Forming Faith Blog

The Power of a Name (September 29, 2019)

A stack of name tag stickers.

In the past three readings in the Narrative Lectionary, I looked at the idea of family, specifically how the family (nation) of Israel is descended from the first family, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The next theme we use in our Living the Word (Narrative Lectionary) products is Responding to God’s Love. These next three readings look at how God shows us love, and how God calls us to respond to that love. In today’s story, God reveals God’s name to Moses as an act of love to the enslaved people of Israel.

The Significance of Names

While I am no expert in the culture of the ancient Near East, I do know that names matter. In Egypt, there is the myth of the sun god Ra who is tricked by the goddess Isis into giving her his true name. With that name, Isis has complete power over Ra. I don’t know how common this belief was, but it is clear in the Bible that names matter. Adam is named for the earth humanity was created from. Abram (exalted ancestor) was renamed Abraham (ancestor of a multitude).

Last week, Jacob, whose name means “he supplants” (fitting since he supplants Esau in birthright and blessing) has his name changed by the divine stranger to Israel (he who strives with God). Interesting enough, the stranger refuses to give Jacob their name when Jacob asks for it.

The Nameless

Moving to our readings today in Exodus chapters 1, 2, and 3, it is interesting to pay attention to who is named in this story, and who is not. Moses parents are only a “Levite man” and a “Levite woman.” Moses’ sister (whom we later discover is named Miriam) is not named either. Moses’ adopted mother is only “the Pharaoh’s daughter.” These names make me think of the list of extras in a movie or television show, identified only in the most general terms (e.g. man in coffee shop, woman #2).

Even though the Pharaoh (actually two pharaohs, Exodus 2:23) is an important figure in this story, he is never given a proper name, but only referred to by his title. He is definitely not an extra. It is possible that this is to keep him as a character rather than a real person. He is the personification of the oppressive power of the Egyptians. That’s all that is important about him.

The Midwives

In the “optional” portion of the text (which I hope you do include), is perhaps the most surprising aspect of this story. Unlike the people mentioned above, the two (or two of the) midwives are given names, Shiphrah and Puah. Naming these two women emphasizes that they are heroes for standing against the cruel orders of the Pharaoh. They risk their lives to save the male Hebrew newborns. Because of their heroism and courage, God honors them, and Moses is born and is able to be God’s chosen leader to lead the people to freedom.

Moses

Moses is the protagonist in this story and a hero of the faith, so it is only natural that he is named. However, he is named by the Pharaoh’s daughter simply for how she found him. She “drew him out of the water” (Exodus 2:10). You can make an interesting leap that God drew Moses out of his life and gave him a new life, but otherwise, I cannot think of anything significant to say about his name.

Who Are You, God?

Finally, at the end of our story for the day, we get the most significant name of them all. God appears before Moses in the burning bush to call him to be God’s instrument. Moses is understandably frightened of this call. As he is trying to get out of this responsibility, he most likely thinks back to his last encounter with the Hebrews, which didn’t go so well (Exodus 2:13-14). “How will they know I’m telling the truth?” he asks, “What if they ask me for proof?” [Interesting thought, if God’s true name can be “proof” of Moses’ authority, doesn’t that mean that the Hebrews already knew it, so it could function as a secret passcode?]

The Name of God

In response to this, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—which by itself might have been enough proof—gives God’s true name. If the belief was prevalent that a true name gives a person power over another, God doesn’t seem to care (because the almighty creator of the universe can’t be manipulated by anyone). It would still be shocking.

There is a lot of debate over exactly how to translate this divine name and what it means, but “I AM WHO I AM” speaks to God’s ultimate existence. The God of Israel, who appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is not a tribal god but is the Creator of all, the ground of all being. God doesn’t give the name randomly either, but God wants the people (and us) to be able to know a little about who God is and to be able to use that name to call upon God (properly, see Exodus 20:7).

Calling on God’s Name

As a post-resurrection people, we can not only call upon God as YHWH, but in the name of Jesus, God’s chosen Messiah. Just as God revealed Godself to Moses in the burning bush, so also in the person and work of Jesus. God gives us these names and joyfully expects us to use them in prayer, praise, and thanksgiving.

God-Given Names

While we don’t believe in the power of a true name to control another, God does give us a true name in our baptism. I am “Gregory, Beloved Child of God” and you are “[Insert your name here], Beloved Child of God.” We know God’s true name and God knows ours. God calls us and we can call upon God in good times and in bad.

Power to Harm

However, names also have the power to harm. When we, who bear the name of Christ, live and use the name of God to hurt others, we dishonor God’s name. To honor God’s name (to hallow it, at least in one sense), our actions—along with our words—must follow God’s call to love others.

We can also use names to harm others. As parents, we give our child a name as an act of love when they are too young to have a say. We even can give fun nicknames to our kids, or even our friends. But it is important that we respect a person’s wishes on what they want to be called. We are not showing God’s love to a person (our kids, family, friends, or not) when we decide what to call them without regard to their wishes (assuming they are old enough to have an opinion). “Name-calling” can be a form of bullying. This means also changing our habits if a person decides to change how they want to be called (whatever the reason may be, whether we agree with that reason or not).

Faith Formation Strategy: CONNECT!

To a large extent, our faith is formed through relationships, specifically in relationships that model God’s love. And, relationships generally begin by two people giving each other their names. How can you encourage this?

Take a few minutes during worship (or class) and challenge people to find one person they don’t know, preferably from a different generation. Young children probably should do this with a parent, older sibling, etc., but that’s up to the child’s parent.

  • Auditory/Verbal: Ask each to share their name and one thing about themselves (or an animal, etc.) that starts with the same letter as their name (or initials). The other should repeat that information back.
  • Visual/Small-Motor Kinesthetic: As a bonus (or instead of the above), distribute name tag stickers and pens and ask each person to write another person’s name on it and give it to them.
  • Silly Movement: For a silly challenge, ask each of the pair to call out a cheer, like “Yay! Yay! [Person’s name] is a child of God! Praise God!” The “cheerleader” should jump or wave their arms or another type of movement.

Encourage this pair to greet each other by name every time they see the other, including on the way out that day.

Free Resource

During the traditional program year (and the main Narrative Lectionary cycle), I offer a free, downloadable resource to help you engage your worshippers, students, or other participants in the story. This week, help people learn each other’s names through the creative activity “I AM Who I AM,” which is a simple art project designed to not only share our names, but also a little of who we are inside. We developed this activity for upper elementary students in a classroom setting, but it can be used in educational settings for all ages, including intergenerational classes. With a little creativity, you can include this in a worship service, even adapt it so everyone in the congregation can participate!

This activity comes from our Living the Word: Kids (3rd-6th) product, which provides lesson guides for upper elementary classes. These guides provide a lesson plan designed to get our disciples learning, moving, and building relationships with God and each other. This product is available to purchase for the full year or by quarters (fall, winter, and spring). If you are interested in something a bit different, talk to us about a special order!

May God bless you, Child of God!

In Christ,

-Gregory Rawn (Publisher)

If you would like to know more about our perspectives on faith formation and cross+gen ministry, you can check out the following links:

For more great ideas on how to engage participants of all ages in the story of God’s love, check out our complete Living the Word series for elementary students, youth, adults, and intergenerational settings!

Be sure to download our free Narrative Lectionary 2019-2020 Planning Tool, NL Readings Overview, and Scope & Sequence