Forming Faith Blog

The Power of a Name (Exodus 3)

Only four characters within our extended reading are named: God (of course), our protagonist Moses, and two Hebrew midwives Shiphrah and Puah. What is the power of a name?

A stack of name tag stickers.

In the past three readings in the Narrative Lectionary, I reflected on the importance of inclusive interpretations of the creation story in Genesis 2, the exuberant hospitality and joy of Abraham and Sarah, and the weirdness of the story of Jacob wrestling. 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 cultures 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 from which humanity was created. 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). Interestingly 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. This rejects his individuality and makes him the personification of the oppressive power of the Egyptians. That’s all that is important about him.

The Midwives

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, two midwives are given names, Shiphrah and Puah. Think about what this suggests: these two “insignificant” women 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, God honors them. And it is only because of their courage that Moses is alive and able to be God’s chosen leader to lead the people to freedom.


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). Perhaps you can make an interesting interpretive leap that God later drew Moses out of his life and gave him a new one.

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. As he tries to get out of this responsibility, he probably thinks back to his last encounter with the Hebrews, which didn’t go 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, does 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 (perhaps 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: Beloved Child of God. So 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), 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 children names as acts of love when they are too young to have a say. We might give our kids, even our friends, fun nicknames. But it is important that we respect a person’s decision on what they want to be called. We are not showing God’s love to a person (our kids, family, friends, or others) when we disregard their decision and take it upon ourselves to decide what to call them. “Name-calling” is a form of disrespect—even bullying. So, to show God’s love and our respect to someone, we must use a person’s chosen name (and pronouns), even if that means we need to put in the effort to change our habits (whether we agree with their reasons 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 when two people share their names with each other. How can you encourage this?

Take a few minutes during worship (class, small group, etc.) and challenge people to find someone they don’t know, preferably from a different generation. Young children can do this with a parent, older sibling, etc., but that’s up to the child and their 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. 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 choose another type of movement.

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

May God bless you, Child of God!

Gregory Rawn (Publisher)

Free Resource

During the main Narrative Lectionary year (this year: September 10 to May 19), we provide a free resource download from one of our products to help you in your faith formation ministry. This week, download the activity “Burning Bush Snack” from our Living the Word: Kids (PK-2nd) resource.

This is a revision of a blog post originally published for September 29, 2019.

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