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An Atlas of Biblical Place Names

September 20, 2015 Linda Rosenkrantz

By Luke Williamson

Looking into Biblical names? You don’t need to limit yourself to those that have always belonged to people. Check out the place names!

Place names often have a wide range of associations, because places exist for hundreds of years. An example is the way Shiloh is referred to in three books of the Bible: it’s a backdrop for a prophesied king in Genesis, a disturbing event in Judges and holy gatherings in 1 Samuel.

Bible places are a source of fresh names (and some bizarre ones). While the flavors of the original languages are almost lost in the familiarity of the personal names Timothy and Hannah, the place names Athens and Kadesh still strongly savor of Greek and Hebrew. Only a handful of Biblical places are familiar as personal names (Jordan, Sharon). If you do pick a less familiar name, research the pronunciation.

Place names bring us a world of variety. Though the Bible was written in Hebrew and Greek, not all the places are in Israel, and only a handful are in Greece.

Let’s start at the beginning: the first book of the Bible. Here, place and personal names overlap as we read of people who end up with places named after them by their descendants: places like Israel and its twelve tribes, Lydia, Elam, Egypt, Thracia, possibly Rhodes, Javan (Hebrew for Greece), Cush and the Akkadian Empire. I would love to meet a girl called Akkadia/Accadia.

Israel is in the foreground of the Old Testament, and we hear about its cities, towns and dependencies, like Jerusalem/Salem, Jericho, Gibeon, Hebron, Gilead, Joppa, Kadesh, Bethany, Bethlehem, Beth-Aven and Bethel. The twelve tribal territories were Reuben, Simeon, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Issachar, Ephraim, Manasseh and Benjamin. By New Testament times, the north was Samaria and the south Judea.

Notice all those beths in town names? Just as Sharon means plain, Beth means town, and it can easily be a name in its own right. So could Kiriath, which pops up in several place names and means city.

Israel’s neighborhood included the lands of Lebanon, Midian, Sheba and Kedar and the cities of Damascus and Memphis (now an American city, too!). Further away, Tarshish (perhaps Spain), Ethiopia and India are mentioned in the Old Testament.

As the church spreads like wildfire in the New Testament, we find many of the same names again plus a huge new range. Peter preaches to people of Parthia, Asia (a much narrower term in those days) Scythia, Mesopotamia, Cappadocia, and Libya. Paul goes to Arabia, Cilicia, Lystra, Galatia, Macedonia, Achaia, Thessalonica, Berea, and Malta. The –a ending on all these limits them to girls, but if you want to find a boys’ name, some of them can be shortened (Macedon) or given an –n (Galatian, Berean). ‘Cretan’, unfortunately, looks like ‘cretin’! City names with other endings are Athens, Rome, Corinth, Derbe, Sidon, and Philippi (there’s an unusual way to get the name Philip!).

Don’t forget the list of cities tucked away in Revelation, including Smyrna, Pergamon, Thyatira (Tira for short), Philadelphia (another American city namesake) and Laodicea.

With the Bible, it’s hard to find names, either of people or places, with only positive associations. Generally, ugliness will be exposed in anything human, even the ‘good guys’ – unless perhaps they’re mentioned very briefly! However, even with a negative association, there’s often a positive message. While the Laodiceans are roundly criticised, they are given some great advice (and had a lovely sister-church in the city of Colossae). Besides, it can be a good thing to carry around with you a warning and reminder of weakness as well as a celebration of strength.

Just for fun, let’s zero in on Persia, a pretty alternative to Elam. A woman in the New Testament is called Persis, meaning Persian. The land of Persia has a rich and varied story in which the Bible features prominently. Nowadays we call it Iran, so the name Persia has a lovely 0ld-world feel.

Places are not only cities, countries and so on. They can also be natural places like rivers (Nile, Tigris, Jordan), seas (Galilee, Mediterranean, Red), mountains/hills (Zion/Sion, Olivet, Hermon, Carmel, Mars – yes, really) and places of wandering (Ziph, Elim).

Finally, don’t forget places of the start and end of the Bible, the places of creation and eternity – Earth and New Earth. ‘Earth’ and ‘universe’ don’t work well as names, but try the Latin Terra. Getting more specific, we have Eden, Nova Salem (a spin on New Jerusalem) Heaven, and Nevaeh (Heaven backwards).

Luke Williamson is a baby name consultant (cymycy.com), proofreader, and writer in New Zealand. He studied English literature, Chinese, and linguistics at university and sticks his nose into a dozen other topics, too. All of them enrich his fascination with names.

 

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