Wednesday, March 01, 2006

"Jehovah" - and the problem of naming

I've been reminded lately of our uniquely human penchant for naming, categorizing, labeling. It is one of the first things we do once we meet someone, we ask their name. But even after that, most of our questions are in some small way, an act of definition. We seek to categorize and package people. Jeff is a lawyer. Suzy is always late. Mike is a flaming liberal. Becky is narrow-minded conservative. We do it all the time. We name, we label and we try to sum up people and their opinions into neat little packages so that we can get on with our lives. It's a lot easier to have a summary of who Jimmy is and what he believes than to take the time to actually get to know Jimmy and live with him in the tension that is relationship - the tension that exists between what can be communicated and what can be understood, what can be vocalized and what is merely sensed. We just don't have time for that.

I was reading the other day, and I was really surprised to see God referred to as "Jehovah" - I hoped by using it in the title it would get the attention of a few. Now, a year or two ago and I might never have batted an eye. But now (and thinking back, I learned it in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade") I know that "Jehovah" is actually a MIStranslation of the Hebrew Tetragrammaton (the four letters that represented God's divine name, the name that was too holy to speak) and so the Hebrews substituted the vowels for LORD into the actual name of God, Y-H-W-H (the vowles being a-o-a) and that gives us YaHoWaH or Jehovah. Sadly, this is just wrong. What the Hebrews actually SAID when they saw Y-H-W-H with those vowels underneath was Adonai(Lord), because they substituted the consonants in themselves. Anyway, seeing Jehovah just made me sit up a bit and go - whoa, we've still got some edumacating to do. Not everyone knows that we messed that one up.

Now, its significant because we only get the divine name from God himself - at the burning bush, speaking to Moses. God tells Moses to go to Pharoah and demand the release of the Hebrews so they can worship God. Moses says, by whose name? And God gives the most interesting name possible. It literally means "I am who I am" and "I will be who I will be". Now, is this a name? Yes. But its more. God knows our penchant for naming, for defining, categorizing - labeling. A name boxes, hems, defines and limits. "Jacob" meant deceiver - imagine spending your life being called a deceiver - straight out of the whom! That's sure to set a nature-nurture debate going. Anyway - by God identifying himself this way, God's saying "You will know me by what I will do and have done" Essentially - "I will be the one who defines me, not you". God is beyond our capacity to pin down. Not that we can't know God at all, but we can't know God in God's totality. And when the silly Western translators tried to - they got mixed up and came up with the WRONG name! Ha!

But, I can say the same thing about us humans too. Try as we might to define each other, we always fall short. Jeff may be a lawyer but he's also one heck of a tennis player. Becky may be a narrow-minded conservative but she also believes in gun control and is against the death penalty.

Yes, it's easier to pin people down and label them - but labels are limiting and they're often inadequate. And when we rely on labels we refrain from doing the hard work of living in the tension of community - of really experiencing the other person, of really getting to know who they TRULY are. That's why God didn't bother giving out the name "George" or "Gunthar" or "Sally". God isn't that easy to pin down, and as people created in the image of God, I'm not sure we are either...

3 comments:

Juliabohemian said...

But God entrusted Adam with giving names to everything, so that would make me think that God intended for us to apply labels to things. I mean, humans don't have the luxury of being elusive. Could you imagine what kind of reaction we would get from people if we just said "I am who I am"? God knows when we are addressing Him, even if we decide to call Him "Frank" or "Pete" or whatever.

Don said...

Agreed Julia - but I think we also make mistakes in our naming & labeling and go beyond the bounds set out. I think we need to think beyond names and labels - they are a necesssary part of life but they can get in the way and divert as well as help.

Rhett Smith said...

Good post....Jacob after he wrestles with the angel at the brook...Moses wanting God's name in Gen. 3, etc, etc....Naming gives us control...and god cannot be controlled...