Come and listen to my story about two mutts named “Pretty” and “Ugly,” not mountaineers, not digging up some food, and certainly not “up through the ground come a bubblin crude” (for my generation raised with “The Beverly Hillbillies”). No, this ballad is about Pretty and Ugly’s move from Clyde to Sterling City, TX. Where there was a lot of oil, “black gold, Texas tea,” and where country millionaires still drive their old trucks to town.
After graduating from Abilene Christian University it took me some time to recover from my senior year (a full load of classes, 20 hours in the ACU paint shop, preaching two sermons a week at Putnam, with a Bible class on occasion, and working other side jobs as they came along). So we settled briefly in Clyde, just outside of Abilene. We had a mutt named Malkah (“Queen” from my first year of Hebrew) who had a litter of pups, most of which we gave away except for two that we named “Pretty” and “Ugly.” Malkah died soon after, leaving us with two young dogs when it finally came time to begin the work I was trained (and called) to do: preach (at least for a while; teaching already had a foothold in my heart and mind).
When the call came we loaded up the truck and moved to Sterling City, the county seat for a sizable county with one town: Sterling City (population ~1.000). In Sterling county cattle easily outnumber people, as do sheep, goats, and oilrigs. On arrival at the parsonage we tossed Pretty and Ugly into the chain-link fenced back yard and went to work inside the house. We unloaded the truck with ample help, began unpacking boxes, and about dinnertime looked out to discover Pretty and Ugly had found an escape hatch through the fence and had fled the confines of their backyard.
So, at dusk, I found myself in my little truck driving up and down the streets of my new home alternating my shout out each window, “Pretty!” “Ugly!”—“Ugly!” “Pretty!” Not exactly the way I had been taught to begin a ministry: half the town receiving a blessing of “Pretty” and the other half convinced they had hired a nut.
I learned a lot from my first pastorate, far more than I taught anyone. One day Ugly disappeared without coming home (as usual)—and I didn’t go looking, or shouting (lesson #1). Pretty had pups, but we kept none (lesson #2). And after Pretty also disappeared we got a new dog that we named, “Teddy” (lesson #3: a name I could shout out the window without offending anyone).
Well the first thing you know” ol’ Glenn’s a millionaire in encouragement; Sterling City’s greatest gift to me. And soon enough others came to say, “Glenn move away from there.” They said, “Colorado is the place you ought to be,” so we loaded up the truck and moved to Buena Vista (I tried to find a rhyme, honest). An equally remote small town with a slight change in scenery: it was located just a few miles away from the continental divide in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. Teddy even made the trip and didn’t run away… except for the time with the skunk, the time with the porcupine, and the other time with the porcupine (he was adorable, but not the brightest dog on the block).
So what’s in a name? Most often these days, nothing; unless we give a child a name in tribute to a mother, father, or someone else we love. I can’t recall anyone I know that has a name based on their physical attributes, their character, or their parent’s hope for their lives. But in the world of ancient Israel and the text of the Old Testament we stumble over one name after another that means something (often a clue or insight into the story we are reading). When I gave students enough time the question would come, “Why did they give their children such names?” or “How did they know what names to give their children?” I think there are several viable answers:
- Parents named a child based on an obvious physical feature: “Esau”—red or hairy man, “Rachel”—“ewe” as in precious lamb (Gen. 29), and “Abigail”—father’s joy or source of joy (1 Sam. 25).
- Parents might name a child in hope of the child growing into or becoming their name: “Solomon”—peace or his peace (2 Sam. 12:24-25), “Eli”—my God (1 Sam. 1)
- Some names, especially female names, lack meaning other than family of origin: “Bathsheba”—daughter of Sheba. Or worse, daughters and wives are frequently unnamed in the biblical text—even when they play major roles: Jephthah’s daughter is unnamed (Judg. 11) as is the Levite’s secondary wife (Judg. 19).
- Parents waited to give a child their name until their personality demonstrated who they were: “Jacob”—scheming heel-grabber, “Eglon”—(fat) cow (Judg. 3), and “Deborah”—fiery woman, a strong leader (Judg. 4).
- Names were changed as a person’s life or destiny changed: Jacob was renamed “Israel”—man who struggles with God (and everyone else), Abram was renamed “Abraham”—father of a multitude, Sarai was renamed “Sarah”—princess, Naomi renames herself “Mara”—bitter (Ruth 1), and God sends word to rename Solomon, Jedidiah—loved by the Lord (2 Sam. 12:24-25), though we seem to ignore God on this point.
- Names may be a narrative device, given by the storyteller in order to give insight into the character in the story: “Samson”—sunny or sunshine is eclipsed by “Delilah”—of the night or night woman (night overcomes light), and “Nabal” is what his name says—fool (1 Sam. 25).
So the next time you hear a new resident driving slowly down the road yelling “Ugly” in your direction, please give them a break. At the time they are just “Nabal” hoping some day to become “Hakam” (wise). And the next time you stumble over a name in the Old Testament, go ahead and take the time to look at the footnote (I hope it’s there), or look in a good Bible dictionary. What you find, the meaning of the name, may be an important clue for understanding the message of the text.
Signing off, Glenn (from my father)
Glenn Pemberton is a minister turned professor turned writer. After serving churches in Texas and Colorado, Glenn completed a Ph.D. (Old Testament). He then taught at Oklahoma Christian University before coming to Abilene Christian University in 2005, retiring as professor emeritus in 2017 due to a severe chronic pain. Glenn now spends his time writing for the church. Along with short essays he has published four books, including The God who Saves: An Introduction to the Message of the Old Testament (2015), and Hurting with God: Learning to Lament with the Psalms (2012). Glenn and his wife Dana continue to live in Abilene, Texas.