Names are an integral part of who we are as humans. They form the bedrock of communication. Names also form a part of our individual and collective identities, without which we become dehumanized and ambiguous. The process and ritual of naming something or someone is deeply related to what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom.
In Scripture, names take on the role of powerful spiritual and physical signifiers. In the Old Testament, the name changes for Abram (Abraham), Sarai (Sarah) and Jacob (Israel), represent dramatic moments of transition in the lives of these figures. The bestowal of a new name indicates a number of things, not least of which is the very real new identity that an individual takes on at a certain point in life. Paul, when sharing a prayer of encouragement to the church at Ephesus, makes a statement that underscores the power that a name carries.
“For this reason, I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name” (Ephesians 3:15).
“Name” or “naming” in the Greek is closely associated with utterance, professing and with breathing, which as we will see next week is closely associated with the Jewish understanding of God’s name. The recognition of our own name and its meaning is a realization of our identity, which is wrapped up in the name we have been given by our parents and all that this is associated with; tradition, culture, ancestry, faith, ethnicity and personhood (among other things). At the same time, our identity is also associated with the names that God has identified us with (beloved, child of God etc.). All these names (or identities) define who we are, especially once we have experienced the same kind of transformation and new life that Jacob, Abram and Sarai did. In this context, names represent new birth or the new life that an individual has entered into. This transition is something that the Old Testament speaks about, not just for individuals like Sarah and Abraham, but for the collective Israel as well:
“The nations shall see your righteousness and all the kings your glory, and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give” (Isaiah 62:2).
Think about this. The New Testament declares that our ultimate identity is in Christ, “in Him we live and move and have our being (existence)” (Acts 17). Elsewhere, Scriptures testifies that Christ has been given the “name above all names.”
“Therefore, God exalted Him to the highest place and gave Him the name above all names, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Phil. 2:9).
This indicates that when we are in Christ, we are grafted into the one who is above all names, even our own. We become transformed into a new identity, one that is bigger than our own and yet simultaneously transforms and renews our identity. The symbolism behind name changes in the Old Testament draws attention to the centrality of Christ’s name, which is the “name above all names.” Perhaps this is why the writers of the New Testament associated Christ with the Greek “Logos” (which means “word” or the “unifying principle”). Christ’s name, is then the word or name that all other words and names find their ultimate source and foundation in.
I’d like to draw attention to a passage in Genesis that stands out. I want us to think about the profundity of Adam shouldering the responsibility to name all of the creatures in the earth, as described in Genesis 2:20, which states that, “The man gave names to all the cattle, and to the birds of the sky, and to every beast of the field…” (Gen 2:20, NASB). This privilege, that is the naming of the animals within creation, demonstrates the stewardship over the earth that God has granted to human beings. First, God names Adam (followed by Eve), before handing over the task of naming the rest of earth’s creaturely inhabitants.
Philosopher Walter Benjamin calls this process of name assignment, a way of participating in God’s order of creation. In a sense, God is delegating responsibility to humans to define and categorize different creatures. Benjamin captures the beauty of this human privilege in the following quote:
“By naming, I am participating in divine creation, since I assign linguistic entities that manage to express the spiritual and intellectual content of things.”
To name something is to participate in the process of creation and creativity.
This truth is one of the key factors that distinguishes humanity from all the other creatures in the world. Our ability to speak, to consciously differentiate and to designate is what separates us, in a very real way, from the animal kingdom. It is what separates man from machine.
By creating and naming, we imitate God – who is the source and origin of all creation. One of the most beautiful examples of this is when we name our children. When we speak and when we name a thing (whether it be new or old), we are carrying on the process of Creation.
There is a great deal of meaning that is packed into any name or label. Words have power. That power can be used for good or for ill. Names are often used to degrade or to shame an individual or group, but they can also be used to honor and uplift. Consider the words of Proverbs 18:21, which states that, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” and elsewhere, “There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”
The words that we use to identify a person or an object may seem arbitrary, but once they have been affixed to something, they become entities in their own right. A person’s name gives dignity and pride. When we address someone by their name, we are recognizing their unique individuality and that they are made in the image of God. Every name carries a meaning to it and behind the name is a person with their own story and history.
“A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold” (Proverbs 22:1).
The book of Proverbs speaks over and over again about the damage or the good that our speech can do – when we use a word, a label, a name, we are harnessing something very powerful. Let’s be mindful when we do!