What’s in a Name?

Weekly Reflection, Friday, January 15

By: Eleanor Wellford

That’s probably not a question we ask ourselves too often anymore unless we’re picking out names for babies! My husband and I had a terrible time picking out names for our three children. Somehow, I wanted to see what the baby “looked like” before assigning a name. That really didn’t help, though, unless there had been a name for red, splotchy and wrinkly! Only the pressure of needing a name before I could leave the hospital forced me into a decision.

In the Old Testament, however, names really meant something; and even more so if they were changed to reflect new circumstances. For example, in the book of Genesis, Abram (meaning “exalted father”) became Abraham (meaning “father of many”) when God made a promise to him that he would be fruitful and be father of many nations. Abraham’s wife was Sarah (originally named Sarai). In both names the 5th letter of the Hebrew alphabet was inserted – the letter that sounds like a breath, wind or spirit, which some scholars believe was God’s way of reminding them that whenever they spoke they would be communicating God’s spirit. Their only offspring was named Isaac which was Hebrew for what Sarah did when she heard that at the tender age of 90, she would become pregnant. She “laughed”.

Jacob, who was one of Isaac’s sons, also had a name change. As befitted his name of “supplanter”, he tricked his father into giving him his brother Esau’s birthright. As a result, he was sent away to live with his uncle and to straighten out his life. On his return home after many years of being away, Jacob encountered a divine being with whom he struggled all night. He was never the same after that and received a blessing and the name “Israel” which meant “one that struggled with the divine angel.”

In the New Testament, Jesus was given his name by the angel Gabriel before Mary even knew she was pregnant. There is a Feast day in January that celebrates the naming of her child, Jesus, which is a Greek form of an Aramaic name that means “to deliver or rescue”. Little did Mary know at the time of his naming, just how true it would be.

What about God’s name? We’ve heard several of them including Adonai (plural for “lord”); Elohim (plural for gods) El Shaddai (“God Almighty”) and Yahweh. Although Abraham and his offspring knew him simply as God – the one above all gods – Moses wanted to know more than a name. He wanted to be able to communicate who God was – something of God’s character – to his fellow Israelites. The first answer that Moses got was “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14) which in Hebrew is Yahweh, loosely translated into English as “the LORD” which seemed to Moses to be more like a title than a name.

It took his trekking to the top of Mount Sinai before he got his answer. In a cloud, Yahweh proclaimed his name as “the LORD (Yahweh), the LORD (Yahweh), a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin”. (Exodus 34:6-7).

What we hear in such a “name” is relationship. God wants to be in relationship with us. Moses and God were in relationship. On more than one occasion, Moses pleaded with God to change his mind and show mercy instead of anger to the Israelites. Moses wasn’t the only one to be in such a close relationship with God. We can be, too. By his life, death and resurrection, Jesus showed us that the kind of relationship he and Moses had with Yahweh is available to everyone. Wow! So that’s what’s in a name!