Sermon preached by Rev Christopher Harrison
Trinity 20 2013 St Peter’s Nottingham
Names of God
I wonder how many of you know the origin of your name? Many names are of course Biblical in origin. The meaning of names is very important in the Bible – quite often we are given explanations of a person’s name, or the name of a place, for example. This morning’s first reading is a case in point. This is from about half way through the book of Genesis. Jacob had been on bad terms with his brother Esau ever since Jacob had obtained the blessing of his father Isaac by deception. Many years have now passed, and Jacob is on a journey to meet Esau, carrying with him many gifts (a journey which was, in fact, to result in them being reconciled with each other). One, night, shortly before that meeting and their reunion, Jacob has a remarkable experience. He meets with a strange supernatural figure, and wrestles with him until dawn. In the course of this struggle Jacob’s hip is dislocated. He realises that the supernatural figure was from God, and says that he has met God face to face, and has survived. He therefore calls the place Peniel, which means ‘face of God’.
This ancient story, then, will have helped countless generations of those who lived in that vicinity to understand the origins of that place. The name Peniel will have served to link it with this key moment in the early chapters of the unfolding story of the nation of Israel. But of course there is another name which is explained in this little episode – which is the name of Israel itself. The fact that Peniel and Israel end in the same two letters is no coincidence – because in Hebrew ‘El’ refers to God. So God gives Jacob a new name, Israel, which is explained here as meaning ‘He has shown his strength against God’. However, it is worth noting that there’s actually a more probable meaning of the name ‘Israel’, which is, ‘May God show his strength’. Whichever is the case, this is an important moment in the journey of the people of what was to become the nation of Israel, in their journey towards identity and statehood. It also helps us to understand those many references in the Old Testament prophets to ‘Jacob’ – which is simply, in those texts, another name for the nation of Israel.
The name ‘Jacob’, incidentally, also has more than one possible meaning. It could come from the Hebrew for heel – since he was said to have been born gripping the heel of his twin brother Esau. It could also come from the Hebrew for ‘supplant’, since he became more powerful than his slightly older brother, and in doing so took the place of superiority which should have been due Esau. But it actually most probably comes from the Hebrew ‘May God protect’, ‘Ya-aqob-el’.
And so it goes on. We can learn so much if we take a little time to look behind the ancient Bible names which are so familiar, but which we tend to think of in terms of our own language rather than the language, culture and context in which they originated. ‘Isaac’ means ‘May God smile, or be kind’, or ‘God has smiled, has been kind’ – a name which reflects Abraham’s reaction when told that God would give him and Sarah a son when he was a hundred years old and Sarah ninety. ‘Sarah’ means ‘princess’, which connects her with the fact that some of those who were to come after her would be rulers of the nation. ‘Ishmael’, Abraham’s son by his slave girl Hagar, through whom the Arab race traces its origins, means ‘May God hear’, or ‘God hears’. Abraham himself had an earlier name, Abram, which is what he was called when he and his family made the long journey from Ur, in what is now Iraq, to settle in the land which was to become Israel. God gave him the name ‘Abraham’ when he made an agreement or covenant with him, in which he said that Abraham would be the father of many nations. This was the moment at which circumcision is said to have been given by God as a distinguishing mark of the males who would descend from him.
Now of course it’s hard to know exactly what happened at these key moments, as they contain a mixture of history, legend, and later interpretation. But by looking at the meaning of names, we can begin to see more clearly how a nation was formed, developed, and matured. Have you noticed, though, one name which has come up at least three times so far? Peniel, Israel, Ishmael – these all end with one of the Hebrew names for God, ‘El’. They give us a glimpse of the way in which God - the divine power underlying, embracing, enfolding, sustaining all life – was never far from people’s thoughts and from their everyday life. And in fact as we look further into the Old Testament, we can see how this little word ‘El’ is combined with a large number of other Hebrew words to show the huge range of ways in which people of those times related to God and understood God. So, for example, the God who appeared to Abram and gave him the name Abraham is called ‘El Shaddai’. This name comes from the Hebrew for a mother’s breast, and has the meaning of ‘sufficiency’ – arising from a mother’s nourishing of her baby. It’s interesting to see, therefore, that the idea of a masculine God isn’t the only way in which God is seen and understood, right from those earliest times. God is seen, here, nourishing the nation of Israel and helping to produce the countless descendents promised to Abraham. However, El Shaddai is also translated, more commonly, as God Almighty; maybe we would do well, though, to remember the original meaning, and not to let the image of Almighty God just suggest a powerful and perhaps rather frightening father-figure.
The basic meaning of ‘El’, however, is ‘strength’, ‘might’, or ‘power’. But we then have ‘El Echad’ – the One God; ‘El Hanne’man’ – the Faithful God; ‘El Emet’ – the God of truth (also referring to God’s faithfulness, the one upon whom we can rely); ‘El Tsadiq’ – the righteous God, the just God; ‘El Elyon’ – the most high God, referring also to God’s strength, sovereignty, supremacy; El Olam – the everlasting God, the God of the world, universe, eternity; El Roi – God who sees me; El De’ot – the God of knowledge, the One who has perfect knowledge of all things; El Hakkavod – the God of glory and honour; El Hakkadosh – the holy God, set apart, sacred, utterly unique; and God of the heavens, God of grace, God of my life, God of my strength, God of my life, God of compassion, God of our salvation – and the Jealous God, suggesting a God who watches over us protectively, like a bridegroom over his betrothed. And finally of course, from the prophet Isaiah – while all the above names of God begin with El, we have Immanuel – ending with El – God with us.
I hope you can see, then, how it is impossible to give, from scripture, a single and even clear-cut definition of God. God is all of these – they all reflect the experiences individuals and peoples have had of God, descriptions of God which have been used over the centuries by Jews and Christians alike, which have resonated with people’s lives and helped them to experience God for themselves. Two more things, briefly, however, should be mentioned. First, this brief exploration of ‘El’ as a name for God hasn’t even begun to look at the other main name for God which runs through the Old Testament. This is the name which, for Jews, should not be uttered, as it is so holy – YHWH, sometimes written Yahweh, sometimes (in some Christian writings) Jehovah. ‘El’ as a name for God is older than Yahweh, and comes from a time when multiple gods were worshipped. Yahweh was adopted as the main name of the God of the people of Israel, and increasingly became used as their name for the God of the whole world. Second, I haven’t even touched on the New Testament, as we’ve looked mainly at the most ancient origins of the name of God in the Hebrew writings. With the coming of Christ, these ancient understandings of God developed into something much fuller and greater, with the realisation that Jesus Christ was the revelation on earth of the God of the heavens, who in his incarnation – his earthly life – was both human and divine. Some centuries later, the understanding of God as three in one, one in three, Holy Trinity, God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, became more fully developed.
All that is perhaps for another time. But I hope that this morning we’ve been able to see a little more clearly how important the names of God are – and that we need to hold many different names of God together in order to understand God most fully. And, lastly, something which is a subject for yet another sermon, we mustn’t forget the Christian tradition which says that in fact there is no name for God which is completely adequate, that God is far beyond, far greater, far more mysterious – and perhaps even far closer to us, and far more loving – than even all the names we can think of will ever fully describe. Amen.