For different reasons, I’ve been thinking of late about names and their significance. So over the next few posts I thought I’d share some of my reflections on these things. Specifically, names in Scripture and the significance of God not only ‘having’ a name, but of God ‘giving us’ his name, and to what end.
O be some other name! What’s in a name? That which we call a rose By any other word would smell as sweet; So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called, Retain that dear perfection which he owes Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name, And for thy name, which is no part of thee, Take all myself. (Juliet, in William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2)
‘What’s in a name?’ A lot it would seem, particularly if you lived in the ANE where names served as distinguishing markers. Their role is neither to define nor describe, but to identify. They work to differentiate, to structure, and to order. So the naming/designation of the animals by Adam in Genesis 2:19 not only ‘represents something wholesome and salutary’ but also ‘opens up specific human dimensions for communication and for fellowship’. Compare this to Babylonian creation epic in which time preceded the naming of creation: ‘When on high the heaven had not been named … when no gods whatever had been brought into being, uncalled by name.’
The other use for such a distinguishing mark was linked with hope, namely the endurance of one’s family line, and the related securing of family assets (so Deut 25:7; 2 Sam 14:7; 18:18; Ruth 4:5, 10), or the hope of exploitation and abuse (as in Genesis 11:4): ‘let us make a name for ourselves’ (cf. 2 Sam 8:13. In 2 Sam 7:23 God seeks make a name for himself.)
In the OT world, the name also served as an expression of being itself. ‘The name is the soul’. So Origen noted, ‘A name is a term which summarizes and manifests the personal character of him who is named’.
Whereas in modern practice the meaning of a name functions as little more than ‘mere tags’ which pick out an object that ‘by any other name would smell as sweet’ and is generally unknown and irrelevant to its choice, Hebrew names ‘are readily “readable” by those who hear or see them.’ In so far as it does this, naming ‘assumes, rather than justifies, the existence of an object to be named.’ So, for example, we read of Dan in Genesis 30:6, ‘Then Rachel said, “God has judged (or ‘vindicated’, NIV) me, and has also heard my voice and given me a son.” Therefore she called his name Dan’, where Dan sounds like the Hebrew word for ‘judged’. Another example is Nabal (‘foolish’, ‘senseless’) in 1 Sam 25:25 where his character is reflected in his name.
But this is not always the case, even in the Hebrew Bible. So, for example, ‘Absalom (2 Sam. 13) means ‘my father is peace’, when neither he nor David seemed to know much peace, though they offered it to others (1 Sam 25:6, 35; 2 Sam 3:21-23; 15:9, 27; cf. 2 Chron 14:6).
A person’s name not only expresses their identity, but also defies definition by an abstract concept. As Thielicke notes, ‘Any attempt to identify a man with his role or subsume him under a concept leads necessarily to the falsifying of his uniqueness. This uniqueness always contains a transcendent element, a free possibility which cannot be pinned down. The name expresses this transcendent content. It eludes any concept.’
In itself, it seems, one’s name tells us nothing. In itself, it is only an invitation to know more of what might be revealed. The name-bearer is never defined, only introduced, presented. The name can be filled out and interpreted but only by its bearer. But this naming is only ever done with a view to relationship, i.e. for the sake of others; I tell you my name that you and I may enter into discussion. An example of this is when God says to Moses, ‘I know you by name’ (Exod 33:17). As Shults has noted, the point here is ‘not the prepositional content of the divine intellect but the faithful intentionality of the divine promise’. This promise relates to being known by God. In this case, to God’s intention to know Moses. ‘Being known by God’, Shults says, ‘is an experience of the intensive Infinity of divine faithfulness, and the unspeakability of the divine name came to signify this infinite qualitative difference between Creator and creature.’
When we come to the NT, there is little unusual about most of the references to a person or place’s name, especially in Luke-Acts. This does not mean that there is not, as Hartman notes, the widely held belief lurking behind the text that ‘the name communicates something essential or characteristic about the bearer of the name’. Particularly significant is the indication in the name itself of some task given by God, as in the names given to Jesus (Matt 1:21, 23, 25; Luke 1:31-33; 2:21), the Baptist (Luke 1:13, 59-63), Peter and Boanerges (Mark 3:16-17), or something essential about their bearer, as for Legion (Mark 5:9; Luke 8:30), Elymas (Acts 13:8) and various characters in the Book of the Revelation (6:8; 8:11; 9:11; 13:1, 17; 14:11; 15:2; 17:3, 5; 19:11-13, 16).
Connected to knowing the name of a person is the ability to control them, as in Legion (Mark 5:9; Luke 8:30) or those marked with the name of the beast, who are subsequently shaped by its nature (Rev 13:17; 14:11; this becomes particularly significant when we think about God making his own name known). In the case of Jesus giving his followers new names, this amounts to them being given new identities, status and character (Mark 3:16-17; John 10:3; Rev 2:17), identities which are then written in the Lamb’s book of life (Luke 10:20; Phil 4:3; Rev 3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 20:15; 21:27).
Also, in the NT, one’s name is also linked to one’s reputation (Mark 6:14; Luke 6:22; 1 Tim 5:14; Titus 2:8). This is true even for God (1 Tim 6:1; Titus 2:5).
A final thought: No one introduces themselves to themselves. Hence God’s giving of his name to humanity is only ever with a view to fellowship with us. Hence God’s hallowing of his name is with a view to securing the same.
Another final thought: Perhaps this is why I feel odd whenever I read a posted comment from ‘Anonymous’. I recognise, of course, that Mrs or Mr Anonymous must be either (i) a very important person or (ii) meant to be doing something else at the time and so wanting to allude detection, or (iii) not a person at all.