"God had formed out of the ground every wild beast and every bird of heaven. He brought them to the man to see what he would name each one, and whatever the man called each living thing was indeed its name.”
In our church, we’ve been reflecting on the powerful words of Genesis and why beginnings matter. Our catchphrase has been, “Words Create Worlds” and we’ve been diving into the beauty and mystery of the first story of our Bible.
But there’s so much to work through that I can’t possibly cover everything in public teaching. So I want to reflect on one brief statement that hasn’t gotten any airtime on a Sunday morning. It’s about name-calling, and it’s really important.
I’m not a big fan of name calling.
I raise 3 kids and coach another 50 of them right now, so I’m familiar with the creativity that can be used when calling someone a name (it’s not usually the good kind of creativity). In our house, we frequently have to tell our kids to avoid the “you’re so…!” statements that tend to label a person as negative, rather than address a specific action.
In the Kabbala, the Jewish mystical teaching that is passed down through generations, there is an understanding that the name of everything is its life-source. The Hebrew letters carry God’s power in a unique way, and when put together in different formations they give life wherever they are applied.
In other words, according to Hebrew thought, something’s name, or the words they are called, directly affects what or who it actually becomes. Name calling is incredibly powerful. Maybe that’s why God renames Abram and Sarai to Abraham and Sarah when they join his family, and God renames Jacob after their wrestling match. They’ve become something new. Maybe that’s why Jesus speaks a new name to Peter as he commissions him to lead the first generation of his Church. And maybe that’s why John reveals in his vision that each faithful person will receive a new name as they enter the fullness of the kingdom (Revelation 2:17). Each represents a new start, full of life with God. Wild stuff, huh? Names are a big deal.
That’s why it’s so crazy that in Genesis, the job of naming all of creation is given to a human. Seems like the sort of thing that would best be left in God’s hands, if you ask me. I’ve heard the names that we come up with when we think it’s our job. It’s not pretty, friends.
Many Jewish interpretations hold that even when God formed the animals in Genesis 2:19, they weren’t given the breath of life until their names were spoken by Adam. Then life and purpose began. And taking things a step further in chapter 3, Adam names Eve, reminding us that people have been given the task of even naming one another.
God’s partnership in this way… that’s a lot of responsibility. Words can destroy and maim, or words can build and heal (read James). And that power has been entrusted to you. Let’s not screw this one up.
What if we looked around our world daily with a focus on name calling everything we see in both the natural world and the world of humanity? And what if our name calling is in line with the value and beauty and dignity that Jesus teaches us to model*?
Maybe it starts today by noticing the name badge at the cash register, and thanking Jessica for serving you. Maybe it extends to declaring the good you see in your children and coworkers. Maybe it extends to telling someone that you believe in them. To reminding someone that they are loved and valuable. To noticing the image of God in someone and then calling them that name. And maybe it means that when we see someone we are uncomfortable with, scared of, or even disgusted by… that we remember that God has given humans the task of calling things what they are in God’s world. And in God’s world, everything is created valuable.
Jesus, help me give names to the overlooked, forgotten, and mundanely beautiful things and people in my life today. May my words bring your life into each one.
*I’m fully aware that when Jesus named things, not all of them were positive, especially when speaking to oppressive and religious power structures (brood of vipers, sons of hell, and whitewashed tombs come to mind). However, Jesus could see the heart that we can’t, and Jesus also laid down his life for those people in forgiveness of their wrongdoing, so if that's those names are the first ones you're drawn to... might be a good chance to search your heart. ¯\_( シ)_/¯