The Transformative Power of Naming

A few weeks ago I happened upon this fantastic story, “Transgender N.J. pastor to celebrate with historic renaming ceremony” (08/02, NJ.com). The piece formed a major part of a discussion group I ran where we discussed our own names, their stories, other names we've gone by, and our names for God. The discussion centred on the transformative power of names and naming - and how, in the Bible, names often capture something of an encounter or an expectation.

Below is my closing reflection from the night, thoughts on four scenes from Scripture concerning names or naming. 

1. Exodus 3. With God’s name (sort of) Israel will be freed from bondage. God identifies to Moses as the God of Moses’ father, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This is a key identifier for YHWH the God of Israel so we might ask, what does this title evoke? A few possible observations: First, God is a God of history. God is revealed in history, in concrete acts, encounters, relationships. God is not a notion or abstracted ideal. God is a God of, to, for people – the patriarchs, yes, and from the patriarchs the People of Israel – yet it isn’t closed at this point, Abraham will be a father to many nations, so God is a God of the nations, and through the line of Ishmael, a God to a whole other people. God is a God known by and through God’s people, whether that is the Patriarchs, Israel, Christ, Church, or other cultures and people shaped by the Spirit which hovered over the deep – God is a relational God, a God of history, and God for us.

            God’s title designates this part of God’s nature in relation – that God is a God encountered, God is a God met, God is a God experienced. But this title does not approach the nature of God a se (the nature of God in God’s self, God’s ‘aseity’). To get towards this, to have some grasp of this, Moses asks for God’s name. Scholars have pointed out that this is characteristic of Moses the trickster, the schema, to know the name of God is to have some power over God, to somehow contain God… but God is One, no idol (not even a name) can jeopardise this utter oneness, this unique and unparalleled oneness (my gratitude to Katherine Sonderegger). So the response “I AM WHAT I AM” or maybe “I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE” or maybe… some other such attempt to translate, is not really a name but rather a rebuke and reminder to Moses, a ‘mind your business’ and remember your place. God’s name – which cannot even be uttered in some traditions – is unsaid and unbound. The power to wield God’s name is denied, even to Moses, a prophet without rival, friend of God whom YHWH knew face-to-face. We have our warning I guess. But God, even without giving the name, will be with Moses, will equip him to perform the works of God that bring liberation… because God is a God for those who need.

 

2. Genesis 16. Hagar needs God, and God sees Hagar. God hears the Israelites crying out under the burden of slavery, God sees Hagar fleeing through the wilderness. So far in the story no one has said Hagar’s name – she is simply the maidservant, one who becomes a tool, one handed over for rape and surrogacy, who is then treated worse for having done that which see was compelled. But God sees Hagar and calls her by name. God makes a promise to her, as God will be the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, so to will God be the God of Hagar and Ishmael. Where Moses is denied the name of God, here, Hagar, the Egyptian slave-girl, names God – gives God a name (based again from their encounter). She is the only person to do that (my gratitude to Delores S. Williams). The name signifies transformation, though not complete transformation – Hagar will still return to the callousness of Sarai and Abram – but a transformation of her future, the future of her line, and the transformation of herself, for she has been seen by God and lived… and that is no mean feat.

 

3. Genesis 32. Jacob wrestles… someone (a divine being, a being divine and human, the angel of the Lord, God?) and because he prevails, or at least, more appropriately, doesn’t lose, he receives a new name: Israel. Israel will be known as a people who wrestle with God (even Christian Bale Moses knew that). Like Hagar, the new name captures something of the encounter… though here it is Jacob who is renamed, the request for God’s name (like Moses) is abruptly denied.

But why is he wrestling? Jacob is demanding a blessing, potentially interpreted as ‘more life’ (my gratitude to Tony Kushner). Jacob probably feels in dire need of more life. He is about to encounter Esau, the man he swindled his last blessing from (through tricking their father into taking Esau’s birthright). ‘More Life’ is a very immediate need. Keep me alive. Jacob indeed receives his blessing (he will be embraced by Esau), and receives his new (legendary) name, but he also receives a limp, he carries the mark of his transformative encounter the rest of his life, and the people of Israel carry it with him, in their own way (by observing this particular food law). Jacob could not go on unchanged after such an encounter with God, the change of name signifies not only his transformed life, but the way all the lives of those who wrestle with God will be transformed – yes there are blessings (more life! and all that it implies), but we carry this blessing and its impact with us, right down to our bones.

 

4. John 1. Simon becomes Peter. He hasn’t wrestled anyone. All he did was follow his brother to meet Jesus, and, bam – Jesus gives him a new name: Cephas, Peter… Rock. By transforming his name Jesus transforms Peter’s entire future, his place in this movement. Surely Peter had some choice in this, and certainly this change was not ontological in the moment, Simon didn’t become everything Jesus is calling him to be at this point (perhaps at any point… lest we forget two triple denials and some patchy table fellowship). But he had a new truth, a new potential, a new path spoken over him and it set him on the way to be that which he was now named.

            For we who encounter God, we too receive a transformed name – not necessarily in a literal sense like Peter (though that is the case for some) – but our name, our identity, our history and future is transformed by being conformed, swept up, in the life of Christ, in the history and future of God. We don’t lose our particularity, any more than Peter did, but we are drawn into the mystery of God and sent on God’s way – sent on the way of God who hears the cry of the oppressed, and sees the abandoned. This is the blessing we have received, this is ‘more life’, a life transformed by our encounter with God is not a life that strides on confidently assured in having control of God, but is called into new responsibility to perform the work of God, limping beside all who suffer unjustly.

 

Companion: "Maria" from West Side Story (Bernstein/Sondheim)

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