Does it matter to know God’s name?
For a child who grows up in a religiously homogeneous community, God might not need a name other than “God” (especially if it is believed that there is only one). In the same way that a parent might speak with their child about a “grandma” or “dad” (or “the dog,” for that matter), a name is not always necessary. Shared relationships can make names redundant—at least as far as the utility of day-to-day interactions goes.
Curiously, another child who grows up in a religiously diverse society might also be familiar with “God,” although this word can often mean something very different. In this setting, “God” is not so much a person as it is a category—one that is meant to apply for all peoples and relationships. “God,” this child might be told, “has many different names, but they all refer to the same thing.” Alternatively, this child might be told just the opposite: “We know about God. There are many other people who think they know, but they are wrong.” The risk of using “God” as a catchall category in this way is that it can end up either as a generic idea or as a contested prize. The former makes the formation of shared relationships with “God” difficult. The latter too often leads to violence.
Names usually demonstrate a relationship. “Pastor,” “Mama,” “Daughter,” “Darling,” and soon “Doctor” are all names that refer to my spouse. They signal her accomplishments, yes, but more fundamentally, they are used in the context of her relationships, each of which has a history and a dynamic present.
Reflective of our relationships, we are given names at birth, but our names inevitably change as we grow. Because we use names to signal our identities to others, our names are often modified during major life transitions. A marriage, a divorce, a migration, or a graduation—each of these can inaugurate a change of name or title.
Names can also be oppressive. In the Bible, giving someone a new name can be evidence of a special calling (for example, Genesis 17:5–8, 15–16; John 1:42; Matthew 16:18–19) but also a sign of subjugation (for example, Dan 1:7) and humiliation (for example, Hosea 1:4–9). For these reasons and others, names might change not because we have become something new but because we wish for them to reflect better who we have always been, as when someone changes their name to indicate their ethnicity or when a transgender person transitions.
Names are not inconsequential for human beings because our relationships are not inconsequential. To the extent that having a relationship with God matters, it does matter to know God’s name.
When Moses meets God at the burning bush in Exodus 3–4, he learns God’s name. The narrative is depicted as a kind of one-sided reunion: God has long been aware of Moses and the Hebrews, but Moses is just now meeting his God and learning about their relationship.
God’s name, “Yahweh,” has a complicated history, not just in the ancient Near East but also in how it has been written in scriptural tradition. In Hebrew, it contains four consonants corresponding to “YHWH” in English (for this reason it is sometimes called the “tetragrammaton” or “four letters”). Most popular modern translations of the Bible render it as “The LORD” using all capital letters. This reflects the ancient Jewish practice of avoiding speaking or writing God’s name in order to circumvent even the possibility of using it inappropriately (Exodus 20:7). Prohibitions like this were sometimes called “building a fence around the Torah” and it was a strategy that the Rabbi Jesus used too, most prominently in the sermon on the mount (“You have heard that it was said… but I say…,” Matthew 5:21–22; 27–28; 31–34; 38–39; 43–44). Thus, ancient Jews often referred to God as “Lord” or “my lord” (adonai). This is why, in the New Testament, God is called kurios, “Lord” in Greek.
During their meeting on the mountaintop, God does not only share the divine name with Moses. God also reinforces the nature of their relationship.
God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name for ever, and this my title for all generations.” (Exodus 3:14–15 NRSV)
By referencing the promise that God made to Moses’ ancestors, the divine name is rooted in relationship.
A loose parallel that springs to my mind whenever I read this passage is a conversation that I once had with a friend of my parents whom I had not seen in decades. They said to me, “You probably don’t remember this, but I used to babysit you.” In Exodus 3, God says something similar to Moses, and in turn, to the Hebrews, “You don’t remember this, but I once made a promise to protect you.” The added affirmation, “This is my name forever” is thus a reassurance. For Moses and the Hebrews in slavery, that promise persists.
Of course, YHWH is not God’s only name in scripture. Depending on how you count, there are dozens of names and titles for God: “The God who sees” (Genesis 16:13), “My Shepherd” (Psalm 23:1), and “Ancient of Days” (Daniel 7:9) are all examples of names that are ascribed to God by people in the Bible. Often, they are offered as a response to something powerful and salvific that God has done.
When we are rooted in relationship, the names that we have for God are inevitably particular. They reflect the give and take, the successes and failures, the good times and the bad of ongoing exchange. The vitality of particularity—of knowing God’s name—is a blessing that we have inherited. Likewise, it is one that we must live into in order to pass on.
God of all people,
You remembered your children who were enslaved in Egypt, and by the power of your name you set them free. Remember us and free us from slavery to sin by the power of your name. Amen.
I heard the voice of Jesus say ELW 332 How sweet the name of Jesus sounds ELW 620 Dearest Jesus, at your word ELW 520
Here I am, Lord, Daniel L. Schutte