basket floating on the Nile. His nameless sister watches over him until an unidentified Pharaoh’s unnamed daughter rescues him.

Now the characters are all ones known to us – and the greatest of the generation: Amram, leader of the Tribe of Levi, marrying his illustrious aunt Yocheved, who bears Moses, whom his sister Miriam watches over. But in the story they are all no-names, until at last Pharaoh’s daughter christens him Moses (with his original name – the one his parents no doubt gave him – not even recorded).

Clearly, God intended to obscure the names of the first individuals who precipitated the Exodus. And the message is that Israel did not merit the Exodus because of great and famous personages, great people who performed heroic feats. The Exodus was brought about by small acts of faith done without fanfare during the darkest times – by Jews who were willing to marry and raise families during hopeless times and trying their best to raise the next generation.

Two of the minor characters you mentioned who were listed were the Jewish midwives of Exodus 1:15-21, Shifra and Puah, who refused to kill the Jewish baby boys. It’s significant to note that according to the Sages, those were not their actual names (Talmud Sotah 11b). (The Talmud debates who they were, although all agree one of them was Yocheved.) Why were they given such names? They were descriptive of how they cared for the babies – how they “beautified” them (meshaperet – i.e., cleaned them off) and how they cooed (pu’ah) at them to calm them down.

Thus, in this instance the Torah did provide names, but they were actually not the people’s true names, but descriptive ones. As we explained above, the greatness of Israel at that time was not due to illustrious individuals performing heroic acts, but in their keeping the faith, doing the small, motherly acts of caring for the children to preserve the nation at such trying times.

(In fact it’s quite common that the Sages teach us that a name which appears in the Torah is not a person’s literal name. (This is especially so in the Book of Chronicles.) Again, names are provided to develop the theme of the story and define the human qualities which are being expressed. At times this is best done through the person’s actual name and at times through non-literal ones.)

More generally, every time the Torah does or does not mention a name it is significant. And the names are again never mentioned to provide historical backdrop, but rather to add depth to the story – to highlight a person’s essence when it is relevant – or to obscure it when it is not. In the case of Pharaoh, quite likely it was relevant that each Pharaoh was the all-powerful ruler of Egypt – and hence their royal titles are almost always used. But his individuality was never the issue. For the Torah is wholly indifferent to the sagas of individual Pharaohs and their successes and failures as rulers, but in their role in the development of the nation of Israel.

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