I can still see in my mind one picture from my very first children’s Bible. There’s Adam, his back facing me, a plant strategically covering his butt. Both arms are by his sides, but one hand is lifted slightly. The pose seems to say, “I’m thinking. The right name will come to me, and it will be perfect.”
In front of Adam is a vast line of animals, stretching off into the horizon. I remember a few of them: the lion, his mane-surrounded face looking wise and calm, a giraffe just behind, its neck and head arching toward Adam, and a gazelle-like creature, poised as if standing still was an extreme effort.
I’ve always been fascinated with this story, with humans having the privilege of naming. Naming, I feel, is a small act of creating, a small act that opens the door to vast possibility.
We humans love to name—our children, our pets, our businesses, even inanimate personal belongings. We seem to think that when we name, we hold a bit of interest in that person. We feel we’ve set them on a path because names carry connotation for us. Some names are strong; others are beautiful or quirky or unique. When we name, we confer not only possibility, but a hoped-for direction or purpose.
Could this love for naming be a longing for the privilege we had pre-Fall?
We lost so much at the Fall, relationship with God paramount, so perhaps the loss of our naming privilege does not seem very big, but I wonder about that. I think it must have been fairly significant: names are a big deal in Scripture. In historical accounts, the naming of children or places is often included. God changed people’s names several times, and in each instance the name change carried weight. It signified a new direction, a new identity, and a different relationship with God.
I’ve learned that the very fact we have names is important. I’m reading a book on Genesis* right now, and in the section about the serpent/Satan in Genesis 3, the author made this statement: “What is interesting is that in all but one of these … occurrences (of the name ‘Satan’), ‘satan’ has attached to it the definite article, ‘the satan.’ This indicates ‘the satan’ is a title, not a personal name. Satan is not who he is, but what he is. He does not merit a name, and in antiquity, not to have a name was to be reduced to virtual nonexistence.” (emphasis mine)
I often tell my children Satan is not capable of creating. He can only twist toward evil what God created for good, and this quote expanded my thinking: Satan un-named himself when he turned away from the Creator, and in so doing, he separated himself from any participation in creation. In a way, he undid himself. He made himself nothing, incapable of doing anything true.
In the Fall, we, too, un-named ourselves. We spurned “beloved” and “image-bearer” and put on false names like “self-sufficient” and “independent.”
But God snatched up the true names we cast off so flippantly. God kept them safe, and through the magnificent work of Immanuel, God restores them to us. Truly named ourselves, we can once again join God in the creative work of naming others.
I’ve been pondering this idea for a long time, particularly in my context as a mother. Each day I contribute to the naming of my children. With the attitudes, actions, and words I direct toward them (and in the absence of those as well), I shape their concept of themselves. I can name them “beloved” and “valuable” and “growing.” But I can also twist their concept of their name: “You are a bother.” “You are incapable.” “You are not worth my time right now.” I can reinforce their un-naming.
This is not only true for parents. We all have people we are called to nurture in one way or another, and we can be a part of naming them as God wants them named: valuable, unique, and beloved.
We can name even the people we simply pass on the street. When we make eye contact with a person, we “say,” “I see you. I acknowledge you as a fellow human being.” That is naming.
And when we avert our eyes, what then?
In I Peter, we are told we are “chosen (to be) God’s instruments to do his work and speak out for him, to tell others of the night-and-day difference he made for (us)—from nothing to something, from rejected to accepted.” **
And in this “telling,” we get to name others—with the names God has for them. He says, “I’ll call nobodies and make them somebodies; I’ll call the unloved and make them beloved. In the place where they yelled out, “You’re nobody!” they’re calling you “God’s living children.” **
We name: You are Somebody. You are Beloved. You are God’s living child!
What incredible work!
*Handbook on the Pentateuch by Victor P. Hamilton, published by Baker Book House, 1982. The quote I reference is on page 43 in this edition of the book. The link in the book title takes you to its page at Christianbook.com’s site, where you can buy the 2005 edition.
**The Scripture links take you to Bible Gateway, to that Scripture in three versions (The Message, the Amplified, and the NIV) side by side. It’s awesome to look at them in this way!