Many of us run into contested Israelite issues on a regular basis while visiting social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. A common topic of contention is who is or isn’t an Israelite. The discussions often lead to claims that no one really has the Israelite culture today. People argue that the Europeans destroyed it all during their various colonization around the world. I decided therefore to write this fun facts series about Israelite customs in West Africa. I hope through it to confirm that the Northern Kingdom still keeps their laws in exile (2 Esdras). I highlight the presence and significance of Hebraic culture in the names of the Igbos and Yorubas of West Africa.
The meaning of names
West Africans are named after events at birth, a deceased ancestor or a place. It is never an arbitrary event, rather it reveals the ancestry and values of the bearer.
A historical perspective
A British colonial officer, Major Arthur Glynn Leonards in his book “The Lower Niger and its Tribes” notes that:
In nothing, not even in their customs, can we grasp the natural and ancestral conception so plainly as in these names which invoke, promise, threaten, praise, revile, satirize and sympathize, that in fact express and demonstrate all that is human, that is, all that is best and worst in them.
Names are generally a descriptive term of circumstances surrounding the birth of a child. I suspect it is the reason West African children are named on the 8th day, and not at birth. Even if a name has already been picked out for the child, it’s kept hidden till the 8th day.
Igbo and Yoruba names
For Instance, the Igbo name Nwaorgu (son of war) refers to someone who was born in the time of war. The Yoruba name Adeleke (One who overcomes) is sometimes given after a major victory is won.
The name Iheanacho means what we have been waiting for while Kashimawo means let us wait and see. The former can be given to a child when the family finally has a boy child. The later is sometimes given to a child whose family has suffered previous miscarriages.
Names are often a form of praise for the Most High or a person. For instance, the Igbo name Amarachi means God’s favour while the Yoruba name Ifeoluwa means God’s love. Igbo Chinyere and Yoruba Oluwaseun means God’s gift and thank God respectively. If you believe you have truth and honesty on your side, Ejimofor is the name for your son. The Yoruba version is Otedola which means that I prospered despite all those who contended against me.
Some names reflect the values and faith of Society. Nwakuba and Omotola means that a child is more precious than riches in the Igbo and Yoruba languages respectively. Ndukuba and Emiola both mean that life is more than wealth.
Onwudinjo means death is evil while Ikuomola means that death doesn’t respect the rich. The name Chijioke means that God is in charge while Oluwaseyi means that God has done this.
Meaning of Names in the Bible
These names are all descriptions of events or beliefs of the people around the time a child is born. It is important to note that all biblical names where descriptive of events around a child’s birth as well.
Adam refers to the ruddy (reddish brown) color of human skin. Peleg means both earthquake and to divide (Genesis 10:25). In his days, Noah’s children divided the earth among themselves and the continents possibly separated at this time too.
Abraham means father of many and through his seed, all the nations were blessed. His wife Sarai (quarrelsome) was a contentious woman (Genesis 16:5). She eventually became virtuous Sarah (Princess). The name Israel means to prevail with God because Jacob (deceiver) prevailed against the Angel all night (Genesis 32:28).
Manasseh (to forget) was a forgettable character who was overshadowed by his twin called Ephraim (Book of Jubilees). The name Ephraim means double fruit (International standard bible encyclopedia). He became the largest single tribe in Israel because they had a higher incidence of twinning than the other tribes. It is a marker that I have used to identify Ephraim in the world today (Genesis 41:50-52).
What am I getting at here? Hebrew names are always descriptive in the Bible, they are still so among the Israelite tribes of West Africa today.
The name of the Most High
It is interesting to note that there is a debate ongoing regarding the name of the Most High. The objection against Ahaya (paleo-Hebrew for I AM ) being the name of the Most High is that it isn’t a noun but a description. Such an argument reveals little understanding of Hebraic names. ALL names in the Bible are descriptive, it is modern English that now classifies them as nouns.
Names are sacred
Names generally are not taken lightly. Among most West Africans you do not ridicule a man’s name, no matter how ridiculous it actually sounds. His name encompasses everything he is and what his family represent. If you adulterate his name, you dishonour him.
Every time you call a name, it is believed that you are speaking that name into a person’s life. If you change it and mock the person, it is like cursing him. You never tease your friend’s family or surname.
Everyone has many names
Naming a child in West Africa is a huge event that brings together all the generations of the family. It is a major celebratory event where the principal members of the Family give names to the child. Typically, the parents, grandparents and great-grandparents (if still alive) give a name each to the child. Other names are given by influential members of the family. Some outsiders who contributed to the union or stability of the parent’s home may be honored to name the child. For instance, a close friend involved in bringing a couple together, is sometimes asked to give the child a name.
Multiple names among the Yoruba
Here is an outline that I saw concerning the Yoruba.
The child’s parents give the first name, the paternal grandparents give another followed by the maternal grandparents. This is extended to the great grandparents if they are still alive. That is already 3-5 names not counting the surname that the paternal line all share in common.
If there are members of the family that are very influential in the community say like a king, then they are entitled to give the child a name as well.
If either of the child’s parents was raised by anyone other than the parent (not an uncommon event) then such a person may also be given the honor of naming the child.
A people of many names
I won’t expanciate further on this. I think you already get the scope oh how many names an average West African has. In fact, I have heard of people having up to 15 names. The person naming a child will address the child by their chosen name for the rest of his/her life. Consequently, the name by which a child is called by the grandparents is often different from that used by the direct parents. Different people likely will call the child by different names.
I can imagine some readers smirking about how ridiculous this all is. Why would anyone need 15 names when you can only put three on most birth certificates? You need to understand that to West Africans, a name is sacred. It is like a prophesy you call upon a person each time you call their name. All those names are blessings that are prophesied daily upon the child for the rest of his/her life.
If you read scriptures, you sometimes see this multiple names in play.
And Jesus, walking by the sea of Galilee, saw two brethren, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers. – Mathew 4:18
And he brought him to Jesus. And when Jesus beheld him, he said, Thou art Simon the son of Jona: thou shalt be called Cephas, which is by interpretation, a stone. – John 1:42
The same man is listed as having three names in the account of the gospels.
But hey, what about the Messiah himself?
The Messiah had many names
I can almost hear the Israelites ready to take off my head now! Before you come after me, please read the rest of this section.
The New Testament records multiple names for the Messiah. He is referred to as Jesus and Emmanuel (Matthew 1:21-23). Note that there are questions about the real names here since the letter J was not invented before the 1600s AD. That however is not the subject of today’s discussion.
Most of the Messiahs names are however listed in the Old Testament:
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his NAME shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. – Isaiah 9:6
Please note that these names in Isaiah 9:6 are the English translations of the actual Hebrew names. Also note that they are all descriptive.
There are a few more like the Branch (Zechariah 3:8 and 6:12).
And speak unto him, saying, Thus speaketh the Lord of hosts, saying, Behold the man whose NAME is The BRANCH; and he shall grow up out of his place, and he shall build the temple of the Lord. – Zechariah 6:12
By my count, that is Eight names already given to the Messiah. Revelation 3:12 indicates that at the very end, he will have yet a new name. The different names highlight different ways he relates to different people at different times just like West African names.
So, do you still think that it is ridiculous for any person to have many names? I doubt you still do.
Naming takes place on the 8th day
The 8th day ceremony is a common naming feature among West Africans rarely practiced elsewhere in the world. Ashkenazi Jews also name their sons on the 8th day after the circumcision. Jewish girls however are often named earlier. Many African tribes hold a special morning party for this regardless of the child’s gender. For boys, circumcision is done the same day, before or after the naming ceremony. The question now is why do they do this? As far as I am aware, most people do not know why they did, it is just their culture. So, how am I sure that this is a Hebraic culture?
Here are two good reasons.
And it came to pass, that on the EIGHTH DAY they came to circumcise the child; and they called him Zacharias, after the name of his father. And his mother answered and said, Not so; but he shall be called John. – Luke 1:59-60
And when EIGHT DAYS were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called JESUS, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb. – Luke 2:21
Both the Messiah and John the Baptist had a customary naming ceremony on the eighth day like all Judeans. The ceremony was always on the same day as the circumcision.
Do not take thy father’s name in vain
Like most people, we have probably heard various interpretations about what this statement really means. I considered what a father’s name meant to the children in West Africa and had an interesting understanding.
Firstly, a child never calls his father by name and only announces the name at official functions. What do I mean by this? The only time to identify your father’s first name is while filling out an official government form for any purpose. Your daddy in unofficial situations is only referred to as your father. For example, my name is Judah, so my father would be referred to as the father of Judah. Sounds familiar?
The Most High is referred to as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The scribes of the Scriptures generally avoided naming him instead using titles. The time when an official name was needed was when Moses needed to identify him to secure the co-operation of the children of Israel (Exodus 3:14). Obviously, they had been referring to him by some ‘name’ when they prayed to him before then.
Or the name of your friends father
This name rule also applies to your friend’s parents, you can never call them by their first name. In fact you may never get to know the first name of your friends father. It is a major insult to call your friend’s father by his first name. Your friendship will very likely end the day you do so. That is how sacred and reverent your father’s name is.
The fear invoked by the name of the Most High in the Bible is therefore understandable. These days however, we see many Israelites who write and speak the name of the Most High with scary familiarity. I have no plans to adopt that style of parent son familiarity. I will reverence the name of the Most High as I’ve seen both in Scriptures and among West African tribes.
The Most High is the Father of the Israelites
In these cultures, people can easily understand what it means to ‘take not the name of the Lord in Vain’.
We understand from Scriptures that the Most High is the Father of the people (Israelites).
And thou shalt say unto Pharaoh, Thus saith the Lord, Israel is my son, even my firstborn: And I say unto thee, Let my son go, that he may serve me: and if thou refuse to let him go, behold, I will slay thy son, even thy firstborn. – Exodus 4:22-23
Wherefore David blessed the Lord before all the congregation: and David said, Blessed be thou, Lord God of Israel OUR FATHER, for ever and ever. – 1 Chronicles 29:10
They shall come with weeping, and with supplications will I lead them: I will cause them to walk by the rivers of waters in a straight way, wherein they shall not stumble: for I am A FATHER TO ISRAEL, and EPHRAIM IS MY FIRSTBORN. – Jeremiah 31:9
If you do not take the name of your earthly father in vain, why would you do so to the name of your heavenly Father? This Law would be an easy one for West African Israelites to follow. They can easily understand the phrase “Hallowed be thy name” (Matthew 6:9 and Luke 11:2).
Wives and in-laws reverence the husband’s name
One fascinating thing among several West African tribes is the reverence they have for the husband’s name. A wife typically doesn’t call the husband or his family members by first name. In these modern times however, some now add a prefix like uncle, brother, aunty or sister before the name as a mark of respect. However, as soon as you have kids, they start referring to you as father or mother of your child. For instance, if your child is called Ifeoluwa, your in-laws will now start calling you baba Ifeoluwa (or baba Ife) meaning the father of Ifeoluwa.
Interestingly, in ancient times, the Yoruba wife often referred to her husband as ‘olowo ori mi‘ (transliterated as the owner of my head). This term was said to arise because the husband paid a bride price to the wife’s family prior to marriage. Today, this is occasionally used in the villages, but is mostly used as a joke by modern urban Yoruba women (especially educated ones). To those of us in the western world, this may sound a bit overboard with the wife submission teaching. However a look at scriptures without the feminism filter reveals that was a normal practice in biblical Israel. How do I know?
Reverence for the Husbands name in the Bible
For after this manner in the old time the holy women also, who trusted in God, adorned themselves, being in subjection unto their own husbands: Even as Sara obeyed Abraham, calling him lord: whose daughters ye are, as long as ye do well, and are not afraid with any amazement. – 1 Peter 3:6
Wow! Sarah wasn’t calling Abraham by his name? Calling him lord to me is similar to calling him “the owner of my head”. Note that the scripture said this was the manner (practice) by holy (Israelite) women in the old (ancient) time. So Rebecca and Leah also had reverence for their husbands name? I’ll bet your pastor isn’t going to teach this on Sunday morning.
Am I therefore advocating that women should start calling their husbands Lord or master? That is not my call to make, my wife doesn’t call me Lord. Besides, Israelite practices are Israelite’s choice to adopt if they want to. If you are a European, you are not Israelite but a heathen, this is not your culture to begin with. It should however help all to understand the reverence that Israel had for their maker, father and husband.
Praising a name – oriki
Partying is a very common event in West Africa. People come up with any excuse to celebrate. Inviting a DJ to take care of the music is a western thing. The way to go in Africa is to invite a band to play live. The amazing thing about these bands is that they do not just sing their most popular music in a concert format. They customize the song to the celebrant’s identity.
The musician therefore digs up the celebrants background information like where he is from, who his family is and what are their achievements. He is therefore able to sing the celebrants praise and extol his virtues. He can even sing a celebrant’s oriki which is a literary oral genre used to inspire him. It is a poetry like song of praise for a family lineage which every Yoruba was supposed to know about his/her family.
There are orikis for the king and the creator.
Below is a very short one I found with English subtitles from this page.
The book of ‘Oriki’
The musician now sings this oriki thus drawing everyone’s attention to the celebrant and his glorious heritage. So, why is the oriki interesting? Well, take a look at the entire book of psalms, which is what an oriki looks like. It is why many songs used to praise the Most High are taken from the book. This would be a great song for a musician to sing at a party hosted by the Most High:
O give thanks unto the Lord; call upon his name: make known his deeds among the people. Sing unto him, sing psalms unto him: talk ye of all his wondrous works. Glory ye in his holy name: let the heart of them rejoice that seek the Lord. Seek the Lord, and his strength: seek his face evermore. Remember his marvellous works that he hath done; his wonders, and the judgments of his mouth; O ye seed of Abraham his servant, ye children of Jacob his chosen. He is the Lord our God: his judgments are in all the earth. He hath remembered his covenant for ever, the word which he commanded to a thousand generations. – Psalm 105:1-8
Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised in the city of our God, in the mountain of his holiness. Beautiful for situation, the joy of the whole earth, is mount Zion, on the sides of the north, the city of the great King. – Psalm 48:1-2
Now that I think about it, praise and worship is a party hosted by the Most High, so let us sing His “Oriki” with all joy.
The young don’t call the older or their boss by name
It is considered ill mannered and a sign of bad upbringing for the young to call the elders by name. And it most certainly is not okay to be on first name terms with your stepparent. Calling your boss by name except as part of an official presentation is always considered a sign of in-subordination. Only when introducing him in an official capacity to a third person can you call his full name.
Different terms are used to address elders and bosses, but your stepparents are always identified as daddy or mummy. The most common way to address an older person is using their official titles or by the terms brother, sister, uncle or aunty depending on how much older they are (1 Samuel 1:15, 26). In some families, you are even forbidden to call your older sibling by first name only. You must call her sister Joy and not simply Joy. It is a common joke that an African youth always tells you he has a thousand aunts and uncles. Just ensure that he clarifies which ones are his relatives by blood.
Address elders like your parents
If your boss has a traditional title, you can call him chief. If he doesn’t have one, then you call him boss (oga is the common term in Nigeria). Under no circumstances do you ever call him David, or Paul even though it may be his name.
Generally, West Africans are raised to address and treat the elderly with the same respect they would give their own parents. Most will call the elderly mummy or daddy. So don’t be shocked when you see an African call several different older black women his mum. He is not confused or involved in some kinky stuff, he’s just putting his culture into practice.
As an aftermath of colonialism, calling an elder or a higher ranked person by the terms ‘sir’ or ‘ma’ is now a very normal thing. It is worthwhile to note that those terms are foreign to the region but are now used to avoid calling by name. That is how reverent people consider names of elders to be.
Apprentices are called the children of their master
This is one I find very fascinating. When people speak to a trainer, they refer to his/her trainees as his children. The Yoruba call them “omo ise” (meaning children of trade) Sometimes, some of these trainees may live with their master observing him day and night.
So what does this mean?
A carpenter in training is referred to as the ‘son of the carpenter’. A tent maker’s apprentice will be the ‘son of the tent maker’.
Sons of the prophets
Interestingly, there are numerous people in West Africa who are recognized as prophets by the locals. These prophets have trainees who are referred to locally as… wait for it… sons of the prophet. What a coincidence, or maybe not? There are numerous examples in the bible were prophets in training were referred to as the sons of the prophets.
And a certain man of the sons of the prophets said unto his neighbour in the word of the Lord, Smite me, I pray thee. And the man refused to smite him. – 1 Kings 20:35
And the sons of the prophets that were at Beth–el came forth to Elisha, and said unto him, Knowest thou that the Lord will take away thy master from thy head to day? And he said, Yea, I know it; hold ye your peace. – 2 Kings 2:3
And Elisha came again to Gilgal: and there was a dearth in the land; and the sons of the prophets were sitting before him: and he said unto his servant, Set on the great pot, and seethe pottage for the sons of the prophets. – 2 Kings 4:38
The bible doesn’t tell us the names of these trainee prophets, but according to 2 Kings 2:3, it appears that at one point, Elisha was one of them.
Why am I writing all these about names in West Africa? The Church and indeed many Christians say that the Old Testament is archaic and nobody can follow the law. I believe such a conclusion is based on a real lack of understanding of the Law. This article and several others to be posted later are written to show that some cultures still practice these laws. Through reflecting on those cultures, we may perhaps better understand some scriptures that we currently speculate so widely about. Through their customs, the West African tribes bring the law to life. They are therefore in a good position to understand the sacredness of names. Through their culture, we may better understand how to reverence and Hallow the name of the Most High.
3 thoughts on “Fun facts about Hebrew Names in West Africa”
well said, that is exactly the west African culture. I like this topic. I also like the fact that you relate it to the scriptures. Good job to the writer.
Thank you for leaving a comment on my blog. I’m glad that you liked the article. Do check out our other topics on the subject of Hebrews and Israelites, I’m certain you wil enjoy them as well.
You did a great work.I believe Yoruba history predates Oduduwa.