Some parents give babies names that sound nice, and some parents choose names because they’re unique. Other parents live in countries that have laws about naming children.
In Germany the first name must make obvious whether the child is a boy or a girl, and the name “must not negatively affect the well-being of the child.”
If you live in Denmark, you can’t give your child the name Monkey.
If you live in New Zealand, you can name your child Violence or Number 16 Bus Shelter, but you can’t name your baby Fish and Chips.
In Sweden you can’t name your child Metallica or Superman or Ikea or Elvis, but you can call your baby Lego or Google.
This might seem strange to you, and it seemed strange to one couple in Sweden. They didn’t like all these restrictions, so they submitted this as a name for their baby: “Brfxxccxxmnpccccllllmmnprxvclmnckssqlb111163.” How do you say that? It’s Albin. The authorities rejected that name, so the parents submitted another name: A. (It’s not pronounced A. It’s Albin.) Authorities rejected that one, too.
In Genesis 41 we find some baby names. A dad named Joseph chooses the names for their meanings. He’s been beaten, sold, abandoned, resold, trapped, and imprisoned. He knows suffering, and the names he selects tell us something about his suffering. He names his sons Manasseh and Ephraim.
If you look up the meaning of Manasseh, you might find that it means “making forget” (G. Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary ). That goes along with what Joseph says: “It is because God has made me forget all my trouble and my father’s household.”
“God has made me…” God has empowered Joseph, equipped him, strengthened him. God has empowered Joseph “to forget all [his] trouble and [his] father’s household.” Joseph certainly has suffered trouble, some at the hands of his brothers and some at the hands of Egyptian authorities. God has empowered Joseph to forget his trouble and his family of origin. This forgetting is more than just forgetting, but it’s less than total forgetting. It’s more than just a slipping of the mind, but it can’t be a complete forgetting because Joseph mentions the trouble and the household. (He can’t mention something if he’s forgotten it.) This forgetting is a strong forgetting. Joseph’s trouble and family no longer bother him. They don’t hold him back. He still remembers them. They’re still part of his identity and always will be. But they don’t block what God wants to do in his life.
If you look up the meaning of Ephraim, you might find that it means “fruitful land” or something similar (summarized from Wenham). That goes along with what Joseph says: “It is because God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.” Again we see that God has empowered Joseph: “God has made me fruitful.” Fruitful means productive. The Bible uses it in relation to producing children, and Joseph probably has that in mind here. God has given Joseph two sons, but Joseph is fruitful in more ways than having children. He’s fruitful, or productive, in several areas. In chapter 39 we see that in Potiphar’s house “The Lord is with Joseph so that he prospers” and that “the Lord gives him success in everything he does.” Then we see that in prison “the Lord is with him; he shows him kindness and grants him favor in the eyes of the prison warden. So the warden puts Joseph in charge of all those held in the prison, and he is made responsible for all that is done there.” Joseph is fruitful in Potiphar’s house. He’s fruitful in prison. He’s fruitful when Pharaoh tells him to interpret his dream. He’s fruitful when he gives Pharaoh unsolicited advice. He’s fruitful in his role as prime minister. He’s fruitful as a family man. God empowers Joseph to be fruitful.
Notice where this takes place – “in the land of [Joseph’s] suffering.” Joseph’s literal land of suffering is Egypt, and that certainly applies here. But it’s also more than literal. It’s his context of suffering, his world of suffering. God empowers Joseph to be fruitful, to be productive, in the midst of his suffering. Suffering doesn’t have to separate us from God. God can empower us and make us productive even when we’re suffering.
Whatever your suffering, God can empower you to live productively. No matter what you’ve been through, God wants to use you. No matter how dark your story, God can equip you to do good.
This blog post is a modified portion of my sermon for Park Avenue Church of Christ, Memphis, TN, December 1, 2013.
I modified the Bible quotations from past to present tense.