By Linda Rosenkrantz
In the past, a narrow number of Old Testament girls’ names have been in the US Top 1000 every single year on record: Deborah, Esther, Hannah, Judith, Leah, Naomi, Miriam, Rachel, Rebecca, Ruth and Sarah. Some of them actually reached the Top 5— Ruth was #3 in 1893, Judith #4 in 1940, Deborah up at #2 in 1955, Hannah # 2 from 1998 to 2000, and Sarah #3 in 1993.
But why do we usually stop there?
There are many other Old Testament female figures—granted some of them much more minor ones—whose lovely but neglected names have the same religious resonance. For example:
Pronounced AH-da, this gentler biblical alternative to Ada is the first female name in Genesis after Eve and was worn by two notable mothers–of Esau and of Jubal. Adah and Zillah were the two wives of Lamech, pictured here. Barbara Kinsolver used Adah for a character in The Poisonwood Bible.
A minor figure in the Bible, the soft and rhythmic Atarah means ‘crown’. When spelled without the final H, it makes a pleasing addition to the long list of well-liked names beginning and ending in A.
Dinah was the beautiful only daughter of Jacob and Leah— whose life is depicted in the Anita Diamant novel The Red Tent. The one fairly well used name on this list, though never ranking higher than #487 (in 1955) and completely off since 1966, Dinah is a personal favorite of mine, for its rich Southern charm and relation to two great singers of the past.
Also spelled Elisheva, this was borne by the Old Testament wife of Aaron, ancestor of the Jewish high priests, and in the name world the ancestor of Elizabeth and her sisters. Nickname Sheba is a no brainer.
The biblical Jael was hailed as a heroine who delivered Israel from the troops of King Jabin of Canaan—praised in the line “Extolled above women be Jael.” Her bold deed has been portrayed in many paintings and her name referenced by such writers as P. G. Wodehouse and A. S. Byatt. Yael is one of the most common girls’ names in Israel, was on the US list in 2012 and reached #36 in Switzerland in 2008.
Jemima was the oldest of the three daughters of Job who were described as the most beautiful women in the land. A wonderful name, finally escaping many decades of racial bias in the US while maintaining an upscale image in the UK. Jemima Kirke plays one of the girls on Girls; Jemimah Shore is a lady detective created by Antonia Fraser.
This name, which also boasts something of a Slavic feel, was borne by the wife of King Uzziah of Judah and the mother of King Jotham and made a brief stop on the US Top 1000 list in the 1880s. A neglected treasure, it’s got lots of trivia tidbit cred: a granddaughter of Billy Graham, Julie Andrews’s character name in the movie Hawaii, based on the James Michener novel, and contemporary writer/director Jerusha Hess.
Keturah is the name of Biblical patriarch Abraham’s second wife after the death of Sarah, who became the ancestor of sixteen tribes. With the evocative meaning of ‘incense’, and an attractive sound, Keturah would make a distinctive and meaningful choice. It ranks at 761 on Nameberry.
A top girls’ name in several countries, including Israel, Spain, Portugal and Netherlands, despite what you would think might be a confusion with top male name Noah—which has a different meaning and derivation. It entered the US popularity list in 2014; Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu has a daughter named Noa.
The wonderfully strong and rich name of a daughter of King David and daughter-in-law of Jude, meaning ‘palm tree’. For that reason it is sometimes given to girls born on Sukkoth, a holiday associated with palm branches. In the Bible, Tamar is praised for her ‘fair countenance’.
An interesting name belonging to both a person and a place in the Old Testament. Tirzah was one of five sisters who fought for the right of women to inherit land. And since it’s National Poetry Month, let’s also note that William Blake wrote a poem called “To Tirzah,” –and it was also the name of the hero’s sister in Ben-Hur.
In the Old Testament, Zillah is a daughter-in-law of Cain, and in literature appears as a character in two Bronte novels—she was Heathcliff’s maidservant in Wuthering Heights. Zillah made it onto the US popularity lists in the late 19th century and could make a more exotic playmate for Willa today. Zipporah—the name of Moses’s wife—is another zippy Z name.
And we wish you a very happy Passover.