What's Not In a Name

In 1938 there aired for the first time on national radio a comedy act that heretofore had only been performed on a vaudeville stage. Known as "Who's On First,"it became an immediately popular routine that has stood the test of time and for which Bud Abbott and Lou Costello are most remembered.

The humor of the famous baseball act comes from Costello's confusion regarding the names of the team's players. Rather than regular names, the players' names are personified interrogative pronouns and other figures of speech.

The act centers mostly around the first and second basemen, Who and What, respectively. Costello doesn't get it and only hears the interrogative pronouns "who" and "what." The misunderstanding of this is what makes it humorous. 

What is interesting is that the Holy Scriptures record a similar phenomenon that is not comedic but didactic. God reveals to Moses his name as "I am" (transliterated in English as Yahweh or Jehovah and printed in the Bible as "the Lord").

In the book of Genesis God was called upon by different names (God,God Most High,God Almighty), but not the "Lord" (the "I am"):

"I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name the Lord I did not make myself known to them." (Ex. 6:3)

In the book of Exodus, when God reveals himself to Moses on Mount Sinai in the burning bush, he informs Moses that he will be God's vessel to deliver Israel from the yoke of Pharaoh. Moses wants to know God's name so he can tell the Israelites, should they ask to know who it is that is sending him to them. For the first time, God tells Moses the name by which He is to be remembered forever:

"Moses said to God, 'Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them that the God of your fathers has sent me to you,and they ask me, 'What is his name?' Then what shall I tell them?' God said to Moses, 'I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: I am has sent me to you' ...This is my name forever,the name by which I am to be remembered from generation to generation. (Ex. 3:13-15)

From this answer we can learn at least three things. First, names in ancient times described or defined something about a person or his character and as such names were words with definitions more than they were proper nouns.

Adam's name is identified with humanity (man) and in another form the ground (dust of the earth) out of which God created him. Eve means life for she was the mother of all the living. Abraham means the father of a multitude for through his lineage Christ would come and bless all nations. Isaac means laughter, not because of anything about him, but because his mother Sarah laughed in disbelief that she could bear a child in her old age and laughed for joy when she did.

Many years ago I went to Kenya on a church mission trip to help build a small retreat center and nursery school. After a couple of weeks the workmen had given me a name. I noticed that they were calling me Kihara. I felt proud to have received a nickname from them, perhaps as a sign of having connected with these native construction workers. Onthe other hand, they may have been making fun of me. Through a translator I asked them, "What does Kihara mean?" To which the translator unhesitatingly replied, "The bald one." (I should have guessed). But God's name - I am - defies description and definition.

This brings us to our second point. Since God is "ineffable, beyond comprehension, invisible, (as the prayer in our Divine Liturgy states), there is no human language by which to define God. Therefore there is no way to give God a name that captures his essence. Saint Paul was caught up into Paradise and beheld things that were beyond human description and expression. (2 Cor. 12:4)

In Judges 13, a man of God (whose appearance was frightening like that of an angel of God) visited the barren wife of Manoah. He instructed her of her responsibilities regarding her forthcoming pregnancy with Samson, the one chosen to deliver his people from its Philistine oppressors. In relating the episode to her husband, she tells him how this messenger from God did not mention his name.

As the father-to-be, Manoah wanted to hear about this most important responsibility himself (if not to get another shot at getting the name out of the divine messenger). Manoah prayed to God to send back the man of God. His prayer was answered. At the end of the visitation, Manoah asked the messenger his name so he and hiswifemight properly honor himafter hiswords would come to pass. The messenger replied: "Why do you ask my name, for it is wonderful (i.e. full of wonder, ineffable, inexpressible), thus revealing theman ofGod to be not any angel but a manifestation of God himself.

The third and last point highlights a practical reason for God's name being essentially a non-name: to keep the Israelites from becoming like the pagan world around them. If they had a real name for God then they could properly honor him (as Manoah and his wife wanted to do for the heavenly messenger after his words came true).

In the pagan world, honor was rendered by creating an effigy and worshiping it as a god. For this reason God commanded: "You shall notmake for yourself an idol or a likeness of anything in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, or in the waters under the earth ... to bow down to them or to worship them" (Ex. 20:4-5).

And God did the most important thing he could do to keep his people frommaking an image of him. It's the same thing parents do to keep their kids on the straight and narrow: don't give them any ideas. You can't do much when someone's name is 'I am.' In grade school I remember my teacher giving us a sheet of white paper and asking each student to draw a picture of God. I remember only one student (not I) handed in a paper with nothing on it and that was what the teacher was looking for. The Old Testament is a unique book because it reveals a God who teaches us that life is not about what's in a name but what's not in a name until the 'I am' takes up his abode in Jesus: "Jesus said to them, Amen amen I say to you, before Abraham was, I am." (John 8:58)

Fr. Stavros