"What's in a Name: I AM by Rev. Jillian Hankamer
August 28, 2022
Genesis 32: 9-13 and 22-30
Do you know where your name comes from? Were you named after a relative or family friend? Friendship is how my mom ended up with the very unique middle name “Jaquese” that she’s always hated. Maybe your parents took an entertainment based approach like my high school friend whose middle name was Aurora because of her mother’s love for Disney, or Lily who played the bassoon in our high school band and whose legal name was “Baby Girl” because her parents immigrated right before she was born and were still learning English.
I’m named after my aunt Jill - my mom’s younger sister - and my paternal grandmother, Mary. I will always be grateful my parents didn’t feel the need to use her middle name because bless her heart it was Iola and she hated it. When I was pregnant, and Erich and I were trying to come up with names we settled on a boy’s name easily. A girl’s name proved to be much harder as I love vintage names he doesn’t care for. We eventually landed on Teigen for a first name because we liked it and it’s relatively uncommon, and Alyson as a middle name for a beloved friend of ours who passed away suddenly from a heart-attack.
Speaking of vintage names, they’re having something of a resurgence with Hattie, Ada and Minnie cropping up for girls and Edmund, Ollie, and even the odd Thadius being given to boys. My best friend named her first daughter Iris, and two seminary friends have twin girls named Adaline and Dorothy. My Texas friends prefer more rustic names like Gunner, Colton, and Gage along with all the “ie” “ee” “y” names for girls - Kylie, Bailee, Paisley.
Then there are historical names, such as Alexander the great Rodriguez, the first grader my friend Katie had when she was student teaching, and the Jesse James my mom had for speech therapy. She said he more than lived up to his name. In fact, asking teachers about the interesting names and spelling of names they’ve encountered is one of my favorite questions. I highly encourage you ask the teachers in your life to give you their favorite names and the ones that make them shudder.
According to a study done in 2015 by The New York Times, the number of women keeping their maiden names after marriage is on the rise after declining in the 1980s and 1990s. And we’re living at a time in which the names we call ourselves and others are scrutinized in a way they’ve never been scrutinized before. Most of this laser-focus is helpful as it pushes us to evolve in our language and awareness of others. It puts the onus on us to respect the names people give us and use them. It also requires those of us in the majority - specifically straight, white, cisgender - to think outside our bubble.
But such magnification has also given rise to those of us in the majority too often throwing our hands up in frustration. There are too many new terms and words for us to learn! How am I supposed to keep up with everyone’s pronouns even when they conveniently list them for me in their email signature? It’s not grammatically correct to call a single person “they.” I can’t possibly do that. I’ll just call them the name I’m most comfortable using. And then there are the refrains of, “Well, back in my day…” which rarely ends well.
But as this congregation knows names matter. What we call ourselves, how we identify and what we ask others to call us matters. But why? Why are we so interested in names? Where does our need to, as one of my seminary professors liked to say, “name things” come from? How did we develop the ability to define each other with a single word - as in “she’s a female pastor” or “they’re those kinds of Baptists?”
I’m convinced it’s due to our discomfort with mystery and our need for rationality. And don’t get me wrong, most of the time using the correct name for someone or something is vitally important. But when it comes to scripture the same rules don’t necessarily apply.
After all part of the reason people struggle with scripture is because so little of it is scientifically possible or historically provable. Even those of us who value the text without taking it literally struggle for language about why these stories matter if we don’t believe they happened the way they’re written down. Personally, despite having grown up in the church, having a seminary education, and a decade of ministerial experience I can count on one hand the things I know for certain about Jesus, the Bible, and what it means to be a Christian. One of those is that when someone - particularly a pastor - tells you they know for sure how God feels about anything you need to take whatever they’re about to say with an extreme amount of caution.
And strutting confidently into this mess and confusion is this morning’s story. Into our need for certainty and using the correct names for things and our frustration of having to learn so much new language while also steering clear of absolutes about God is this patch of holy ground. We find ourselves in this beautiful, complex, impossible story of God speaking to Moses from a burning bush.
Standing barefoot before a bush that’s on fire without being consumed, with grit between his toes, and the heat of the flame tickling his face Moses is commanded by God to bring the Israelites out of Egypt. He makes several attempts to be relieved of this massive task at one point saying to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”
What Moses is really asking is “Of all the deities out there, which one are you?” to which God’s response in Hebrew is “ehyeh asher ehyeh.”
Rather than being a clear moniker like Zeus or Baal this answer remains mysterious and can be translated as either “I am what I am” or “I will be what I will be,” which as professor and writer Dr. Amy-Jill Levine says, means that “this is a God of being, a God of process, a God of future orientation, a God who takes whatever form this God wants to take.”
To this day we still don’t know exactly what this name sounds like when spoken aloud or exactly how it’s written, in part because Jewish tradition holds that the name of God is not spoken. But it’s become accepted in academic circles to use something called the Tetragram Maton.
This is your seminary word for the day, so let me explain that the Tetragram Maton is Greek for “four letters” and refers to the Hebrew consonants yod-hey-vav-hey, or in English YHWH. Despite our transliteration to “Yahweh” there aren’t any vowels in this word because biblical Hebrew often wasn’t written with vowels. So, it’s important to keep in mind no matter how common the word Yahweh has become in Christian worship it’s not a word Jews us. In fact, when the Tetragram Maton comes up in the prayer book or reading, Jews will sometimes substitute the word “Adoni” which means “my Lord.” In Orthodox circles the word “ha shem” - meaning “the name” - is often substituted.
Such linguistic gymnastic may seem silly to us, especially since scholars are making their best educated guess with the word YHWH to begin with, but it’s important to understand as Amy-Jill Levine explains, “this means not only is the Tetragram Maton a sacred symbol when written down, but even the pronunciation is so sacred in the Jewish context that one needs a circumlocution and a circumlocution for the circumlocution.”
As far the linguistic root of YHWH there are several possibilities. The first is that YHWH comes from the root “to fall” as in rain falling down. A second suggestion is that YHWH comes from the root meaning “to blow” as in punching someone, “but also to blow up a storm or to blow wind, a connection with nature.” But the most commonly held view is that YHWH comes from linguistic root “to be” or “to become” With this root comes the sense that YHWH is “always present, always active.” YHWH has a future orientation, is someone who creates, who moves history, who makes history happen. This root also fits the Greek ἐγώ εἰμι/ ego eimi, translated as “I am” and, as you’ll remember, is how Jesus refers to himself in the Gospel of John.
Let me pause at this point to answer a few of the questions I can hear you thinking. Yes, there are scholars who spend their entire careers studying the linguistics of a name no one is 100% sure how to say.
Yes, I have explained these elements from roughly 30,000 and there’s quite a bit more nuance to be had in this conversation.
Yes, this is the kind of information you learn in seminary that’s promptly replaced when you get out into the real world and have to operate outside of a classroom for the first time.
And no, I don’t think the point of this story is that we don’t know God because we don’t really know how God’s name is pronounced.
The point of this story, and the Good News this morning, is that no matter how we pronounce it we’ve been given God’s name. God has shared a piece of herself with us and has trusted us to know him intimately and personally.
And while its origins and linguistic history is slippery, just as Moses is given God’s name so that he and the Hebrew people might have a claim on God, we have the same claim. Just as Moses and the Hebrews find a new identity in this YHWH who has seen their misery and heard their cries, we find our identity in the God who knows and sees all of us.
Dr. Amy Merrill Willis points out that as “much as Moses’ identity emerges from his own past, so God’s actions in the present emerge from God’s past commitments to the ancestors. The god of the Exodus is one who remains faithful…”
As we’ve seen with Sarah and Jacob these past few weeks God is constant. Sometimes unpredictable, rarely functioning on any discernible timetable, often beyond our understanding to the point of frustration, God is nevertheless constant. God is faithful. God will be with Moses and the Hebrews just as God will be with us no matter what wilderness we wander through.
“To be” - what more powerful basis for God’s name could possibly exist? Being is at the root of all things. Being is ineffable and omnipotent. Being is tangible and active, being is how we show our love and support. Our God has always been and always will be. Holy mystery and personal Lord and Savior all wrapped up in one dangerous, loving, unknowable, intimate God.
Take off your shoes my friends, this is holy ground.