What Is A Name?

What Is A Name? June 25, 2018

What is a name?

A name is a label. It allows us to identify people. That is Sam, that is Sam, Jr; that is Samantha; that is Peter.

But a name is more than a label that enables us to identify and distinguish one person from another. It also provides a way to address and communicate with a person. If you see your friend walking on the other side of the road, you call his name to get his attention. When you first meet someone, you give your name, which gives them a kind of power over you, the power to call and invoke you.

Think about that scene of meeting: You are at a social gathering where you know few people. You wonder “Who is that distinguished man over there? He looks important.” “Who is that woman over there? She’s very lovely.” At that point, you don’t know anything about them. When you’re introduced, you exchange names. You disclose something of yourself to the new acquaintance. A name is self-revealing.

And it reveals not only the label that you use but something about where you came from. I say my name is “Leithart,” and someone who knows German will recognize the German origins of the name. There’s a history behind my name “Peter”; my mother admired Peter Marshall, a prominent American Presbyterian ministry in the 20th century and so she called me Peter. This is not simply a label but a summary of a history.

All this is true of the name of “Yahweh our God” that is the focus on the Third Word.

The name “Yahweh” allows us to distinguish between the God of Israel and other gods. The ancient world was full of gods. You wouldn’t ask “Do you worship God?” You’d ask, “What god do you worship?” The God of Scripture isn’t “God-in-general.” He’s specifically the God of Israel, that God. That is the name we are concerned with.

When Yahweh revealed His name to Israel, He gave Israel some “control” over Him. He gave Israel the ability to invoke and call on Him. Israelites could pray to the heavens “Yahweh, hear us,” and Yahweh would pay attention. In Exodus 8, God acts “according to the word of Moses.”

Like human names, Yahweh’s name has to be revealed. He discloses Himself to us in His name. That means that He discloses His character. His name describes the kind of God He is. When Moses goes onto Mount Sinai to intercede for Israel after they have sinned with the golden calf, Yahweh reveals His glory to Moses and proclaims His name: “Yahweh, Yahweh! Gracious and compassion, slow to anger and abounding in loyal love, yet He by no means clears the guilty.” Yahweh is the name of the God of compassion and justice, the patient God who won’t let us defy Him forever.

And like human names, the name of Yahweh discloses a history. The Ten Words open with a brief summary of the history of Yahweh with Israel: “I am Yahweh your God, who brought you up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” When Yahweh reveals His name to Moses at the burning bush, He identifies Himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He is the God of the Fathers, the God who made promises in the past, and the God who has kept His promises by delivering Israel from slavery.

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