Names have meaning, and that meaning carries a lot of weight. Just ask an expecting parent faced with the task of naming a child. (How is it, with one stroke of a pen, we decide what a human being will be called for the rest of her or his life?) The choice is daunting in part because we know it means something.
Long before I scoured baby name meaning books and websites throughout three pregnancies, I treasured the meaning of my own name. I liked that I was the only Rachel in my grade, but I could still find it on a kiosk in Gatlinburg, carved in wood or printed on a magnet picture frame. And I knew my parents named me after the Rachel of the Bible. They did a great job naming me.
“Rachel” is Hebrew in origin and means “little lamb.” All my life I felt this mattered, what my name meant. I always have, and always will, hold Psalm 23 as a life passage. I joyfully identified as a little lamb, even when sermons explained how feeble and unintelligent these creatures are. Because at least they were close to the Shepherd.
This served me well… until it didn’t. Turning 40 somehow gave me an appetite for and awareness of my own strength. Suddenly I didn’t want to be a little lamb any more; I wanted to be a grown up with her own will and direction and resources. I had three children, after all; I should grow up already! This new-found fierceness coincided with a season of questioning everything I’d been taught in scripture. For what seemed like forever, it was painful to approach the Bible. I had some sorting out to do. This is a whole other story still in process; the point here is that the last thing I wanted to do was read the Bible.
A New Realization
Then, on a bright summer solstice morning, I woke feeling peculiarly drawn to a devotional app I hadn’t opened in months. The opening screen had my name on it! The story of Rachel in Genesis 29 was right at my fingertips. This was not a coincidence. I read the whole chapter, looking for what God might want my heart to know, and then I saw it:
Jacob was still talking with them when Rachel arrived with her father’s flock, for she was a shepherd. (Gen 29:9)
Rachel wasn’t a sheep. She was a shepherd.
Rachel was a shepherd!
She was not a dumb, weak follower; she was a capable leader.
Somewhere through the centuries Rachel’s association with sheep changed, and the Hebrew language named her a little lamb. All my life I’d read the story and missed the fact that she was a leader and tender of little lambs.
That very day, my own internal narrative shifted. I began embracing this new meaning for the second half of my life. Actually, I had been doing this work for a while; this experience gave me permission to trust myself in what God was doing. (Also a whole other story!)
Rachel as a sheep worked well for the first half of my life, and I’m grateful. Rachel as a shepherd makes so much more sense to me in my 40s.
Holding the Old and the New
I brought this realization to my Spiritual Director, who’d asked me the meaning of my name the first time we met. Together we marveled at this new joy. Her next response immediately helped temper my zeal, inviting me to see myself as both/and. “In a way we are all in need of care and direction, and we are all able to give care and direction,” she said. “You are a sheep AND a shepherd.” What a beautiful, humbling truth. There is nothing wrong with being a sheep. We all need a Good Shepherd who knows the path. We all need to rest and let someone else take care of us for a while.
And when the Good Shepherd invites me, I get to partner with Him as a shepherd.
And this makes me think of you, dear reader, and the meaning of your name, and the way our Good Shepherd is leading you. Whether or not your name is found in the Bible, it comes from somewhere and your parents had a reason for giving it to you.
Questions to Consider
I wonder what narratives you’ve attached to the meaning of your name. Do you identify with that meaning? How has it shaped the way you see yourself? Has that been a good thing?
What stories do you tell yourself about your origin and meaning and why your parents named you what they did? Are those stories from men, or from God?
Do they resonate with who you really believe God made you to be? What else has God told you about who you are? What name does He call you? What is His invitation for this season?
For example, reading the Bible account of Rachel, I could see her as a grieving, barren little lamb with a mean sister who had to wait 14 years to marry the man who loved her. Or I could see her as a beautiful and capable shepherd, the mother of Jacob’s favorite son of God’s favorite people, and find a new part of myself in her story.
As you unpack your own story, I pray that you’ll see yourself the way God sees you, and that you’ll have the courage to change and grow with the seasons of your life.
“I have called you by name; you are Mine.”