Barack, Thy Name is Biblical

Vilifying Barack Obama’s name has become a favorite blood sport in the 2008 presidential campaign. Recent examples range from repeated … Continued

Vilifying Barack Obama’s name has become a favorite blood sport in the 2008 presidential campaign. Recent examples range from repeated mentions of “B. Hussein Obama” by conservative pundit Ann Coulter to four allusions to Obama’s “Muslim sounding middle name” by Republican strategist Cheri Jabobus on MSNBC in defense of similar language. Time correspondent Mark Halperin predicts that the McCain campaign will likely continue to “emphasize Barack Hussein Obama’s unusual name,” despite McCain’s repudiation of this tactic. Obama himself warns supporters that his “funny” name will be targeted.

The actual lineage of Barack Obama’s name, however, extending back to a revered biblical namesake, befits his status as a Christian of rich ancestral influences. Obama’s first name, Barack, means “blessed” in the African languages of Luo and Swahili, both spoken widely in his deceased father’s birthplace of Kenya. The African “Barack” originates from the Arabic word “baracka.” Barack and “baracka” mean the same as the Hebrew word “baruch,” as Obama himself noted in his 1995 memoir, “Dreams from My Father,” and at recent campaign appearances.

Famous historical figures with derivations of that name are philosopher Baruch Spinoza, philanthropist Bernard Baruch and Pope Benedict XVI — “Benedict” is the Latinized form of Baruch.

Despite their similar sounds, Barack has a different linguistic root than Barak, the last name of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, which means “lightning” in Hebrew.

Obama’s middle name, Hussein, derives from the Arabic word Hassan, which means something inherently good. Some linguists believe that the Irish name Ó hOsáin or Hassan is derived from the same word. Historical figures with names deriving from that root include Prince Hassan and the late King Hussein of Jordan and King Hassan II of Morocco. The name of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, an ally of both the United States and of Israel, has precisely the same roots, in reverse, as Barack Hussein.

Barack Obama shares with past American presidents, including Abraham Lincoln, Zachary Taylor, and Benjamin Harrison, the distinction of a notable biblical namesake. Baruch Ben Neriah was a scribe and friend of the prophet Jeremiah and also the reputed author of the apocryphal Book of Baruch, a canonical biblical book for Roman Catholics. He is the subject of Jewish and Christian religious lore from the Talmud to the writings of fourth-century church father Jerome and is portrayed as a righteous sage granted a tour of heaven itself.

Baruch Ben Neriah makes a fascinating appearance in recent archeological finds, as detailed by J. Edward Wright in his book, “Baruch Ben Neriah: From Biblical Scribe to Apocalyptic Seer.” Showing up also, indirectly, in these finds is Ebed-Melech, a black Ethiopian who is identified with Baruch Ben Neriah in some ancient rabbinic commentaries and who rescued Jeremiah after the prophet was imprisoned by three ministers of King Zedekiah (Jeremiah 38:1-13). The names of Baruch Ben Neriah, “the scribe,” and of two of these royal ministers all appear in ancient Hebrew inscriptions on clay seals, the first on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and the others unearthed in dramatic recent finds by archeologist Eilat Mazar in Jerusalem just this July and in August 2005.

I asked Dr. Wright, who is director of Judaic studies at the University of Arizona and president of the J.F. Albright Institute of Archeological Research, about these developments concerning Obama’s name. “The way some pundits are using name associations is beyond simply naive; it is truly shameful,” Dr. Wright said. “As names, both Barack and Hussein have noble pedigrees, and this fact should be used to promote understanding and not to provoke political or religious enmity.”

It remains to be seen how the strange versus “blessed” interplay behind Obama’s name will resonate with Bible-centered voters as well as with other Americans. Will voters be influenced more by fear of differences or by appreciation of America’s diverse religious and cultural tapestry and the prophetic stands within?

If the latter influences prevail, and if Obama’s linguistic lineage continues to feed his charismatic appeal, his detractors may find themselves wishing they could just call him Barry.

David Scheim is the author of the 1989 New York Times best seller, “Contract on America,” and a member of an interfaith Bible discussion group in Patrick County, Virginia.

  • terra

    Barack Obama was named after his Kenyan father, the late Barack Hussein Obama, Sr., a Muslim.Hussein is a Muslim name, which comes from the name of Ali’s son–Hussein Ibn Ali.“Baraka” is an Arabic word meaning “blessed” and is found in the Koran.Why are you spinning this??

  • unpopular

    Popularity isn’t a blessing. It has all kinds of snares. See Profiles in Courage. I am rather unpopular and intend to stay that way. It’s all pop culture, with no popcorn. Hollywood is producing this years election, with a remake of Camelot with a cast of people who believe in taking no chances this time. The black JFK is over the top. Pirates on a ship of fools. The tune is sour, the brain is going dim but the true memory is love. The ship is sinking and so I say hells bells. Enjoy the trip.

  • Anonymous

    He could be spinning in his grave.

  • Anonymous

    Why try to twist the truth about Barry’s name??The fact that his Muslim father named him “Barack Hussein” shows his father considered his son “born Muslim” as all good Muslim fathers do.”There is none born but is created to his true nature (Islam). It is his parents who make him a Jew or a Christian or a Magian quite as beasts produce their young with their limbs perfect. Do you see anything deficient in them? Then he quoted the Qur’an., The nature made by Allah in which He has created men there is no altering of Allah’s creation; that is the right religion” If it makes you feel any better-David, THY Name is Biblical

  • David Scheim

    Barack Obama is a Christian of rich and diverse roots that evoke powerful and beautiful influences — Christian, Jewish, African and Arabic. He has a biblical namesake, as did presidents Abraham Lincoln, Zachary Taylor, and Benjamin Harrison, and it’s quite fascinating that through religious commentary and recent archeological, the revered biblical figure Baruch Ben Neriah is connected to another biblical hero, a black Ethiopian.As Obama name attacks try to raise the specter of Saddam “Hussein,” how will the late, bedraggled dictator fare in the linguistic lineage mix against Pope Benedict, dignitaries and Obama’s venerated biblical namesake, Baruch ben Neriah? Is it spinning to try to counter gutter talk representing the worst of America with focus on the prophetic vision of Thomas Jefferson at the core of our great nation, on biblical history, on the best in America? I don’t think so. – David (article’s author)

  • Marjorie Lominy

    Two words: Thank you

  • Athena

    Only ignorant, uninformed people actually believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim. What are you going to believe – some rumor on the Internets or the ample proof of his Christianity? Besides, what’s wrong with the name Hussein? King Hussein of Jordan was a staunch ally of the US for forty years, as is his son.

  • Gloria Whitman

    Thanks for the info, David!

  • karen

    ‘the prophetic vision of Thomas Jefferson at the core of our great nation”Thanks. We should remember the following words of Jefferson as we listen to Obama speak tonight:”Government big enough to supply everything you need is big enough to take everything you have … The course of history shows that as a government grows, liberty decreases.”

  • Ibrahim Mahfouz

    Hussein is an Arabic name which means “small good looking“. It is true that Christian Arabs have historically avoided using this name, yet now there are many ex-Muslims with that name. Obama’s father was a nominal Muslim, but no evidence that Barak ever was. Maybe another reason for non-Muslims to name their children Hussein. Barakeh is also an Arabic name, but not as near as popular as Hassan or Hussein. A well known Arab member of Israel’s Knesset is called Mohammad Barakeh.

  • Anonymous

    And yet, no Republic has pointed out our current president’s use of a pseudonym – gw bush – in place of his birth name, Alfred E. Newman.

  • Anonymous

    Athena writes:”Only ignorant, uninformed people actually believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim. What are you going to believe – some rumor on the Internets or the ample proof of his Christianity?”Question: what would be “wrong” with Obama being a Muslim if he were? I thought the USA respected all religions? Would being a Muslim rule him out as becoming president?

  • Anonymous

    What is wrong with the son of Muslim, who was named after his father, having a Muslim name?Since Senator Obama has been a Christian for at least twenty years, proved by his membership in the Church of Rev Wright and was an agnostic/atheist before that (his mother was an atheist, his father was a non-practicing Muslim), WHY this big deal about a name?Does a President’s name have to have some special significance, failing which one must be invented as in this essay?Senator Obama has his Muslim father’s name. SO WHAT?

  • Anonymous

    The Anonymous was Obama Well Wisher

  • Obama Well Wisher

    I have got a really special and unique name, filled with such significance and really no one else in the world has my name.Will you please vote for me as President of the United States – because I have got a really special name?

  • Observer

    Anonymous tells Athena:”Question: what would be “wrong” with Obama being a Muslim if he were? I thought the USA respected all religions?”Yes! We respect the right for anybody to choose his religion and practice it without any sort of compulsion. What is wrong with a Muslim being a president of the USA? A Muslim is synonymous with a person who simply believes and do not practice critical thinking. The presidency of any country is too important to have someone as such to hold it.

  • VICTORIA

    Just noting so the mistake isn’t repeated. The arabic word baraka means the blessing one receives from performing a good deed, and is more closely likened to mitzvah.(Arabic: البُراق al-buraaq, meaning lightning; is a mythical creature from Islamic tradition. It was said to have been a creature from the heavens, which in the 7th century, carried the prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Jerusalem and back during the Isra and Miraj (Night Journey), which is the title of one of the chapters of the Qur’an. In Turkey, Burak is a very common name also. I believe Obama’s name as no real basis in either, but is as noted by the author, a swahili name. The name Hussein is a diminutive version of Hasan, which means handsome, one who is good.

  • Obama Well Wisher

    I find it endlessly amusing that such a desperate attempt is being made to add all sorts of mystical significance to Senator Obama’s name.No amount of twisting and turning will change the fact that the name is that of his Muslim father.The question is why should that matter?

  • Obama Well Wisher

    Senator Obama should be judged based on his works, both past, present and future. Period.

  • Anonymous

    “Senator Obama should be judged based on his works, both past, present and future. Period.”um ah great idea Obama Wellwisher. Why not name a few in each catagory?

  • Jim

    Today, coopers are often called barrel makers. Shooters to thrill. We can spin some barrels, so grab your partner and stay locked and loaded.

  • Observer

    Re Barak’s name:

  • interesting

    “Barak in Hebrew and Arabic measns “lightning”I have noted for some itme on this board and others that Muslims always typed “Barak Obama” not “Barack Obama”. It has happened with such frequency that I made a note to check it out.hmm.. interesting..

  • VICTORIA

    I applaud Mr. Scheim’s efforts- although I wish he would have researched the subject a little more deeply. “Barack, means “blessed” in the African languages of Luo and Swahili, both spoken widely in his deceased father’s birthplace of Kenya. The African “Barack” originates from the Arabic word “baracka.” Barack and “baracka” mean the same as the Hebrew word “baruch,”. Buraq means lightning. Barak means lightning in Hebrew- similar but from a different root. This confusion stems largely from difficulties in the translation. The Hebrew word “barukh” is not a verb describing what we do to G-d; it is an adjective describing G-d as the source of all blessings. When we recite a berakhah, we are not blessing G-d; we are expressing wonder at how blessed G-d is. The (Hebrew) berakhah and the (arabic) baraka are similar in that they are both acts of giving blessings or receiving blessings- and included in both is a gratitude for blessings received from the god. The difference is, in the naem- the named is the one who has a blessing conferred upon them. I just love words, and their etymology (roots) so it’s a partuclarly fascinating subject for me.

  • David Scheim (article author)

    I appreciate kind words posted about this piece and just want to clarify that the linguistic analysis was extremely well researched and accurate. In semitic languages, words are composed of root letters (for Hebrew baruch, for example, Beit Resh Khaf, v. Qof which would corresponding to “lightning”). But there can be different vowels used in conjunction with the same root letters and also different variants in meanings. This kind of detail was not appropriate for this short article.Of course, we should make decisions about a candidate based on policy and record, not name. But there’s a subterranean roar of attacks out there on the web using Obama’s name to try to raise sinister implications. Floyd Brown, creator of the 1988 Willie Horton ads used against Michael Dukakis, is involved in one video now along these lines. If we’re going to be diverted by this name focus, let’s use it in a way consistent with American values and to learn about a fascinating character in the bible. Let’s shine light on this and see how the bedraggled, late dictator Saddam Hussein stacks up against Pope Benedict, dignitaries, and Baruch Ben Neriah. – David

  • VICTORIA

    Thanks for shining light into this potentially damaging and misunderstood corner.

  • Back Story Please

    David:Now that you’ve elucidated the meaning of Barak Hussein Obama’s names-Please shed some light on the meaning and sibnificance of the names Bill and Bernadette.Thanks.

  • Ben Australlia

    This is SPIN. Besides, the Democrats have been fixated on names for decades, and asking us to use Muslim names. Now they are angry? Indeed, the fact that you use Senator Hussein’s own book as a primary source, and attack Ann Coulter suggests that the Washington Post is playing politics.

  • Malunda Wanda

    We have to be greatful for the informative and noble research of the roots to the candidates’ names. However, doesn’t it ever dawn on you, that the roots to the name Obama are never explored?

  • Bob S.

    Fun stuff. Irrelevant, but fun.

  • yoni

    Just to clear up some confusion, the Hebrew name Barak, which can, and actually should be spelled Baraq means lightning, and derives from the root brqThe Arabic version of that name is buruq, from the same root brq. Semitic languages are constructed round the root system. The Modern Hebrew word for telegram mibrak, comes from the same root, as it was as fast as lightning. Another modern Hebrew word derived from the same root is mabrik, which means shining. To give another example of how Semitic languages work, the root ktv means write. From this we have miktav-letter, kituv-spelling, kotev-writes, ketav-writing. Barack, as written in the article comes from the root brck, which means blessing. The Hebrew form of the root is brch. The Semitic letter at the end of the root is chaf in Hebrew (guttural ch sound like Scottish loch) and ckaf (hard k)in Arabic.

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