God’s name

Names and the Name – 3

God has a name – 2

My hope with this series of posts on the Name is to fill out the significance of what we mean when we pray ‘Hallowed be Thy Name’. This first petition of what is commonly called ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ (perhaps better entitled ‘The Disciple’s Prayer’. It seems to me that the Lord’s Prayer is best exemplified in John 17) is probably the most ignored part of the prayer. It follows on from what can only be described as the very climax of the Gospel itself – the gift to humanity that we should know and call on God as ‘Father’ – and is also directed to what follows – ‘Your kingdom come’. My agenda: that we might better know, reverence and hallow God’s name before the nations to his glory. So that’s where we’re going with these posts. Before we get to the first petition of the prayer, however, we must spend some time understanding the meaning and significance of the Name in the Hebrew Bible. This will be the purpose of the next few posts.

The three main independent names for God in the MT, based on Israel’s experiences of God’s blessing and redemption, are Elohim, YHWH and Adonai. Most biblical scholars and theologians are quick to identify ‘YHWH’ as the unique self-named and self-revealed designation of Israel’s God on the basis that there are no certain occurrences of its use outside Israel prior to Moses. Certainly, the relationship between this Name and Israel was never lost thereafter.

Most OT scholars identify that in Israel’s thinking, God’s name was thought of in the larger context of the world of the ANE and its divinities. What Israel came to see at Sinai was that they had a unique God with a unique name. The name of the God of the fathers was YHWH. In the MT, this is God’s ‘proper name’. In Israel’s biblical tradition, this name alone was cultically appealed to (Israel called ‘on the name’) and closely connected with the Ark of the Covenant. This should come as no surprise, for as Eichrodt notes, ‘It is through her worship of this God that Israel is marked out from all other nations’. This also makes sense liturgically where we need to use God’s name not to talk about God but to and for him. This is no less true for how the trinitarian formulas were first utilised in the Early Church. And it is no less true for how we ought to address God today. More on this to come.

Note: For those preparing sermons for this Sunday (and the coming 3; ie for June), I’ll post some thoughts on 4 lectionary readings for the next 4 Sundays. The first one, on Romans 5:1–5, will be posted tomorrow.

Names and the Name – 2

God has a name – 1

One of the great gifts that the people of God enjoy is knowledge of God’s name. The God who claimed Abram and that nation to be birthed from his loins has a name. The God who has claimed humanity in Jesus Christ has a name. God is no abstract ‘ground of being’. In latter posts we shall see that God’s name is Father, Son, Holy Spirit. But the economy of revelation is such that this tri-fold name was not always known. Nevertheless …

God has a name. The misery on this earth is nameless, the evil among men is nameless, for the powers of darkness love to be without a name. Nameless, anonymous letters, letters without signatures are usually vulgar. But God is no writer of anonymous letters; God puts His name to everything that He does, effects, and says; God has no need to fear the light of day. The Devil loves anonymity, but God has a name. He did not get this name by chance; in fact He did not receive it at all: He gave it to Himself because He wants to have a name. For him, name does not mean noise and smoke that cloud the splendour of Heaven; His name is His sign, the sign that shows that He is the true God; His name is His signature, so to speak, His monogram, His seal, His stamp (His trademark, if you will!) – whatever bears His stamp is God’s. God would certainly have had the power to be nameless; but because He loves clarity and hates obscurity He preferred not to be a nameless God. (Walter Lüthi)

Both the Hebrew Scriptures and the NT demand that God have a proper name. In the MT, God’s self-revealed name is YHWH, the meaning of which is filled out in Israel’s experience, primarily that of liberation from Egypt and the coming into their own land of promise. When we come to the NT, we learn that God’s proper name is ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’. Again, the believing community is given to know this name, and so God, in the experience of redemption, this time final. This name-knowing and redemption both happen in the one place. More specifically, they happen in a person, Jesus Christ.

Robert Jenson notes that the NT understands by God ‘whoever raised Jesus from the dead’. This identification by the Resurrection, Jenson argues, ‘neither replaces nor is simply added to identification by the Exodus’. Rather, ‘the new identifying description verifies its paradigmatic predecessor … Thus “the one who rescued Israel from Egypt” is confirmed as an identification of God in that it is continued “as he thereupon rescued the Israelite Jesus from the dead”’.

Names and the Name – 1

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.

God has a name

‘God has a name. The misery on this earth is nameless, the evil among men is nameless, for the powers of darkness love to be without a name. Nameless, anonymous letters, letters without signatures are usually vulgar. But God is no writer of anonymous letters; God puts His name to everything that He does, effects, and says; God has no need to fear the light of day. The Devil loves anonymity, but God has a name. He did not get this name by chance; in fact He did not receive it at all: He gave it to Himself because He wants to have a name. For him, name does not mean noise and smoke that cloud the splendour of Heaven; His name is His sign, the sign that shows that He is the true God; His name is His signature, so to speak, His monogram, His seal, His stamp (His trademark, if you will!) – whatever bears His stamp is God’s. God would certainly have had the power to be nameless; but because He loves clarity and hates obscurity He preferred not to be a nameless God’. – Walter Lüthi