Why Names Matter

  
What is your name? The name that your parents decided should represent you for the rest of your life? And what do people call you? When they see your face, what is the word they say to catch your attention?

I remember discussing names a lot before my wedding. I have a strong, four-syllable, Italian maiden name, that I always felt held more of my identity than even my first name. I contemplated hyphenating it, or combining our two last names, but it would have given us a last name that was far too long. I put all of this time and effort into finding the name that most represented me, because I recognized that names have power.

Names can often seem fairly innocuous, since all people and all things have them, but they matter a lot to God.

Words and names aren’t just sounds. The first time we see the full force of their power actually takes place in Genesis 1:3. “God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And so light appeared.” The first chapter of Genesis has so many complexities held within its verses, but one of the most beautiful and controversial is that our God can create simply by speaking. 

In Amy-Jill Levine’s lecture “In The Beginning” (which you can purchase on Amazon here), she points out that the other creation narratives, and specifically the Babylonian Epic Enuma Elish, depicted the gods working really hard and expending a lot of effort to create the world. The author of Genesis makes clear that our God holds far more power than their gods, because our God simply has to speak to create and organize the world.

In the mouth of God, words hold the power to create the universe. And names are the words that belong specifically to us.

Every name we read in Genesis means something. It’s easy to become accustomed to reading, “Adam and Eve,” or “Abraham and Sarah,” and simply accepting those as the names of individuals. If we look at what their names signify, the text gets far more complex and deep.

For example, at the end of Genesis 3, where we left off yesterday, God has given the man and the woman their punishments, and immediately afterward, Genesis 3:20 states, “The man named his wife Eve because she is the mother of everyone who lives.”

The word “Eve” means life. The next instance in which her name shows up in the text is the first verse of Genesis 4: “The man Adam knew his wife Eve intimately.” On the surface, we can infer what it means for Adam and Eve to know each other intimately. If however, we read the names as what they mean in Hebrew, we see another level of meaning. The verse would then read, “Humanity knew Life intimately.” 

Later in the verse, Eve gives birth to Cain, and states, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.” She recognizes that her power to give birth was a joint effort between herself and God, and praises Him for blessing her.

We often think of Adam and Eve’s life outside of Eden as being destitute and lost. But what this text tells us is that while they are no longer in their original home, they find life and humanity within one another, with the help of God. Similarly, we can look at one another and find in that human connection the powers of humanity and life, and a reminder of God’s presence and sovereignty. May we consider today what our names say about us, what our invocation of other names means for us, and ultimately, by what name God calls to us.

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