What’s in a name?

Then the Lord said to me, Take a large tablet and write on it in common characters, ‘Belonging to Maher-shalal-hash-baz’, and have it attested for me by reliable witnesses, the priest Uriah and Zechariah son of Jeberechiah. And I went to the prophetess, and she conceived and bore a son. Then the Lord said to me, Name him Maher-shalal-hash-baz; for before the child knows how to call ‘My father’ or ‘My mother’, the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away by the king of Assyria. — Isaiah 8:1-4 NRSV

Sometimes when I read scripture, especially the Old Testament, I run across long strings of names, genealogies that trace a person’s antecedents and sort of set up their place in the world or the story. The names are usually tongue-twisters and I usually end up saying a brief “Thank you!” that I don’t have to read them out loud in church (not without practicing for a couple of weeks, anyway). I realize that some of the names we give our children would be strange to someone in, say, Myanmar or Mongolia, just as theirs would be strange to us.

Names frequently have meaning, whether in the word or the intent of the naming. Perhaps the parents liked the sound of the name, or it was the name of a loved family member or friend. In the Bible, names usually meant something. Isaac (Yitzchak) meant “laughter” or “he laughs.” His mother certainly had a couple of good laughs before and after his birth. Prophets sometimes gave their kids really prophetic names like Isaiah’s two sons, one named Shear-Jashub (“a remnant will return”) and the other Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz (“quick to the plunder, swift to the spoil.”). Now can you picture Mrs. Isaiah going to the kitchen door and calling for those two to hurry on in for dinner?

Names have always been important. To know someone’s name was to hold power over them. In exorcisms, the exorcist seeks to get the demon to give up its name so that it can be banished. Jesus spoke the name of the demons holding the Gerasene demonic captive, the name “Legion”, and sent them into a herd of swine who then drowned themselves in the sea. Moses asked God for a name so that when the Israelites asked who was giving the instructions Moses relayed, he would have an answer. God rather cryptically gave the name “I Am Who I Am” and told Moses to tell them that I AM had sent Moses to them. To know the true name of God would have been tantamount to feeling that God was in their power and could be manipulated like the demons from the Gerasene demonic.

There are many names by which God is called, like El Shaddai, Adonai and the like, but there are two of them that seem to me to encompass how I conceive of God. One is the Jewish one, HaShem — the Name, while the other is the name Jesus used to call God, “Abba.” The two names are very different, the one, HaShem, being almost an enigma while Abba is a very intimate, very experience-able mode of address. They fit my personal theology of knowing God yet not knowing all there is about God or knowing God completely. My finite humanness can’t hope to ever know God completely, but yet the name by which I know God creates a bridge between us that links us no matter how great the distance or how unsubstantial the span.

How we name things and especially people gives an indication of our values, our aspirations, our relationships, or our beliefs. How we name God reflects much of the same criteria. I have a feeling, though, that what name I give to God, HaShem or Abba, is of less importance to than the fact that I actually call on God. At any given time God is God, HaShem AND Abba all at the same time. How? I haven’t a clue — and, to me, it really doesn’t matter.

What matters to me is that I can call God God, and, I am entirely hopeful, that my name to God is “beloved daughter.” I can’t think of a better name.

Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter

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