What’s in a Name?

The Scriptures are a gold mine of life and wisdom. But acquiring this gold requires labor and effort. We must look and look and look again until we see what’s there. We must pay attention to those little connecting words that link one statement to the next. And then we must ask questions, probing and seeking to see more than what we see at first.

Naming Is Rational

When it comes to the first moment of human naming in Genesis 2, if we look, if we observe, if we ask questions, we discover that there is much gold to mine. For example, have you ever noticed that little word “for” in Adam’s poem? “She shall be called woman, for she was taken out of man” (Genesis 2:23). That little connector is weighed down with significance. Adam gives reasons for his naming choice.

Naming, it seems, is a rational endeavor. Adam seems to think that names should correspond to their subjects. There ought to be a propriety, a fitness, between the world as God made it and the world as man names it. “Woman” (Hebrew ishshah) is a fitting name for the female sex because (“for”) out of man (ish) she was taken. Ishshah was taken out of ish. Adam is naming the woman (and presumably the animals) on the basis of observed characteristics and relationships. He gives her a name based on the givens that he sees.

Now that we’ve noticed something in the text, we need to ask questions. Like, “Where did Adam learn to do that? How did he know to link names together in this way?” I think the answer is simple: Adam learned to do this by imitating God. To reach this conclusion, we only need to assume that Adam knows the truth of Genesis 2:7: “then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground.” Or, to draw out the relevant Hebrew terms, God formed adam from the dust of the adamah.

Assuming Adam knows that he was physically derived from the ground and that his name reflects this fact, Adam is distinguishing and naming ish and ishshah on the same basis that he received his name from God, namely, origins. The pattern established by God forms the paradigm for his own naming efforts. Adam is recognizing a pattern in God’s ways, and extending that pattern in a new situation. In order to name, he gathers the givens that God has supplied, in this case, at least four of them:

  1. Adam’s own origin from the ground;
  2. The relationship between his name and the name of the ground;
  3. His wife’s origin from his side;
  4. The difference between her and the animals (who were unsuitable helpers).

The fruit of this gathering of givens is the paired names of ish and ishshah. In short, man comes from the ground (adamah) and is thus named adam. Woman comes from man (ish) and is thus named ishshah. Adam, the son of God, does just what he sees his Father doing. Human naming, then, is both rational and imitative.

Naming Is Relational

By naming the woman in the manner he does, Adam both discovers and deepens the covenantal relationship between him and his wife. His words reflect the world. The relationship between the sexes was fundamentally established by God, but man’s fitting name recognizes and reinforces that relationship. When God built the woman, he initiated a conversation. By naming her, Adam responds to God, communicating that he has recognized what God has said in what God has done. What’s more, by naming woman, Adam invites her to join the conversation, a suitable partner in the mission that God gives to them.

In cultivating this relationship through faithful naming, Adam really does add something to the world. The world is different because Adam has creatively contributed to it. What’s more, as a result of his naming, Adam increases in understanding, both of his wife and of himself. In naming her, he renames himself. Now he is not merely adam; he is also ish, defined over against, and yet coordinate to, ishshah. These names represent new identities. Adam’s act of naming doesn’t merely change her; it transforms him as well.

Following Adam Following God

How do these musings on Adam’s naming apply to our lives? Adam, it seems, goes through a three-stage progression as he faithfully names. First, he hears God’s word. He listens to God’s endorsement of the Garden and the single prohibition against the Tree of Knowledge (Genesis 2:17). He learns his name (and presumably his origin) by listening to his Maker.

Then, having heard God’s verbal word, he attends to God’s spoken world. He sees God’s works, most notably God’s glorious construction project, building a suitable helper from a simple rib. He observes and understands, “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.” She is not like the animals. She is something better, something greater, something far closer to him than they are.

And then, having heard and seen, he adds his voice to the chorus of creation. He gathers the givens and weaves new words. He faithfully and fruitfully names the world, transforming it from one degree of glory to another.

So too for us. We also must hear God’s word, carefully and obediently heeding his written revelation in the Holy Scriptures. We eat the Book, letting its honey-like sweetness enlighten our eyes and awaken our tongues. We digest the word, breaking it apart down deep, where the joint and marrow grow, so that it becomes a part of us. Then, with bright eyes, we see God’s wondrous works around us. We witness his activity in our own lives and in the world around us. We’ve learned the patterns of his actions in the Scriptures; now we go looking for them in the world around us.

We add our song to the symphony that God’s singing.

And once we’ve seen his works, once we’ve taken them in, once we’ve gathered them up and linked them together, then, we speak. We deepen the bonds that God has built. We strengthen the relationships in his reality. We add our song to the symphony that he’s singing.

The call is simple. Hear God’s word. See God’s works. Name God’s world.