October 16, 2009
What’s in a Name?
ויקרא אלהים לאור יום ולחושך קרא לילה
“And God called (the name of) the light: Day, and the darkness S/he named Night.” (Gen. 1:5)
Naming is central to the act of creation. In Genesis chapter 1, God creates order out of chaos, dividing the תוה ובהו/primeval void into the night and day and sea and sky and earth that are so essential to the world we know. God makes them, and gives them names.
At the end of the sixth day of creation, God makes humanity in God’s own image. We, humans, are supposed to somehow reflect God.
In Genesis 2, God creates the first woman from the body and flesh of the first man. The man, however, is the one to name her – “she shall be called woman (אשה) for from man (איש) she was taken.” (Gen. 2:23)
As the story progresses, the anonymous First Man (האדם) transforms into the character of Adam (אדם), and so The First Woman needs a name, too. All on his own, with no divine prodding that we are shown, Adam names his wife Eve (חוה) because she is the mother of all life (אם כל-חי).
Adam and Eve have a son, Cain (קין), and Eve is the one to give him his name, because “I have gained (קניתי) a son from God.” (Gen. 4:1) Thus begin the begats of human history – parents naming children, previous generations describing and defining the world for the ones to come after.
This ability to name things and people is one way in which we are, for good and for ill, reflections of God. Parents of newborns know this – the power of giving a person a name, the name she will bear for the rest of her life, is a heady and frightening thing. It is also true in larger contexts: the names we use for people that are different than we are, the names we use for geographical areas whose ownership is in dispute, the names we call people we disagree with, or merely dislike.
וירא אלהים את האור כי טוב
“And God saw that the light was good…” (Gen. 1:4)
Before God gave the light a name and called it day, God saw that the light was good. It is not enough to slap a label on something and move on, in order to be truly God-like in our naming, we have to take the time, to make the effort, to see the good in the person, in the idea, in the place or thing we are choosing to name.