Names and the Name – 8

God has a name – 7

Continuing the series of posts on the divine name, we find ourselves (again) in that place where the bush burns but is unconsumed. Technically, God does not answer Moses’ request for a name. Instead, what YHWH gives is a promise that he will be faithful to himself, and that he will reveal his identity through his actions, not least his promise to be with a doubting and unconfident Moses who is called to confront Pharaoh in ‘the name’ (Exod 5:23) of this now-named God and bring the slaves to the mount of disclosure that the one who spoke from within the bush might be worshipped (Exod 3:11–12). Everything is left open and awaiting filling. ‘I will be who I will be’ is really no name at all, but rather the self-reserving of God to make himself known by his (impossible) action. In so doing, God refuses to satisfy not only human curiosity, but also to lend himself out to creatures who would seek to put him at their disposal. He refuses to reduce his transcendence to a name. Furthermore, he refuses to align himself in the pantheon of the gods. One OT scholar notes that historians of primitive people’s have found that ‘the possession of a name is regarded as the medium through which good or bad influences may be exerted. This is not viewed as mere symbolism, but is thought of as a real process; for the name is considered to be a real part of the being for which it stands’. The divine name is ‘the manward side of the Divine Being, the medium of access to the divine presence, and the source of blessing to the worshipper’. Given this, because magical power is attained in name learning, it is no surprise that God refuses to compromise his sovereign freedom and so withholds his name. Coffin offers an example of ‘the primitive peoples of India’ (he is writing in 1900, well before the time of PCness!) when seeking to ‘appease the wrath of some malicious power, which has been the cause of affliction, misfortune, or sickness, the first step is to determine the name of the god or spirit that requires to be appeased’. In other words, God is affirming that in his essential character he will not be the product of human thought or manipulation, unlike the Egyptian deities with which the children of Israel would have been eminently familiar.

There are some exceptions to this. One recalls Elijah’s battle on Mount Carmel where each group called upon ‘the name’ of their god (1 Kgs 18:2040). The narrative as we have it suggests that this was with a view to the worshippers of Baal and Asherah knowing that Israel’s God ‘YHWH’ is God. This indeed is precisely what happened (18:3639). Eichrodt notes that the basic conviction of the Elohist was his almost exclusive use of elohim for YHWH. ‘Yahweh’, he writes, ‘is not just one individual ‘el, but ‘elohim, the sum of all the gods, i.e. Godhead pure and simple, and as such, for Israel at any rate, he rules out all the other deities’.

BTW: Byron has recently posted a helpful (and lengthy) review of Vanhoozer’s The Drama of Doctrine here.

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