A short biblical theology of names.
After Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, we start to see family divisions break down, starting, unfortunately, with the siblinghood shared between Cain and Abel. Cain kills Abel, the natural consequence of choosing right and wrong for yourself, and he is cast out even further from the land of Eden, toward the land of Nod (or, in English, wandering). Here, we see humanity start to call on two names. Cain gives his son the name (Hebrew: shem) Enoch, and builds a city, naming his city after his son. Adam and Eve bear another son, called Seth (Hebrew: set, appointed). Under Seth, his family starts to call on the name of Yahweh (la-shem YHWH).In the heavenly realm, perversion is happening. Sons of God, angelic beings, start to look down on earth, and they see that the daughters of men are desirable. They breed with the human women, creating perversions of the incarnation, wicked places where heaven and earth meet. These children, giants, later called Nephilim and Anakim, are men of renown (Hebrew: shem) in the world. There are three names in the world: the name of Yahweh, which the righteous call on; the name of Enoch, by which are called the wicked; and the name of these giants.
In response to these “men of name”, Noah, a righteous man, also establishes his own name, his son, Shem. (Yeah, it’d be like if we named our son name. It makes sense in Hebrew!) This way, the name of Noah would live on through his son and his son’s godly lineage. Shem bears many sons, many of whom don’t war against Israel in the future, from Joktan and Peleg to Gether, Hul, and Arpachshad. The name of the righteous is peace with God’s people, even though they aren’t the chosen people.But it is not enough for sinful men to be called by someone else’s name.
Sinful humanity starts to reject the name Cain gave for them and decides to make a name (shem) for themselves. In the Valley of Shinar, or a valley in the territory of Babylon, mankind starts to build a ziggurat for themselves. This tower would be tall enough to reach the heavens, making a name for themselves. God does not want men to be called by their own names, so he scattered the people across the face of the earth. The men who tried to make a name for themselves by building a tower with its “head” in the heavens” is instead scattered across the “face” of the earth.
When Yahweh calls Israel out of Egypt, one of his primary commands for them is to not bear the name of Yahweh (la-shem YHWH) in vain. As sons of Seth, Israel stills calls on the name of the Lord. But now, they do more than call on the name: they bear it. Most think that this command refers to not saying something like “oh my God”, as it falsely bears God’s name. Instead, I think scholars like Carmen Imes argue more persuasively that calling on the name of Yahweh, and subsequently bearing his name, means that we carry some of his authority and demonstrate on earth what God is like. As sons of Seth who call on his name, they are to look like him and bear his presence to the world. The High Priest of Israel bears God’s name in a specific way: he wears a golden headband that has “holy to YHWH” emblazoned on it. This is a special sign that calls the High Priest specifically apart from his people.
When Israel builds God a temple, he causes his name (shem) to dwell on the temple. The Name has started to take on a bit of a life of its own, as if the name is a Person of God who would dwell at the temple. Because the Name of Yahweh was at the temple, it was all the more important that Israel was holy and clean, keeping God’s presence in their midst. As the prophets would talk about the temple, they would warn Israel against falsely calling on God’s name, reminding them to bear it rightly and maintain his presence with them. It was massively important that Israel keep wary of honoring God’s name because had the name above every other name in the world.
In the New Covenant, the true Incarnate One, the Son of God and Adam, Jesus Christ, came to the world, suffered, died, and ascended back to the throne of God, where he still reigns today. Paul, reflecting on the glorious wonder of the incarnation and Jesus’ resurrection and humility, says that in his humiliation, Jesus was given that very name above all names, the covenant name of God. Now, those who want to be saved will call on the name of Jesus (Romans 10). We then, by faith in Jesus, bear the name of God when we are joined with Christ by the Spirit.
What we learn from the stories of the giants of renown and the tower of Babel is that God will utterly reject and shut down any effort of our own to raise up our name. We are tempted to build our own names, to make our own mini-empires, to be known and famous, to be proud and haughty. But God does not want us to be called by our own names: he wants us to be called by his name, and he wants us to call on his name instead. When read Genesis 6-11, let us remember to call on the name of Jesus, forsaking our own efforts to make a name for ourselves, and be content to be called by the name of the name above every other name.