I am sitting in the backseat of my parents’ car, a long Cadillac. It’s a sunny afternoon, and we’re on the way home from my grandparents’ farm, driving through the country — a bright, immense, motionless Saskatchewan sky under which we pass field after field. A single word — my own name — passes through my mind over and over again. “Jeff … that’s me.” Envisioning the letters individually and the name as a whole, I mentally repeat “Jeff … Jeff … Jeff.” Somehow those letters, that title, are supposed to define me, are supposed to be intrinsically connected to me, are supposed to be me. But as I repeated my name and visualized it, I became alienated from it; it began to sound absurd. Jeff.

This sound, these shapes, had nothing to do with me at all; they were arbitrary. I could have been named anything else. But if that’s the case, my whole being asked the question: Who am I?

The arbitrary sound of my name forced me back on the arbitrary fact of my own little existence. All of this was compressed into a disoriented feeling that even now I can’t quite express. Somehow I had come to experience the fact — the mystery — of my own creatureliness. And this happened to me more than once.

I think this experience is most common among children — I haven’t had it since — but it is universally available: the experience of the fact that we are creatures hovering over an abyss of nothingness, neither having to exist at all nor having any guarantee that we will continue to exist; the experience of not knowing who we truly are or what our real name is.

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This experience contrasted with Moses as he came face to face with God’s Name at the burning bush. “I am I am,” he tells Moses (Ex. 3:14). God has a name. But, unlike ours, his Name perfectly expresses what (3:14) and who (3:15) he is. Jeff is an arbitrary noise, an arbitrary signature, that has no intrinsic connection to a person who by no means has to exist. Jeff expresses nothing.

I am” perfectly describes what God is: that he must exist.[1] My existence is a question mark: Am I? God’s is an assertion: I am! The contrast between my name and God’s Name couldn’t be starker.

Charles Geischen has recently shown how the distinction-in-unity of God and his Name was a Trinitarian formulation used by early Jewish-Christians.[2] The perfect “ontological referentiality” of that Name-Word is what I am getting at here. And I think this is only confirmed by the seriousness with which the Ten Commandments took blasphemy. That is to say that if God is his Name, our use of that Name amounts to either glorification of God or direct violence against him.[3] It is also confirmed by the way in which the Name has been identified with the Word through which God created the world in Genesis 1: Let there be. The Targums observed that this phrase appears to be verbally related to God’s first-person Name, I am, and to his third-person Name, YHWH (Jehovah), roughly translated as he is.[4] All of this is to say that the hypostasis of the Son is in one sense the Name.[5]

Another stream of tradition links the second person of the Trinity with the Name in a different way. Because the New Testament is written in Greek, there has long been speculation about how Jesus’ name might have been spelled in Hebrew. My favorite answer is that it’s made up of the letters of YHWH with an S dropped in the middle: YHSWH. And because in Hebrew S is the word for teeth, certain theologians have said that the S is the consonant that allows the Name YHWH to be vocalized — since the four letters of YHWH refer to vowels, not to consonants. We’re just guessing when we say Yahweh or Jehovah because the holy Name’s pronunciation wasn’t only forgotten, it was somehow inherently unpronounceable. When an S was added to pronounce the Hebrew name of Jesus, however, YHWH became audible; it became flesh! [6]

But if God’s real Name is the hypostatic Son of God, what is my real name? Who am I?

Our God-given names, writes St. John (Rev. 2:17), won’t be made known until the end of time. Then we’ll finally know how God used us, what God’s plan was for us, and who we really are in relation to him.

In the meantime we faintly hear the sound of our new name on the lips of Jesus. Think of how many times in Scripture he changed people’s names: Saul to Paul, Simon to Peter, Jacob to Israel. The Babylonian Talmud and Midrash Rabbah even noticed that when God changed Abram’s name to Abraham, and Hoshea’s name to Joshua, he added a letter from his own Name, Jehovah. He added an H to Abraham, and a J/Y to Joshua. Receiving this influx of power, Abraham, a sterile old man, was able to conceive Isaac, and Joshua was able to conquer the Promised Land.[7]

A name change is possible for all of us. This is what Numbers talks about:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the Israelites: You shall say to them,

The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.

So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.

So the priests marked the people of God with his Name. They thus received God’s life and power.

This is exactly what we still do today in Baptism. Traditionally the baptized would receive a new Christian name. More importantly, they would receive the Holy Spirit and the sign of the Cross on their foreheads — the letter T. To add one more layer of traditional meaning (and a commonplace among Messianic Jews), a cross is the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, Taw, and this letter also stands for the Name of God with which the people of God are marked for salvation (Ex. 12:23; Ezek. 9:4; Rev. 7:3). St. John interprets “I am” as “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last” (Rev. 1:8; 22:13). So, the Divine Name is symbolized here by the first and last letters of the alphabet — A to Z, as it were. T, the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, refers then to the Cross as God’s Name, with which we become Christ’s own when we are marked at Baptism.[8]

For, it was on the Cross that Jesus identified with us; there he shed his blood so that we could receive God’s surname: Jeff, son of God; Catherine, daughter of God, and so on. Now we are a part of his family, and he is our Father. Who are we? Sons and daughters of the I am! The question mark that hangs over our lives has now, in the risen Lord, become an exclamation mark.

Footnotes

[1] I have yet to be dissuaded from believing Etienne Gilson’s argument that the Name indicates that God’s essence (his “what”) is his existence (his “that”). See Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, 1 edition (University of Notre Dame Press, 1991). [Maybe spend some time with the Cappadocians, Augustine, and Ps-D, then, Jeff B. J]

[2] Charles A. Geischen, “The Divine Names in Ante-Nicene Theology,” Vigiliae Christianae 57:2 (May 2003), pp. 115–58.

[3] This violence reached its apex in the Crucifixion of the Name made flesh, Jesus the second person of the Trinity.

[4]That “the Targumists associate the divine command yhy with xyxa, ‘I am,’ the exposition of God’s Name, hwhy. In view of the similarity between yhy and xyxa (as well as hwhy), it is not at all strange that the Samaritans and the Jews connected the Tetragrammaton with the divine command spoken at the creation….” Since at this time there were no “grammars” indicating how verbs were conjugated, the connections were made according to visible likeness. The letters were elemental, as it were, and the Sepher Yetzirah would articulate this ontologically. Similar ontological hints can be found in Paul and Revelation, but also in the Greek and Syriac Fathers.

[5] Maximus the Confessor says as much in “Commentary on the Our Father,” Maximus Confessor: Selected Writings (Paulist Press, 1985).

[6] Brian P. Copenhaver offers a thorough if confusing history of the development of this idea through Origen and Evagrius, Jerome, the Medieval glosses, up to Cusa, Pico della Mirandola, Reuchlin, and Lefèvre d’Etaples in “Lefèvre d’Etaples, Symphorien Champier, and the Secret Names of God,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institute 40 (1977), pp. 189–211. See especially, p. 201. Preaching on the Tetragrammaton Nicholas of Cusa said that “because it encloses every vowel-sound within itself … It is, then, the form of words, whence comes the form without which a word cannot be vocalized, for there is no word without a vowel. And so it is God, that Word through which and in which every word is. But in Hebrew the name IHESUS is IESUA and is the Word of God with the letter ‘s’, which is called ‘sin.’ And ‘sin’ means ‘utterance’ (elocutio), the Word of God spoken, so to speak, and so IESUA or IESUS is the spoken Word of God.” Lefèvre added some confusing comments on the Greek and Hebrew breathings for Jesus that indicate the breath of the Spirit hidden in the Name. See pp. 198-99.

[7] Ibid., pp. 192-94.

[8] Ibid., 207-08; Lionel Spencer Thornton, Confirmation: Its Place in the Baptismal Mystery (Dacre Press, 1954), Ch. II, in which he explains the typological connection of the Taw with initiation; also for the Taw as a Divine Name see Geischen, “The Divine Names in Ante-Nicene Theology,” esp. 133-34.

About The Author

After growing up in the Christian and Missionary Alliance, Jeff Boldt wandered through the spiritual ruins of North American denominationalism looking for the “True Church.” Instead he found the Anglican Communion, where he has begun to learn the virtue of staying put.

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My daughters were asking what we would have named them if they had been boys. Of course, they wouldn’t be “them” if they they had been boys! Our names are very important to us, and the changing of a name is a serious thing. We invest much of “ourselves” in our names. Does the fact that the naming of a child has been connected with baptism change the nature of our relationship to our name? I wonder if our new names will have the same relationship to our old names as our old bodies will have to our resurrected bodies;… Read more »

Julian Aldous

The name we are given does hold value in the sense that is what our parents called us, with some reason no doubt, even though it may appear arbitrary. However, God’s name, will always hold greater meaning and depth, as the naming of “I am” being a present continuous has an eternal value to it, not being place in history as either the past or future, but rather a God for all time, who is present with us. The names of God. which we are reminded so readily at Christmas, being Wonderful, Counsellor, Mighty God, Ever lasting Father, Price of… Read more »

Carey

Is saying “God Damn” taking Gods name in vain since saying “God” doesn’t describe his name ?

Michelle Allen

I’ve always wondered that too, Carey. It’s so offensive to most believers, and a lot of people in general, but I question if the etymology of the phrase is people talking “little g” (god of ‘this world,’ the enemy), or our actual Father? Are they saying that that deity “should” damn something? I would be interested in knowing the actual origin of the phrase. It’s not a kind phrase, and one said way too much in media, for sure, either way.