Skip to Content

Mind your language

Mind Your Language

‘Isn’t there a Barack in the Bible?’ asked my husband, stirring briefly in his chair during a programme about the American president.

28 January 2009

12:00 AM

28 January 2009

12:00 AM

‘Isn’t there a Barack in the Bible?’ asked my husband, stirring briefly in his chair during a programme about the American president.

‘Isn’t there a Barack in the Bible?’ asked my husband, stirring briefly in his chair during a programme about the American president.

That was more than I knew, but he is almost right. There is a Barak who features in a stirring adventure in the book of Judges. He takes ten thousand men of the children of Naphtali and of the children of Zebulun, at the command of the prophetess Deborah and defeats Sisera’s nine hundred chariots of iron. It is in the aftermath of the battle that the incident occurs that appealed to later painters: the nailing of Sisera’s head to the ground with a tent-nail, as he slept, by Jael, who then shows Barak what has happened to his enemy.


Trollope makes use of the incident in The Last Chronicle of Barset, when the painter Conway Dalrymple is painting Jael and Sisera. There is a discussion between Mrs Dobbs Broughton and Clara Van Siever as to whether Johnny Eames should sit for the figure of Sisera.

Oxford’s Dictionary of First Names does not contemplate the possibility of Barak being used as a Christian name, although there is a passing laudatory reference to the Old Testament hero in the Epistle to the Hebrews. The name Barak means ‘lightning’ in Hebrew (perhaps with reference to a flashing sword), but however popular the name should be, it is not the name borne by Mr Obama.

Barack is an eccentric spelling of Barak, which comes via Swahili from the Arabic for ‘fortunate’, ‘lucky’, ‘blessed’. In Islamic Arabic thought the meanings of baraka overlap ‘blessed’ and ‘lucky’. Similar ideas exist in folk Christianity. In both religions, for example, holy water can keep away evil. So, for example, in Islam, water from the well of Zamzam at Mecca is drunk by pilgrims and taken home, and some have liked to dip in its waters the clothes in which they are to be buried.

True, baraka is related to words with the same meaning, and similar form, in the cognate Semitic language of Hebrew. Barak appears dozens of times in the Hebrew Bible with the meaning ‘blessed’. In some contexts it also means ‘curse’, as in the book of Job, where Satan says to God that if Job is tried ‘he will curse thee to thy face’. I think that the blasphemous idea of cursing God to his face was too much to express directly, so ‘bless’ was used for ‘curse’. For his sake let us hope Mr Obama’s term does not resemble the trials of Job.


Show comments
Close