What's in a Name?

Growing up in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, at least in the 80’s and early 90’s as I did, one can’t help but learn a few things about the ways of the dairy farm. And let me tell you…it’s a business. When it comes to them cute little white and black spotted cows, the less that’s left to chance the better. Which is why attending to the very specific details of breeding those cows is also a business. Thus none of us thought it the least bit odd when one of my high school buddies headed to Penn State to study agriculture. Toward that end he also managed to finagle himself an internship with a local breeder. What didn’t occur to me until later was that his job was a lot more, uh…involved…than simply turning a bull loose in a pasture full of cows. Let’s just say that my pal, as the low man on the totem pole, often found himself holding a syringe and up to his armpit in cows. Literally.

Not surprisingly my friend did not persist in that particular line of work, which is too bad. On several occasions we threatened to change his name and refer to him as Abraham in order to suit his career. Abraham as you may or may not recall from your Sunday school lessons originally started with the name Abram, which in Hebrew means “exalted Father.” However after God established his covenant with him, including a promise that his descendants would outnumber the stars in the sky, God changed Abram’s name to Abraham, meaning “father of many.”

Nowadays we don’t usually associate one’s name with his or her occupation, or his or her breeding for that matter. For example, if someone goes by the comparatively simple last name of Farmer, we do not necessarily expect to find that person behind the wheel of a John Deere baling hay any more than we expect the moniker John Deere to refer to a four legged woodland creature with antlers…and answering to "John." But such was not the case in ancient times, as the Old Testament provides much evidence of.

I already mentioned Abraham. Isaac, the name given to the first of Abraham’s progeny, meant laughter, as in his elderly mother laughed mockingly when God told her she was going to have a baby. We can’t really speak to whether or not Isaac was overtly jovial or not. But Isaac’s son Jacob certainly did live up to his name, which means he that supplants. Jacob supplanted his older brother Esau as heir to the covenant. Then after a divine wrestling match God attached to Jacob the additional name Israel, meaning he strives with God…and fortunately for him he lived to tell about it.

There is enough evidence to suggest that by the time we encounter Moses, so named because he was literally saved out of the water as the meaning of his name implies, people of the ancient Near East attached a great deal of significance to one’s name. Thus when Moses, still summoning his courage, asked for God’s name the question carried with it a great deal more import than simply “who should I have Pharaoh make the card out to?” Likewise, God’s somewhat puzzling response, “I AM WHO I AM,” (Ex. 3:14) carried quite a bit of force.

Take a second to consider the context. What does God’s own name say about himself in contrast to Pharaoh? Pharaoh in his early days, before ascending to Egypt’s throne, merely would be Pharaoh. Then later, for a relatively short time he could appropriately say, “I am Pharaoh.” But before long he would be gone and people would only say, “He was Pharaoh.” Such is not the case with God because God created time and space. God is not bound by time and space. Thus the only appropriate reference to himself is, “I AM.” Likewise there is no adding onto or changing God’s name as if he were growing into himself. Who he is he always has been and always will be. He may reveal things about himself that are news to us, but as the name “I AM” reflects, it’s not as if he is a character still in development. He’s the real deal, through and through. Whether that stunning revelation calmed Moses’ butterflies or simply made them that much worse is the only thing left to speculate upon.

All of us, regardless of whether we are exalted fathers, fathers of many, just like to laugh a lot, are always trying to stick it to the man, or even have our arm halfway up a…well, never mind. What I was saying is that we can all likely relate to the feeling of not being taken seriously, regardless of whether or not it has anything to do with our name or name calling. But when, by the third commandment, God forbid the taking of his name in vain he didn’t do so in order to protect his delicate ego. He did so because his name, in and of itself, brings to bear the weight of his glory. “I AM,” infinitely more so than dairy farming, means business.