Recognizing a God With No Name
Note: The English translations of the Sacred Scriptures here are from the New Oxford Annotated Bible, unless noted, with some minor adaptations.
One of the most important stories in the Hebrew Scriptures is found in the 3rd Chapter of Exodus (v. 1-15), in which Moses encounters the Living God of Abraham, Isaac, & Jacob (the 3 Great Hebrew Patriarchs) via the “Burning Bush,” which “was blazing, yet it was not consumed.” In this encounter, this God of the Hebrews calls Moses to go to Pharaoh “to bring My people, the Israelites, out of Egypt,” in order to deliver them from the state of bondage in which the Israelites had suffered since after the time of Joseph (one of Jacob’s 12 sons), whose goodness and leadership was no longer remembered. This Call of Moses sets the stage for arguably the most important events of the Hebrew Scriptures: the Passover, the Exodus from Egypt to Freedom, the Giving of the 10 Commandments & the Torah, and the Return to the Promised Land.
Needless to say, Moses was a bit overwhelmed by such a Call, and immediately tries to talk his way out of it! When the Voice from the Bush promises to be with him during this task, Moses then tries another tact by asking: “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me your name, what shall I say to them?” It is then that Moses is given the Sacred Name of this Living God, and that it is this God Who is sending Moses to them.
So, what Name was given to Moses? Although at least 22 names are given, in what Christians sometimes call the “Old Testament,” to the Divine, the Sacred Name of the Eternal given to Moses, the Name which denotes one particular literary tradition in the Hebrew Scriptures, seems to rise above all other Names in importance. My contention here is that this Name was actually No Name at all, nor was it any word or phrase that can be recognized as a name or EVER used for that purpose, for to do so would be to violate what is usually considered the 3rd Commandment (as translated in the King James Version): Thou shalt not take the Name of the LORD thy God in vain.
Now let’s get one thing straight right here: The word “God” is NOT a name. The word “God” in English, or in whatever language (Dieu in French, Dios in Spanish, Gott in German, Allah in Arabic, etc.) is now simply a word that is used to denote the concept of “a” or “the” Divine Being. Of course, the Greeks & the Romans, along with many other cultures, had a pantheon of gods, and were thus polytheistic, believers in “many gods.” For example, the Greek Zeus was “a” god, as was his Roman expression, Jupiter or Jove. It was of course ultimately the Hebrews who professed a belief in One God, and thus monotheism is their gift, religiously speaking, to the world. This Oneness was the central understanding of this God of the Hebrews, as expressed in the Jewish basic profession of faith, the Sh’ma ~ Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is One. [Note: The word used for “LORD” in this profession of faith is Adonai.] Of course, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all “Children of Abraham,” are the three great monotheistic faiths that descend from this profession, albeit with slightly different twists and emphases.
Usually, when referring to this Judeo-Christian concept of the Divine, the word “god” is capitalized, as when Yul Brynner, who played Pharaoh in Cecil B. DeMille’s classic film, “The Ten Commandments,” says after his charioteers have all drowned in the Red Sea: “His god, IS God.” But note, this is still not a name, but a recognition that there is no other god but this GOD, as the first of the Ten Commandments proclaims.
And yet: One hears people all the time, on television, on the radio, in the newspapers and in daily discourse, use the word “God” as if it were indeed a name, the Name of the Holy One of Israel. Many who use this word in this manner do so with impunity, and to the ears of many of us, disrespectfully, indeed “in vain,” for it is as if they have a full and complete understanding of what this word represents, as if this word, “God,” encapsulates and totally represents the Eternal One. I’m sorry to say that I know that I have done it too, even though I try not to do so, especially when I was a religion teacher.
So, what’s the big deal here?! Why is this an issue?
The Sacred Name revealed to Moses stems from the Hebrew verb “to be,” and is usually translated in English: I AM WHO I AM or simply I AM. My favorite translation of the Sacred Name is: I AM WHO I AM & I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE. In other words, NO NAME can capture the Eternal One, for the Eternal One cannot be defined or summarized by ANY name or phrase. The Judeo-Christian understanding of God is the Ineffable One, Infinite, Ultimate Mystery, Un-Nameable. A god who can be named is restricted, has been “captured” by a word/phrase concept, which limits that to which it is referring. This is NOT the case for the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Moses, and indeed, the God revealed by Jesus of Nazareth.
Think how significant names are in the Sacred Scriptures! When Jacob is wrestling with the Angel of GOD (what’s that, you may ask?), he asks the Angel, who he thinks is a man, what his name is: The Angel doesn’t tell him (for No Name can be given), but instead throws Jacob’s hip out of joint, and re-names him “Israel” – “Wrestling with GOD.” (A great revelation, since I believe that such “wrestling” in our Life Journey is a good thing!) Or ponder Jesus asking the demons within a possessed man what the demon’s name is, for in knowing the name, Jesus could control/command the demon, and indeed did. But NO ONE can command/control the Living God, because there is NO NAME that can be uttered to do so.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, the vowels of this Sacred Name were not written, so that one could not even accidentally say the Name: Orthodox Jews even today do/will not utter it. Thus, it is usually represented by the consonants alone: YHWH. (In many Scriptural translations, the word LORD, in all capital letters, is used, when the original Hebrew is YHWH.) This is sometimes called the Tetragrammaton (“Tetra” means 4 in Greek). In Hebrew, “Y” is pronounced like a “J” and “W” like a “V”, thus giving (incorrectly in my opinion) the word-name JEHOVAH, which some use, unfortunately and vainly (again in my opinion) as the Sacred Name. But again, neither this name nor any other can contain the Eternal/Ineffable One, and therefore should NOT be used thusly.
Why not? Other than the reasons already given above, I believe that such usage diminishes the Divine, makes it MUCH less than it is, and gives a false sense to the user of an understanding or knowing that, in this life anyway, can only be “in part,” as Paul says in 1st Corinthians (13:12): Such employment lacks humility of language. For “GOD” does not “exist,” but is rather the Source of all existence; “GOD” is not a “being,” but is instead the One from Whom all being flows. To speak of “GOD” in the same manner in which one may speak of any person or object is a diminishment indeed. The Mystery that was revealed to Moses cannot be imagined or represented in any defined way (thus the prohibition against idols, usually considered the 2nd Commandment), but only metaphorically, poetically, mystically, and even then we must always understand that these are merely inadequate approximations of that which we are trying to communicate. If we diminish or limit the Un-Diminishable or Unlimited ONE, I believe we concurrently diminish and limit ourselves, and thus the At-One-Ment that we are called, in Christ, to enjoy.
I believe this Mystery of the ONE Whose Name is Ineffable is best described by Lao-tzu in his magnificent Tao te Ching (the Book of the Way) when he says, right off the bat: “The way that can be told is not the Eternal Way; the name that can be named is not the Eternal Name. – The Unnamable is the eternally real…” He goes on to say that “Naming is the origin of all particular things,” (as when Adam, “the Human,” gives names to all living creatures in the Genesis story), but recall that No Name is/can be given to the Eternal.
It is not to be forgotten that there is always a tension, spiritually speaking, between Transcendence & Immanence, and I freely admit that I am focusing here on the Transcendent aspect of the Divine. I do that because of what I perceive to be an imbalance in our times between the two, and with the understanding that when the fully Transcendent One is better appreciated, then Immanence becomes all the more special. Indeed, for Christians, Jesus of Nazareth taught us to refer to this Divine Presence as Abba, that is to say “Father” but really “Daddy or Papa.” And for those who may not have known a loving male figure in their life, any nurturing presence in life can validly be substituted, for the One being revealed by Christ is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female (see Galatians 3:28), “for all of you are One in Christ Jesus.” (The maleness/femaleness of the GOD of Creation is also revealed in Genesis 1:27.)
The Name “Jesus” itself means “YHWH SAVES,” and thus the Name of GOD, as revealed by Christ, is more like a verb, especially LOVE, since, as 1st John (4:16b) reveals: “GOD Is LOVE,” and Jesus Himself gives us His new commandment: “Love one another, as I have loved you.” (John13:34) And we know HOW Jesus loved, every time we meditate on the Holy Cross of Christ, as we do most solemnly on Good Friday, in the middle of celebrating the Paschal Mystery, prefigured in the Hebrew Passover and its sacred meal of Liberation, Freedom and Salvation, and thus the Eucharist itself!
When taking part in a book group, a friend asked me, in light of the understanding that I have expressed above, what are we to do when we want to refer to the Divine in our conversations? I don’t recall how I answered, but what I wish I had said was: “Struggle, wrestle with the language that we are using, for talk about the Ineffable One should indeed reflect the fact that language is inadequate, for we can only approximate with words what we mean when we speak of the Living & True GOD, the Eternal Mystery, the One we Christians proclaim is LOVE: If only we would LIVE that Love, so as to reveal such Mystery via every word we speak, every act we commit, every thought we ever contemplate, and every breath we breathe. – AMEN. The music group, “America,” went to the desert “on a Horse with no name.” – Sounds good to me. And Jesus prayed: “Hallowed be Thy Name.” – Amen Indeed.
Jeff Danner is a Christian, and holds an M.A. in Theology, along with other degrees in Philosophy, French/Spanish and Education. He resides in Marietta.