What’s in a Name? The Case of Nimrod
By Rav Uri C. Cohen
Sometimes you gotta ask: what were the parents thinking? Most parents give their children names which seem reasonable (to the parents, anyway). But sometimes you come across a name that sets up big expectations for the kid. As the Talmud says, “Sh’ma garim — one’s name can influence” one’s character (Berakhot 7b). Then either the kid lives up (or down) to his or her name, or doesn’t — in which case the name doesn’t seem to fit.
An example of living up to one’s name would be when TV weatherman Frank Field named his son Storm. I doubt if anyone was surprised when he too chose to be a meteorologist — how could he not, with a name like Storm Field? Then you have Madonna. That’s her real name — Madonna Ciccone. (She was named after her mother.) Madonna once remarked that “With a name like Madonna, what else could I have been but a superstar or a nun?”
One more example is in Parashat Noach — the case of Nimrod. Here’s the description of Nimrod in the Torah:
Cush fathered Nimrod. He was the first man of might on earth. He was a mighty hunter before God; hence the saying “Like Nimrod, a mighty hunter before God.” The beginning of his kingdom was Babel, Erekh, Akkad, and Kalneh in the land of Shinar (Bereishit 10:8-12).
At first glance, all the Torah tells us about Nimrod was that he was mighty (3 times), a hunter, and a king. But the standard rabbinic opinion, as we shall see, reads these verses much more negatively. Why? Simple — Nimrod means “Let’s rebel!” With a name like that, how could he not have been a rebel against God?
Actually, one scholar is convinced that no parents could have named their child “Let’s rebel” — it must be that “Nimrod” was the name he gave himself as an adult, as an arrogant statement (Yehuda T. Radday, “Humour in Names,” in Athalya Brenner and Yehuda T. Radday, eds. On Humour and the Comic in the Hebrew Bible (Sheffield: Almond Press, 1990), p. 77).
Accordingly, Rashi reads every phrase about Nimrod as rebellion:
“Man of might” — leading the entire world in rebellion against God with his ideas, in the generation of the dispersion (Tower of Babel). “A mighty hunter” — he would snare peoples’ minds with his powerful rhetoric, influencing them to rebel against God. “Before God” (literally, in God’s face) — he wanted to anger God in a direct confrontation. “Hence the saying ‘Like Nimrod, a mighty hunter before God'” — whenever we see an evil arrogant person who knows of God but freely chooses, brazenly, to reject His authority, we proclaim him to be “like Nimrod, a mighty inciter in direct confrontation with God.” (Translation by Rav Alex Israel, http://harova.org/torah/view.asp?id=773)
Interestingly, there is an alternative view, expressed by Ibn Ezra:
Don’t pay too much attention to a name (i.e., “Nimrod” meaning “Let’s rebel”) if its meaning is not expressly pointed out in the Biblical text. Nimrod was the first to show mankind’s might over the animals, for he was “a mighty hunter.” The phrase “before God” tells us that Nimrod would build altars to God and sacrifice to God the animals that he caught. This is the straightforward reading of the text (derech ha-p’shat); however, the Midrash chooses a different reading. (Translation by Rav Israel.)
Wow — what a different way of understanding Nimrod! Rav Alex Israel, a former HaRova teacher whose online class supplied the translations above, comments that “It is quite astounding to see Rashi and Ibn Ezra sitting side by side in the Chumash.” What motivates these radically different readings of Nimrod? It seems to me that the answer may be their different interpretations of Nimrod’s name.
For Rashi, once you view Nimrod as a rebel, the rest falls into place. It cannot be a coincidence that this rebel was the king of Bavel, where the people would soon rebel against God by building Migdal Bavel. Nimrod must have instigated this rebellion with his “hunting” of people — that is, demagoguery. Of course, as a rebel Nimrod was “in God’s face” — the same expression used today to describe confrontation. (“In your face!”)
Ibn Ezra, in contrast, would agree with the quip attributed to Sigmund Freud, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” Sometimes a name is just a name! It’s possible that Nimrod’s parents didn’t have rebellion in mind when they named him. Maybe “Nimrod” means something else in Akkadian or whatever language they spoke. Maybe they just liked the sound of the word. And even if Nimrod’s parents did intend him to become a rebel, maybe he chose not to live down to his name. In fact, Ibn Ezra suggests, Nimrod was very devoted to God, offering the animals he caught as an act of worship.
What’s in a name? Everything — or nothing. Do you live up (or down) to your name? Do you think that’s good?