The Name of God

In form the divine name Yahweh is either a simple indicative or a causative indicative of the verb ‘to be’, meaning ‘he is (alive, present, active)’ or ‘he brings into being’, and the formula in which the name is disclosed (Ex. 3:14, I am who I am) means either ‘I reveal my active presence as and when I will’ or ‘I bring to pass what I choose to bring to pass’. In the setting of Ex. 3–20 this refers both to the events of the Exodus as those in which Yahweh is actively present (and which indeed he has deliberately brought to pass) and also to the preceding theological interpretation (Ex. 3:1–4:17; 5:22–6:8) of those events vouchsafed to Moses. Yahweh is thus the God of revelation and history and in particular reveals himself as the God who saves his people (according to covenant promise) and overthrows those who oppose his word.

greatAbundant though this revealed knowledge of God is, yet in the divine name there is a clear element of secrecy. The formula I am who I am in itself expresses no more than that God knows his own nature: it is a formula of the sovereignty of God in the revelation of himself. If anything is to be told, he must tell it; he will tell only what he pleases. This is not in any way to be related to the concepts of magic. In the surrounding pagan world to know a god’s name was supposed to confer some power over that god—a logical extension (as so much false religion is a logical embroidering upon a truth) of the idea that ‘naming’ is the act of a superior. Yahweh did not withhold any revelation of himself in fear lest man should gain power over him. Rather the revelation of himself belongs in a programme of privilege which he has designed for his people, whereby the somewhat ‘external’ relationship expressed in titles becomes the highly personal relationship to a God who has given his people the liberty to call him by name, and what is at that point held back is concealed only because the moment of supreme revelation is yet to come. Nevertheless what is already known is not a falsehood later to be set aside nor a partial truth (for this is my name for ever, Ex. 3:15) awaiting completion, but one way of expressing the whole truth which will yet achieve greater and fuller expression. The ‘name’ of God lies at the heart of progressive revelation.

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But though the name does not confer ‘power’ in any magical sense, the knowledge of the name brings people into a wholly new relationship with God. They are his intimates, for this is the significance of ‘knowing by name’ (cf. Ex. 33:12, 18–19; Jn. 17:6). The initiation of the relationship thus described lies on the divine side: collectively and individually the people of God are ‘called by his name’ (cf. 2 Ch. 7:14; Is. 43:7; Je. 14:9; 15:16; Am. 9:12). Furthermore the motive which lies behind this divine outreach is often described as the Lord acting ‘for the sake of his name’ (cf. especially Ezk. 20:9, 14, 22, 44) by means of works through which he ‘made for himself a name’ (e.g. 2 Sa. 7:23; Ne. 9:10). The name is thus a summary way of stating what God is in himself (his name is all that is known to be true about him and his motives of action) and also what God is to others, allowing them to know his name (letting them into his truth) as sharing his name with them (letting them into his fellowship).

il_570xNMotyer, J. A. (1996). Name. In D. R. W. Wood, I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, & D. J. Wiseman (Eds.), New Bible dictionary (3rd ed., pp. 801–802). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.