What’s in a Name?…
Have you ever considered what is in a name? I know that in our western culture, we’ve lost some of the dynamic here, but even with that considered, names are powerful.
Think about when you chose names for your children. There were certain names that you might have suggested, to which your spouse said something like, “Not in my lifetime,” or “No way!” Why??? Because names bring memories to our minds. Memories that can be pleasant, or not-so-pleasant. When I meet a new person, I always try to remember his or her name. Sometimes it’s easiest if I relate that person to someone else I know by the same name.
For instance, I have a few friends named Brandon. When I meet a new person named Brandon, I try to make some connection between the Brandons I already know and the “new” Brandon. Something like, “Oh, he has brown hair like the other Brandons I know,” or “He’s about the same age as Brandon _____.” HOWEVER… there are some times when I meet a new person and his name brings back some not-so-pleasant memories. You know exactly what I’m talking about… Heaven forbid you meet a man with the same name as your wife’s ex-boyfriend. Haha!!! Now you see where I’m going with this.
Whether we like it or not, even in our Western culture, names mean something. If I just say the name “Obama,” I’ll bet many thoughts come to your mind. Or how about “Bush,” “Jackson,” or “Shaq?” When we hear a name, it is representative of the whole person – culture, belief system, ethnicity, religion, personality, character, family – all of these things immediately come to mind when we hear a name we know and relate it to a person.
The Hebrews knew very well the impact a “name” had on cognition. Every Hebrew name given (both in Old Testament days and in modern Israel) means something. And when the name is spoken, everyone who hears it (and knows the language) recognizes not only the vocal inflections and consonants/vowels involved, but what the name actually means. Vanessa and I were discussing this around the lunch table today. I know, I know… some couples talk about their children or their relationship – we talk about Hebrew names. Go figure.
Take “Nathan,” for instance. This Old Testament prophet’s name means “to give.” How about “Adam?” – it means “man.” Here’s an interesting one for you – Noah’s son “Shem.” His name means “name.” Can you imagine? I wonder if he was picked on in school for that one.
There’s one name, however, which has (and has had) such impact/meaning that it isn’t spoken or written among it’s people. It’s the Hebrew name, “YHWH” (Yahweh). You probably recognize this as God’s name for Himself. It was spoken by and among the Patriarchs in early Old Testament history, but over time, it became the name no one spoke or wrote. Their reasoning was faulty, but honorable, in a way; they didn’t want to take the name “YHWH” in vain, so they just stopped speaking and writing it altogether.
This word was written in the Torah, and Old Testament scrolls, but when the reader came across it, he would pronounce “Adonai” instead. It would be equivalent to us coming across “Jesus” in scripture, but saying, “The Lord,” or “God,” instead – every time. In addition to these oral restrictions, the Hebrews also would not (and still won’t) write “YHWH” outside of scriptural texts. For instance, if they were writing a letter about YHWH to a friend, they would replace YHWH with “Jehovah,” “Adonai,” or some other substitute.
In fact, this extends even into transliteration (from Hebrew to other languages). For instance, take your Bible and turn to Isaiah 1. In verse two, you’ll most likely find the word “LORD.” However, in the Hebrew text, this word is “YHWH” (in Hebrew, as pictured below in this blog). As far as I know, the New Living Translation is the only translation which transliterates this word into “Yahweh.” (If you know of a different translation that transliterates into “Yahweh,” I would really like to know. Comment on this blog and let us all know.)
I’m in my Hebrew Language Tools class in seminary right now. I know, I know… it’s just a language tools class. I DO NOT speak or read Hebrew anything close to fluently, but I am really learning a lot and enjoying the language immensely. There is something amazing about writing and pronouncing the words of scripture in the same way that Elijah, Moses, Jacob, Isaiah, and David did. I don’t really know why – but it is simply captivating. Let me give you an example.
Today, as I was learning some vocabulary words in Hebrew, I was encouraged to recognize, pronounce, and write “YHWH” (in Hebrew, as pictured above). Knowing the deep sincerity and reverence this name carries, I was moved with emotion as I pronounced it. Then, I wrote it. For the first time, I wrote God’s name for Himself using the language in which He gave it. With every brush of my pen, I couldn’t help but picture Moses and Hebrew scribes in 1400 or 1000 B.C. using the same exact strokes as they inked the Name that would come to be the most powerful, most feared, most respected Name there ever has been. But why? Why is this Name so revered?
Every time I think of God’s name, Joshua 7 comes to the front of my mind. Joshua was to experience epic victories for the sake of God’s kingdom. He (Joshua) had already seen God do some amazing things in his lifetime, and was now appointed to lead His armies in conquering the land they were promised. In Joshua 6, the Israelites conquer Jericho. 6:27 says that Joshua’s “fame spread throughout the land.” I’ve had the privilege of reading ancient Babylonian and Mesopotamian literature and have seen first hand where the leaders/kings of the pagan establishments in the land of Canaan and around were just scared out of their mind of Israel’s armies. Yes, Joshua’s fame was spreading throughout the land, but so was YHWH’s.
But in chapter 7, we read that Achan’s sin caused the Israelite army to be defeated at Ai. It’s really a tragic picture – YHWH’s own army running like cowards as the soldiers of Ai gruesomely slaughter them. It was nothing shy of heartbreaking. But what is Joshua’s cry in the wake of all this? His prayer to YHWH ends like this:
Joshua was concerned about God’s “great Name.” We could sure learn some kingdom lessons from this one, no doubt. But let’s focus on the Name. Remember… to the Hebrews, someone’s name was a representation of everything they were. YHWH wasn’t just a “label” for God. It encompassed all that He was. To Joshua, the idea of running away from Ai like antelope from a pack of lions was a slap in the face of God. And what if God didn’t fix this? What if all of Israel – Joshua included – was wiped out by the men of Ai? Then what would God do about His glorious reputation? His name would be scarred for ever.
I wonder – Christian… Whose name do you bear? What does that name represent? You are a child of Yahweh – the same God Whom Joshua revered more than his own life and accomplishments – the same Name that Hebrews to this day respect so much they are afraid to even pronounce or write it. You bear His name. How are you representing Him?
Grace and Peace,