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God’s Name: A Many-Layered Mystery

BY Ellen Wilson Fielding

December 12-20, 1998 Issue | Posted 12/12/98 at 1:00 PM

 

“What's in a Name?” by Tim Gray (Lay Witness, December 1998)

Tim Gray writes:

“A voice comes forth from the burning bush telling Moses that sandals are not allowed on [the mountain]; the bush is planted on holy ground. … The voice begins to identify itself, saying, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’ (Exodus 3:6). … The Lord then describes how He will lead Israel out of Egypt, through none other than Moses. … Moses interjects some questions concerning the logistics of the operation: ‘If … they ask me, “What is [God's] name?’ what shall I say to them?’ (Exodus 3:13).

“To appreciate the problem as Moses saw it, we must put ourselves into the sandals of the Israelites … we know from Ezekiel that the Israelites had succumbed to the Egyptian religion, for they worshipped the idols of Egypt (cf. Ezekiel 20:7-8). Moses himself had grown up in the royal court of Egypt, and was now living with the Midianites, who had many gods of their own. So for Moses to say that God had revealed Himself in a bush, … the burning question would be which god? What is his name?

“God answers Moses: ‘I AM WHO AM.’And He says, ‘Say this to the people of Israel, I AM has sent me to you. … This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations’ (Exodus 3:14-15).

“The Hebrew word for ‘I AM WHO AM’ is Yahweh. In reverence and piety for the sacredness of God's ineffable name, the people of Israel do not pronounce it. Rather … they replace it with the title ‘Lord’ (in Hebrew Adonai, in Greek Kyrios).

“Moses is the first to learn God's name. Jacob had gone so far as to wrestle with God to get a blessing and to find out His name (Genesis 32:24-30). He left the wrestling match with a limp and a blessing, but without knowledge of the name.

“In the ancient world, names held a significance that would be hard for us to overestimate. One's name was not simply something by which you were called; a name represented your very being, your soul. … To have knowledge of someone's name is to have not only an insight into who they are, but access to them as well. … [T]here is a modern analogy that reveals the power … to invoke a presence. One only has to think of a computer. In order to get a file to come up on your screen, all you need to do is type in its file name.

“The Israelites had similar ideas about the power of a name—although they did not think that their God could be manipulated. … But the Israelites did believe that calling upon the name of a God invoked His presence. … Name evokes presence; thus the name is a sacrament of the person.

“At the heart of the Annunciation is the revelation of the Incarnation. Yet not only does the angel announce that God will take on human flesh, but also that He will take on a new name. … Just as God's Holy Spirit appeared in fire within the bush but miraculously did not consume it, now in the Virgin Mary the Spirit of God conceives the Incarnate Son of God, while Mary miraculously remains a Virgin. And as the bush became the place where God was made visible to Moses, even more so Mary manifests the Son of the Father. …

“Anyone vaguely familiar with the New Testament will know that there are a multitude of names for Jesus: Master, Teacher, Savior, Lamb of God, King, Son of David, Son of God, Good Shepherd, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, etc. … Is the name ‘Jesus’ just one name among many others?

“[W]hy do Christians have no problem saying Yahweh? Is it a lack of piety? No. The reason Christians can pronounce the name is because of the Incarnation. The Catechism gives a profound explanation: ‘by assuming our humanity The Word of God hands [the Divine name] over to us and we can invoke it. …’

“The name of Jesus also brings about His presence: ‘For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them’ (Matthew 18:20) … the very act of speaking the name brings about God's saving presence. … The fact that God's name bears His presence is one of the reasons why His name should be hallowed, that is sacred. Perhaps now we can better understand the second commandment, ‘You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.’”

Ellen Wilson Fielding writes from Davidsonville, Maryland.

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