In his best-known love story Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare famously wrote:
“What’s in a name? that which we call a roseBy any other name would smell as sweet.”
For Shakespeare’s character, Juliet, a name doesn’t seem to matter much at all. A rose could be called anything and it would still be just as lovely—the word ‘rose’ doesn’t reflect what or how it actually is. But famous fiery redhead Anne of Green Gable disagrees with such a claim:
“I read in a book once that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but I’ve never been able to believe it. I don’t believe a rose WOULD be as nice if it was called a thistle or a skunk cabbage.”
Unlike Juliet, Anne argues that a name should in some way define or reflect the nature of a person or thing.
I find myself agreeing with Anne—it seems undeniable that names, and especially names of people, have an important role. Just consider the amount of time and thought that expectant parents devote to choosing a name for their child!
Names are important in the Bible, and especially in the Old Testament. They usually describe something about the person’s character or appearance. The story of the birth of Jacob and Esau in Genesis 25:25 is a helpful example. Esau born “red [with] all his body like a hairy cloak” is given a name which literally translates as ‘hairy’, while Jacob who “came out with his hand holding Esau’s heel” is given a name that is translates as ‘he grasps the heel’ (v. 26). Interestingly, heel-grasping was a Hebrew idiom for deception, an attribute which characterised Jacob’s early life, until his name was changed to Israel (literally, ‘he struggles with God’) following his wrestling match with God (Gen 32:28).
If names in the Bible are important for people, they are much more so for God himself. Have you noticed how some of the best-known parts of Scripture talk about God’s name?
You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain. (Exod 20:7)
Pray then like this:
“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name… (Matt 6:9)
The Bible takes God’s name seriously, which means we, as Christians who believe the Bible, need to honour it too.
But what is God’s name?
Although the Bible uses a lot of names for God, some of which we’ll explore in the weeks to come, God has told us his personal name: YHWH. This combination of letters transliterated from Hebrew is usually represented in English Bibles by the capitalised letters ‘Lord’. Although the name YHWH is never spoken aloud by the Jewish people, Christians commonly add vowels to pronounce the name ‘Yahweh’.*
Yahweh first revealed this personal name to Moses in the incident of the (not) burning bush:
Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you’, and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?… God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘The LORD (YHWH), the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations. (Exod 3:13-15)
This was a new name for God, not previously given to the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), and it signalled the beginning of an even more intimate relationship between Yahweh and his people. As those who trust in the promises of God, we have been welcomed by faith into this relationship too!
It always makes me smile to think that there are those who because of their personal relationship with her, have the right to call Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II simply ‘Liz’, or perhaps ‘Mum’ or ‘Granny’. It’s hard to imagine having that kind of relationship with someone so powerful and influential, and yet the Bible tells us that’s what our relationship with God is like. We have the unique privilege of calling the God of the entire universe by his personal name, Yahweh! This is something worth dwelling on this week, that our Lord, Yahweh, desires an intimate relationship with you and me, a fact we can be certain of because we know his name! Praise Yahweh!
It is good to give thanks to the Lord(YHWH), to sing praises to your name, O Most High. (Ps 92:1)
*Fun fact: The Jews consider this name too sacred to pronounce and so, when reading their Scriptures aloud substitute alternate words in place of YHWH, most commonly using ‘Adonai’, which means ‘my Lord’. When the vowels of Adonai are combined with the Hebrew letters YHWH, the name Yahowah (Jehovah) is produced.
Look out for other instalments in Kate’s series on the different names of God.