What’s in a name? 7

The sermon from this past Sunday, January 1, 2017 – The Holy Name of Jesus. The audio is better than the written copy and at some point I intend to edit the text to match the sermon. In the meantime, feel free to listen to the sermon here

Holy Name of Jesus (January 1, 2017)

Numbers 6:27 So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.

Luke 2:21 After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. [Luke 1:31]

The name I was given at birth is Christian Mark Brady. My family and friends all called me Chris. People who weren’t friends found all sorts of rhymes for “Chris” that I think you can guess. When I was in elementary school Ms. Nichols refused to teach me how to spell my full, first name, saying that “it might offend the Jewish students in the class.” After my grandfather, John William McNamara, died, survived by his wife and two daughters, I added a second “M” to my middle names to honor him. I am now known formerly as “Christian Mark McNamara Brady.” After Elizabeth and I married and moved to England, everyone there called me “Christian” and I liked the fuller form of my name. I continued to use “Christian” when I arrived at Tulane University as a visiting assistant professor of Jewish Studies. As I was applying for the permanent position (which I was offered) I was encouraged by an adjunct professor and local rabbi to just use “Chris” if I wanted the permanent job. I was named after a German uncle.

What is in a name? Today parents might name their children for all sorts of different reasons. It might be a family name like our children. Others look for something truly different and unique like Moon Unit Zappa, daughter of the musician Frank Zappa, or Sylvester Stallone’s son, Sage Moonblood. Names can be important, powerful, and can often shape us in more ways than the parents or child might know.

In the Bible, Adam is the name of the first male human and the term for all humanity. He is also so-named because he is from the earth ‘adama. And he in turned “named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all living.” The name Eve sounds like the term for life, חי. Jacob was so-named because he was born grasping the heel (Heb. ʿāqēḇ) of his brother and later his named was changed to Israel because he had striven (*שׂרה) with God, thus yiśrāʾēl. And we could go on for many other people in the Bible. Not everyone, but many names have significance.1


The priests of Dagon in their fishy outfits. In antiquity, the name of a deity often indicated the god’s power or domain. So the Canaanite deities for the sun and the moon were called Semesh and Yareach, the Canaanite (and Hebrew) words for sun and moon. Not coincidentally, that is why in Genesis 1 the Bible states that God created the “greater and the lesser lights” as a statement that these are nothing more than the creations of God and not themselves gods. And my favorite, the Philistine deity Dagon, famous in the Bible from 1 Samuel 5 when his idol comes crashing down before the Ark of the Covenant. Dagon is most likely associated with fish (Hebrew דג), fitting for a sea people’s god, and the comic Bible I had as a child depicted the priests as wearing fish robes. Love it.

In today’s reading from Numbers God tells Moses that he will bless Israel by putting “my name on the Israelites.”

Num. 6:23b Thus you shall bless the Israelites: You shall say to them,
24 The LORD bless you and keep you;
25 the LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
26 the LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.
27 So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.

But what is God’s name? You might say “the LORD” but what does that mean? In English “lord” means a master, someone who rules over another, not necessarily an inappropriate name for the God of all creation, but it is not actual an accurate translation of the Hebrew. The Hebrew for the name of God are the four letters yod, heh, waw, heh, “Yahweh.” We sometimes refer to it as the “tetragrammaton,” simply meaning “four letters,” and in Jewish tradition, already by the time of Jesus, it was believed that it was inappropriate to utter or say the Name of God. The fact that here in Numbers God commands Moses and Aaron that they should utter the name over the nation of Israel tells us that this was not always the case. But in order to avoid saying the name of God, Yahweh, they would instead pronounce the word for “lord,” Adonai. This was likely because in the Psalms, such as today’s, the name of God and the word Adonai were placed as complements to one another. Thus Psalm 8 actually begins יְהוָה אֲדֹנֵינוּ “O Yahweh our lord.” Today orthodox Jews will not even say that and instead will replace the word with HaShem which means “the Name.”

But again, what is God’s name? What does “Yahweh” mean? Do you remember when God reveals his name? It is at the bush that burns and yet is not consumed.

Ex. 3:13 But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14 God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM אֶהְיֶה  has sent me to you.’”

15 God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD יְהוָה, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’:
This is my name forever,
and this my title for all generations.

The name of God is a verb. In fact, it is the verb of existence, the verb “to be.” (And I should point out that in Hebrew and, it happens, in Greek the verb “to be” is not used as we do in English.) The name of God is the verb “to be” and so God’s name is conjugated. When God is speaking he tells Moses that his name is “I AM.” But of course Moses isn’t God so when he speaks to the Israelites he is to say that the God who sent him is יְהוָה. This is where all our English translations let us down. Where they render אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה as “I AM WHO I AM” (or “I AM that which I AM”), which is reasonable since the first person of the verb “to be” is “I am!” But when we get to the 3 person masculine singular they default to the traditional “LORD” (in all caps) and we miss the fact that this is the same word, the same name as in verse 14.

So, I will say it again, the name of God is the verb of existence. “He is.” Contemplate that for a moment, for days, contemplate that for a lifetime.

God is existence. God is being. To borrow John’s phrase from last Sunday’s Gospel, (1:3) “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” God, our God, is not the sun or the moon, the fish or the grain, fertility or death. God is. And God always has been. Did you ever notice that the Bible, unlike all any other religious stories and myths I know of, the Bible does not provide us with an explanation for the origins of God. He was not birthed by the great chaos, he is not the product of some battle or cosmic familial spat, God is not an alien from another planet. God is. (And notice present tense! Not past or future, God Is.)

God Is. And we and all creation are sustained by him. We exist because He Is.

This is not to suggest some pantheistic notion that “God is in everything,” that we all “contain God,” or any other such heretical notions. Rather it is to affirm that all things have come into being through him and without him is nothing. He Is. Full stop. In fact, just as the opening to John’s Gospel makes these statements about Jesus, Jesus himself declares that He Is God. In eight instances in the Gospel of John, Jesus says clearly, “I am,” ἐγὼ εἰμί. In John 8:58, for example, when challenged how he could possibly know Abraham, Jesus replied, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.”

Jesus Is. Just as God Is. He Is.

But his name is not “Jesus,” at least not in Hebrew. It is Joshua or “Yehoshua.” Can you hear it in that first syllable, the name of God? Yah. And the second portion is from the Hebrew root *ישע meaning “to deliver or save.” Thus the name of the boy born to Mary, circumcised on the eight day in accordance with the Law, was named “Yahweh saves.” Just as the angel declared to Joseph when he said that Mary “will bear a son, and you are to name him Yehoshua, Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).

This is Jesus’ name and his purpose. God so loved this world that he gave his only Son to save the world, through belief in him and his sacrifice for us. The Lord Saves through his Son.

Shortly before Christmas you might have seen the NY Time’s Nicholas Kristoff’s interview with Evangelical pastor Tim Keller.2 One Christian blogger declared that Keller “highlights in a single sentence what is fundamentally deficient in American Evangelicalism.3 What single sentence could be so damning? Kristoff was asking Keller what he considered the most fundamental beliefs of Christianity.

Kristoff: And the Resurrection? Must it really be taken literally?

Keller: Jesus’ teaching was not the main point of his mission. He came to save people through his death for sin and his resurrection. So his important ethical teaching only makes sense when you don’t separate it from these historic doctrines.

This, to the blogger Steve Hackman, was the smoking gun. The problem with Evangelicalism was present in this single sentence, the assertion that Jesus’ “teaching was not the main point of his mission.”

I am not going to be an apologist for American Evangelicalism, I have my own list of concerns and issues, but I think it is Hackman who has misunderstood the mission of Jesus. It is right there in his name, The LORD Saves.

Or to look at it another way around, the ethical and moral teachings of Jesus are completely in line with the Law. Jesus’ teachings affirm that which was given by God to Israel. The most important commandments, as Jesus said, are to love the Lord you God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and to love your neighbor as yourselves. This is straight out of the Law. And there were many great teachers of the same during Jesus’ own day; the most obvious to Christians is John the Baptist. But Jesus wasn’t just a teacher.

What was unique about Jesus and his teaching was the assertion that he was the Son of God, the Messiah sent by Yahweh to save the world, and that he would do so by offering himself up as a sacrifice for our sins. This is why Rabbi Jesus was not just any rabbi. He was the One who Saves.

As we go through this new Church year, listen to the words of Jesus as we read them each week in the Gospels. Hear his teachings and challenge to us. When you read the Old Testament consider also the example of those saints who sought to follow God as children of Israel, children of the Promise, how the Son has fulfilled the Law, and in so doing has allowed us to be adopted and are now co-heirs with Christ. Listen also to the Epistles as Paul, James, and John give us guidance and direction to understand and live out this new Promise, the new Law, the new Covenant that has been given to us through the Son.


Phil. 2:7b … being found in human form, 2:8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross. 2:9 Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 2:10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 2:11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Amen. ✠

  1. For the sake of the blog and any linguistically minded people reading, I will point out that many biblical names are considered folk etymologies. That is to say, the relationship with the word and the name are not necessarily linguistically related. It has little bearing, however, for the meaning of the names within biblical and traditional usage. []
  2. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/23/opinion/sunday/pastor-am-i-a-christian.html?_r=0 []
  3. http://www.stevehackman.net/tim-kellers-n-y-times-interview-reveals-american-evangelicals-problem-in-a-single-sentence/ []

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7 thoughts on “What’s in a name?

  • Richard Wright

    Years ago at Cornell I did a quick and dirty survey of where אני אהיה or אנכי אהיה appears in the Hebrew Bible. Something like seventy times. Sixty times of which specifically by G-d. (Not now, Bibleworks, in a minute.) Most of the exceptions were in Job. Some scholars probably have written about this and might correct me. But my rough half hour research project seemed to suggest the full Hebrew construction 1cs pronoun + Qal prefix 1cs verb I + AM was used almost(!) exclusively by G-d. Hence the shock value of Greek εγω ειμι as you discuss in the homily.

    • Christian Brady Post author

      Richard, I do remember our discussing this back in the day. (See particularly 2Sam. 7:14 ‏ אֲנִי אֶהְיֶה־לּוֹ לְאָב וְהוּא יִהְיֶה־לִּי לְבֵן אֲשֶׁר בְּהַעֲוֹתוֹ וְהֹכַחְתִּיו בְּשֵׁבֶט אֲנָשִׁים וּבְנִגְעֵי בְּנֵי אָדָם׃) I too have not done a lot of reserach on this since…I really should do more and double check those old memories, but the nature of the Name as there verb היה is clear and powerful.

  • Beyond the Pale

    Hi Christian,

    I appreciate your thoughts on the subject although I wouldn’t so much say I misunderstood as much as we probably have a disagreement. I believe Jesus was not bringing ethical teachings, he was establishing a new government. Everywhere he went his focus and mission was for people to understand that the Kingdom of Heaven (and God himself) is like THIS. Yes, Jesus saves (I agree) but we see that salvation occurs when people turn (repent) from the destructive habits of this world and embrace Kingdom life. When corrupt Zacchaeus in Luke 19 renounces his corrupt practices and begins to see others with dignity, Jesus proclaims salvation not only on Zacchaeus but the whole household. Thats because salvation is not just “personal” but systemic…another weak understanding within evangelicalism.

    • Targuman

      Thank you for replying Steve. Fair enough to say we have a disagreement rather than a misunderstanding and it does sound like it from what you have just articulated. The key is likely to be the question of *how* one sees Jesus as saving one/the world. You seem to be suggesting that salvation comes simply through repenting of sinful behavior and by “embrac[ing] Kingdom life.” In my understanding of the Gospels and the NT repentance is certainly key and the first step and a change of behavior that is embracing “Kingdom life” (the teachings of Jesus) is the fruit of salvation. But unlike Zacchaeus we live on the other side of the cross and the empty tomb. We are “to believe and be baptized,” not simply renounce corrupt practices. “Faith without works is dead” and all of that, but faith is central and key, faith in the atoning sacrifice of Christ.

      There are, as I suggested, many points at which I would disagree with American Evangelicalism depending, of course, on who is defining it and what that definition is. Certain the “Jesus is my homeboy” message of just me and Jesus is one of those areas that I would critique. But to return to Keller’s quote, I agree with him on this: Jesus’ teachings are not distinct or unique separated from the historic doctrine of the resurrection. Everything Jesus taught (aside from his assertion of being the Son of God and the Messiah) can be found in the teachings of other Jewish teachers of the age, including miracles. It is the crucifixion and the resurrection, the salvation of the world that this wrought, that separates Jesus and his teachings from any others.

      Where I think we agree then is that those who are Christians ought to be following the teachings of Jesus and embracing the Kingdom life.

      • Steve Hackman

        Hi Christian, for many years I would have agreed with you and to a point still do. As I note the resurrection both validates from God the Kingdom message Jesus announced as well as promised we will be able to continue to participate in it when we to are raised on the Day he declares. But as a long time pastor and Christian I now question what “belief” and “salvation” really are. I struggle with your assertion that Zacchaeus being on the “other side” of the empty tomb somehow suggests the message has changed. Again what separates Christ from other Jewish teachers or other religious leaders for that matter is the Kingdom he was announcing and confirmed by God in the resurrection. Someone can “believe and be baptised” that Jesus died and rose again for their sins but if they don’t bear fruit in keeping with repentance is that “faith”? The only real way to demonstrate love for God is by demonstrating love to those around us. i.e. “kingdom fruit” I mean, how else does one show faith in God? And if someone is demonstrating this fruit but their theological furniture isn’t arranged quite right (doubts about resurrection for example) does it negate the love they demonstrate? Many of the sheep in the parable of the Sheep and the Goats were unaware that the fruit they were bearing was unto Christ.

        • Christian Brady Post author

          Steve, Thank you for engaging in this conversation. As a long-time Christian and scholar of early Judaism (and pastor of only some 10 years) I too question what belief and salvation mean. That is a daily exercise and I think it is a spiritual discipline.

          I should clarify re: Zacchaeus that I do not think that the message has changed on the other side of the empty tomb, but rather that our perception and comprehension of it has. Just as I think our perception and understanding of all of this will change dramatically at our own resurrection.

          Regarding Jesus’ teaching, the kingdom he was announcing was the same that the prophets and the rabbis, even those two hundred years after Jesus, were preaching. Again, that is not the distinction of his ministry it is his personhood and his sacrifice. He was the Son of God offering himself for the sins of the world. *That* is what sets him apart from any and all.

          Now, what you say about bearing fruit is absolutely true! You are, of course, alluding to James:

          James 2:14   What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

          To which I say, Amen! I agree that, if we believe and are baptized in Christ, that should be in evidence in our lives, through our works. I am not too terribly hung up on theological details myself, however I do think the purpose of Christ’s death and resurrection are not details, but rather pillars, like Boaz and Jachin. What I am reading between the lines (and so may be WAY off the mark and please forgive me if so) is a response to and against the hypocrisy of so many Christians who debate endlessly details of, e.g., predestination, without having any evidence of God’s changing their lives and leading them to minister in and to the world. I share that frustration and reaction, but their hypocrisy doesn’t change the message of the NT. In fact, one could rightly argue works without faith is just as hypocritical as faith without works.

          Finally, you ask whether doubts in a person (about the resurrection, for example) negates their demonstrated love and of course the answer is no! But the question at hand was whether the doctrine of the resurrection was important and should be maintained as a tenet of the faith. The answer to that, I obviously believe, is yes. And I can say that while still regularly asking “what does it mean to believe?” “What is ‘faith’?” “What is the resurrection?” I do not find these two things, doctrine and daily life, to be oppositional, but rather evidence of a dynamic life of faith.

  • John Frazzette

    This is a wonderful and enlightening article. I am no scholar, so forgive my ignorance but I’ve often reflected on the name of God as taught to me. A play on the verb “to be” if you will, it proclaims three things – existence, separateness and a promise. I AM – a simple proclamation that “yes I do exist”. A revelation of sorts. I AM WHO AM – a proclamation that indeed God is God. God is not me, not the tree, the sun or stars, but a seperate distinct being. SHALL BE – a promise that in my mind (which cannot imagine timelessness) that God always was, is and will be. As you said, God just is.
    I will reflect further on your explanation of the name of Jesus. But my first thought is again a word that reveals something else about God. God is Salvation. I need to drink water to stay hydrated, but water is the source of the hydration, not my action. In a similar way, I am a broken, imperfect creature. And while it may require my participation in turning to God/the Kingdom, the source of Salvation is God, in this case Jesus’ life, passion, death and resurrection.