Monday, September 19, 2011

Ichabod: Named in Despair (I Samuel 4:21)

Who named her child Ichabod? Phinehas’ wife (Personally, I would have also accepted Mrs. Crane.)

The name Ichabod resulted from a tragic chain of events that began on a battlefield pitting the Israelites against the Philistines. 30,000 Israelites, including the high priest of forty years, Eli, and his sons, Phinehas and Hophni were lost (I Samuel 4:10-11). Even more damningly, the Ark of the Covenant fell into enemy hands (I Samuel 4:11). The shock from so much loss induced premature labor in Phinehas’ unnamed pregnant wife (I Samuel 4:19). This resulted in her death but not before she gave birth to a son (I Samuel 4:20-22). The Bible allows the reader into the privacy of the birth chamber as she bestows her son with the memorable name, “Ichabod” (I Samuel 4:21).

And she called the boy Ichabod, saying, “ The glory has departed from Israel,” because the ark of God was taken and because of her father-in-law and her husband. She said, “The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God was taken.” (I Samuel 4:21-22 NASB)
The name was no less peculiar to the original Hebrew audience than to contemporary readers. No one else in the Bible bears the ignominious name. Ichabod means “no glory” or “inglorious”. P. Kyle McCarter, Jr. (b. 1945) has argued that the name means “Where is (the) glory?” or “Alas (for the) glory!” (McCarter, I Samuel: The Anchor Bible, Vol. 8, 116). Ichabod certainly had an inglorious beginning as in his first day of life, he lost his parents, grandfather, and even the Ark of the Covenant, the representation of the glory of God.

Though many give their children Biblical names, few ever christen their child Ichabod. As there is a certain poetry to his birth narrative, the name Ichabod did find its way into significant 19th century literature. T.H. Huxley (1825-1890, “A Liberal Education”) and Anthony Trolloppe (1815-1882, Barchester Towers, p. 452) used the name as an exclamation and Charlotte BrontĂ« (1816-1855) referenced Ichabod in her novel, Villete (p. 284). The poem “Ichabod” by John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892) expressing the author’s lament over abolitionist Daniel Webster (1782-1852)’s support of the Missouri compromise, is a staple of American Literature. Ironically, the name’s most famous use, in Washington Irving (1783-1859)’s short story The Legend of Sleep Hollow, does not draw upon the Biblical text but rather an acquaintance of Irving, U.S. army captain Ichabod Bennet Crane (1787-1857).

Does your name have meaning? What is the worst name you have ever heard? If you have children, why did you name your kids as you did? Where is the glory? Have you ever felt such utter despair as did Phinehas’ wife?

Phinehas’ wife understood profoundly the consequences of her situation. There is a double saying at the end of her story as Phinehas’s wife says not once, but twice that “the glory has departed from Israel” (I Samuel 4:21-22 NASB). Despite her great personal loss, Phinehas’ wife emphasized that the real tragedy her child’s name commemorated was the big picture - the lost Ark. There could be no greater tragedy than the departing of God’s presence.

Even the joy of a child did not ease her despair. She thought her son had no future. Like many modern couples, she doubted that she wanted to bring a child into the world in the state it was in, especially into a nation that was seemingly powerless.

In naming Ichabod, he was marked for life, a walking reminder of a catastrophic day. A woman naming her son after dreadful circumstances is not unique in the Old Testament. As Rachel died during childbirth, she attempted to name her son, Ben-oni (“son of my sorrow”) but the child’s father, Jacob, overruled her and renamed the son as he is remembered - Benjamin (Genesis 35:18). Jabez, whom Bruce Wilkinson (b. 1947) immortalized in his book The Prayer of Jabez, was named “sorrow” by his mother “because I bore him with pain” (I Chronicles 4:9-10). The miserable circumstances of Ichabod’s birth were more widespread than these other cases as everything in Israel had seemingly crumbled. Ichabod would forever be tied to the past with a name synonymous with shame.

We know little of Ichahod’s life or whether his name was a detriment to him. No action of Ichabod is recorded in Scripture and his name appears only twice (I Samuel 4:21, 14:3). It has been suggested that he gained prominence as Ahitud is later described as being Ichabod’s brother (I Samuel 14:3). Recognizing someone by a sibling (as opposed to a parent) is rare. What is clear is that Ichabod lived.

Phinehas’ wife saw her situation as hopeless. Life as she knew it was indeed over. But life was not over. Though his family died, Ichabod lived. Ichabod is a picture of life out of death. His name should be a reminder that what we see as hopeless is never so, as long as we have a God who can bring forth life from death.

Have you ever felt that God departed from you? What reminds you of bad times? What thoughts get you through those bad times? How do you avoid despair?

“Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song.” - Pope John Paul II (1920-2005)

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