Have you ever noticed how ugly names can be? I’m not talking about bad names like Hubert or Lance, but more about the ugly ways that we use them. Names can unite people, but they can also divide us. So I belong to group of Christians who traditionally didn’t want to be named anything, we started off as non-denominational (non-named) Christians. The only problem with that is that we named it “Churches of Christ” and then pretended like it wasn’t a name at all.
Which is the theological equivalent of saying something like “Oh that’s my friend Steve, he doesn’t have a name.”
But “Churches of Christ” has been moving along as a non-denominational denomination for well over a hundred years. And we really like our name. If you ever doubt that, just go up to one of us and ask us to change the church sign.
But having a name isn’t a bad thing. Everything depends on what you do with it.
I have a friend who’s a few years older than me, and until a couple of years ago he and his wife led what most of us would consider a pretty normal American life. But that was before they met Heather. Heather was a teenage girl who had come from a very broken home, she had been coming to the church they attended for the past few months, and they started to get to know her…then she started staying with them…then she wanted to be their daughter.
Now my friends hadn’t planned on adopting, but they loved Heather, and so they gave her a ton of options other than full adoption. They told her she could keep staying with them until she went to college, they would be willing to become her legal guardians, and if she really wanted they would legally adopt her, but she could keep her last name, and she could still make a lot of her own decisions and remain relatively independent.
But, my friends made clear to her, if you want us to fully adopt you and give you our name, then it’s going to be an entirely different situation. We are going to expect a lot more of you than we would just some resident. If we give you our name we are going to ask you to live a certain way. So no more abusing alcohol or drugs or dating boys we don’t approve of. Because if we give you our name it comes at a price.
And Heather said yes.
Even though she knew changing her life this much would be painful, she wanted more than a roof over her head. She wanted a name that meant something to her.
So this is a short series on why names matter. But more specifically it’s a series on why the book of Genesis talks so much about names. For the longest time I’ve wondered about why Genesis is so preoccupied with the idea of naming and names.
One of the things that is interesting about Genesis is that when Noah names his three sons, one of them is named Shem. Which is the Hebrew word for name. I have a friend named Jonathan who teaches Hebrew at a seminary in town, and since both of our parents really nailed it in the name department, I was asking Jonathan what he thought. Here’s what he said:
Family trees in the Bible are pretty boring. Kind of like graduation pictures—just a lot of faces, all in the same monochrome robes. Or like those names on the Vietnam Memorial. You know, boring.
Obviously, I’m writing this tongue in cheek. Graduation pictures are riveting—when we are in them. If we can seek out a name we know on the Vietnam Memorial, it can be the most meaningful experience ever. And even family trees fascinate us—as long as it’s my own family tree.
Genesis has a few family trees, of a couple of different kinds. One kind is linear—the whole point is to show where the progression of father-son, father-son is going. Cain’s children and grandchildren are, one suspects, headed downhill—the seventh is murderous Lamech. Seth’s line is a bit more hopeful—the seventh is walking-with-God Enoch. And of course Noah comes from this line as well, Noah who finds grace with God, Noah the new Adam who gets to start his own family tree.
After Noah, there will be more linear family trees—most notably the family tree that leads to Abraham. The rest of the book then traces Abraham to Isaac to Jacob, ending with Jacob’s twelve sons, the twelve tribes of Israel; Benjaminites or Judahites or Levites who are reading the story get to point and say, “Look, that’s me, that’s me!”
But Noah’s own family is not just a single line, from Shem to Terah to Abraham to Israel. It is a real tree, with real branches. In chapter 10, every nation known to Israel gets a place in the graduation picture. The whole world, Genesis suggests, fits into three types of people, lining up with the three sons of Noah.
There are the Japheth people, good enough folks in their way, we’re sure, but living so far from us we don’t really know them, not even enough to disapprove of them. They’re just there.
There are the Ham people, people whose very name makes one think of curse. Prominent here are Israel’s perennial enemies, the Canaanites, but some other people make it in too: the Egyptians (think slavery), the Assyrians and Babylonians (think exile), the Philistines (think Philistines)—all people who have, at one time or another, oppressed the Israelites.
Finally, there is Shem. His very name means name. The other peoples on earth may be seeking a name; these people inherit one. They are by heritage people of the name—Semitic. They are our own people, but also our neighbors, our cousins and our neighbors, unimportant people, people we have to get along with. They get a name. At a basic level, they share our name.
Genesis, a book that is at least as much about the future as it is about the past, hints at an ultimate fate for each line of the family tree. Those who tried to define themselves as oppressors, as masters, as conquerors and world powers, will serve Shem—they will be servants to the people of the Name. Those who are far off, hardly known, will dwell in the tents of Shem—they will be enfolded by the people of the Name.
And, of course, those insignificant farmers and fishers who surround us, those we think of as kin and some perhaps that we don’t like to think of at all, are all revealed as the center of world history, sharers with us in a deep significance, an election—chosen to be, born to be, people of the Name.
And that brings me back to Heather. Because here is this girl who got a pretty crummy hand in life, and she stumbles into a family living the American dream, and what she wants from them isn’t their resources, but their name. She wants to belong.
And they had a name that was big enough to include her.
I think that’s what God is trying to do with the names He gives us. They are not inherently a bad thing, but we have to remember, they aren’t for just us. They are for as many people who want to be a part of this kind of people.
The People of a Name.
Today’s blog is co-written with my friend, Dr. Jonathan Huddleston, Jonathan preached for several years at the Steele’s Chapel Christian Church, in Corbin, Kentucky and now teaches seminary students at the Abilene Christian University Graduate School of Theology.