In what is perhaps his most well-known play, William Shakespeare asks the question, “What’s in a name?” And if he was asking that question today instead of 400 years ago, we’d probably say, “Not very much.” And that’s because in 2023, a name is just a word that we use to designate a particular person, place, or thing…but our names don’t really mean much.
I mean just take a second and think about how you got your name. Now, for just about all of us, one or both of our parents chose a name for us at some point along the way. They may have chosen that name long before they ever knew you’d be entering the world. They may have chosen your name after you were already born. They may have named you after a family member or a friend. Or they may have done what my parents did and named you after a Biblical character.
But there aren’t a lot of parents who take the time to think about what a name means before they decide to give it to their child. Take my daughter’s name as an example. As most of you know, my daughter’s name is Hannah and it originates from the Hebrew word chanan — which means to show favor or to be gracious. And the first time the name Hannah appears is in the book of 1 Samuel in the Bible, when God shows favor to a woman who was struggling with infertility and she is able to have a son.
So the name Hannah seems to check all the boxes for the kind of a name a pastor would want their child to have. It’s a biblical character. It originates from Hebrew. And it means grace.
But is that what Ashley and I were thinking about when we decided to name our daughter Hannah? Nope.
Let me walk you through our entire conversation. We were driving to one of Ashley’s doctor appointments. And I said to her, “We could just combine our initials — which are A & A — and name her Ana.” And Ashley said, “What about Hannah?” And that was it. The fact that Hannah is a biblical name that originates from Hebrew and means grace were all just bonuses.
So, yes, if William Shakespeare was asking the question, “What’s in a name?” today, we'd probably say, “Not much.”
But William Shakespeare didn’t ask this question in 2023, he asked it around 1595 when he wrote Romeo and Juliet. Specifically, this line is part of a soliloquy that Juliet delivers because she is not allowed to associate with a boy named Romeo because he is a Montague. And in this play, Juliet’s family — the Capulets — have been feuding with the Montagues like they were the Hatfields and McCoys.
And, of course, Juliet thinks it’s ridiculous that she can’t associate with a boy because of his last name. So she says, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” And her point is pretty clear, if Romeo’s last name was anything but Montague her family would see what a wonderful person he really is.
But Romeo is a Montague and that name meant something to the Capulets. That name meant that Romeo was the enemy. And there was nothing that could change that.
But what does all of this talk about William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, and names have to do with us? Well, today we’re starting a new sermon series called Above All where we will be exploring the names of God…which Philippians 2:9 tells us is the name above all names.
But before we can start talking about the names of God, we have to understand how important names were back in biblical times. Now, in American culture today, we have no problem telling someone else our name. I mean, every Sunday morning I stand up here and introduce myself to everyone who is worshiping with us…even though I have no idea who might be joining us online. Or when I answer the phone at the office, I always say that it’s, “Adam speaking,” even when I don’t know who’s on the other end of the line.
But that’s not how things were back in biblical times, and I can show you what I mean. So go ahead and grab your Bible and turn with me to Exodus 3. And, as you’re finding it, let me tell you a little more about this book. So the word exodus means exit, so the book of Exodus is going to tell us the story of the people of Israel exiting the land of Egypt after they had been enslaved there for 400 years.
And the people of Israel are led out of Egypt by a man named Moses. And since we’re talking about the meaning of names, Moses name means to be drawn out…which was appropriate because Moses was drawn out of water when he was a baby by the daughter of Egypt’s ruler, the pharaoh. But Moses doesn’t come up with the idea of leading the people out of Egypt on his own.
So let’s take a look at Exodus 3, and see how Moses becomes the person who will lead the people of Israel out of Egypt. We’ll start reading in verse 1, it says:
3:1 Moses was taking care of the flock for his father-in-law Jethro, Midian’s priest. He led his flock out to the edge of the desert, and he came to God’s mountain called Horeb. 2 The Lord’s messenger appeared to him in a flame of fire in the middle of a bush. Moses saw that the bush was in flames, but it didn’t burn up. 3 Then Moses said to himself, Let me check out this amazing sight and find out why the bush isn’t burning up.
4 When the Lord saw that he was coming to look, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!”
Moses said, “I’m here.”
5 Then the Lord said, “Don’t come any closer! Take off your sandals, because you are standing on holy ground.” 6 He continued, “I am the God of your father, Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, and Jacob’s God.” Moses hid his face because he was afraid to look at God.
7 Then the Lord said, “I’ve clearly seen my people oppressed in Egypt. I’ve heard their cry of injustice because of their slave masters. I know about their pain. 8 I’ve come down to rescue them from the Egyptians in order to take them out of that land and bring them to a good and broad land, a land that’s full of milk and honey, a place where the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites all live. 9 Now the Israelites’ cries of injustice have reached me. I’ve seen just how much the Egyptians have oppressed them. 10 So get going. I’m sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”
Exodus 3:1-7 (Common English Bible)
So in this passage, God tells Moses that God is sending him to bring the people of Israel out of Egypt. And how does Moses respond? Well, Moses responds the way that most of us would've responded. Moses says you’ve got the wrong guy, God. And then he starts making excuses for why he can’t lead the people of Israel out of Egypt.
But what does any of this have to do with names? Well, as we keep reading in Exodus 3, we’ll see. So let’s pick up in verse 13. It says:
13 But Moses said to God, “If I now come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ they are going to ask me, ‘What’s this God’s name?’ What am I supposed to say to them?”
Exodus 3:13 (Common English Bible)
So, in this verse, Moses tells God that he can’t lead the people of Israel out of Egypt because the people will want to know who God is…but Moses doesn’t know God’s name.
But why doesn’t Moses know God’s name? Had Moses been skipping Sunday School? Had Moses been falling asleep during the sermon? Had Moses been too distracted by the burning bush when he first met God to miss God’s introduction?
No. Moses doesn’t know God’s name because up to this point, God had never told anyone his name. Now, think about what that means for just a second. This story takes place early on in the book of Exodus. And Exodus is the second book of the Bible…after the book of Genesis. So God does not reveal his name at all in the book of Genesis.
Now, that’s a huge deal because the book of Genesis is filled with some of the most well-known people in the entire Bible. In Genesis, we meet people like Adam and Eve…but God doesn’t tell Adam or Eve his name. In Genesis, we meet people like Noah…but even though God saves Noah’s family from a flood, God doesn’t tell Noah his name. In Genesis, we meet Abraham, someone who is willing to leave behind the only home he has ever known to follow God…but God doesn’t tell Abraham his name. God doesn’t tell Isaac or Jacob his name. God doesn’t tell Joseph or any of his brothers his name. When this story takes place, the people of Israel have been God’s chosen people for at least 600 years…but God has not told them his name.
But why is that? Well, Roy Honeycutt — who was a noted Old Testament scholar, and former president of Southern Seminary — does a good job of explaining why when he writes, “In ancient Israel the name was the summation of one’s character, the self-disclosure of a person.” So God had not revealed his name because God knew that he would be revealing all of who God is when God gave that name.
So when God reveals God’s name, it’s not the same thing as when I answer the phone at the church office by saying, “This is Adam speaking.” And when God reveals God’s name, it’s not the same thing as when Juliet wished that Romeo had a different last name. Because when God reveals his name, God is revealing who he is.
When God reveals his name, God is revealing who he is.
So with that in mind, let’s turn back to Exodus 3 and see how God answers Moses’s question. Let’s see what God’s name is. Oh, and I’ll go ahead and let you know that I’m going to share part of God’s answer in the original Hebrew (or as close as I can get to it). So this is what God says to Moses in Exodus 3:14.
14 God said to Moses, “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh. So say to the Israelites, ‘Ehyeh has sent me to you.’”
Now, if you are at all familiar with this story, that’s probably not the name that you were expecting to hear. And there’s a reason for that. In verse 14, God tells us God’s name. So God uses the first person singular of the verb “to be”, which is hayah in Hebrew. So here God is telling Moses, this is who I am.
But Moses can’t say that God is “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh” when he goes to the people of Israel, because the people would think that Moses is talking about himself. They would think Moses was telling them who Moses is.
So in verse 15, God tells Moses the name that Moses can use when he tells the people of Israel who their God is. So God gives Moses the third person singular of the verb “to be.” So here’s what God says.
15 God continued, “Say to the Israelites, ‘YAHWEH, the God of your ancestors, Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, and Jacob’s God, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever; this is how all generations will remember me.
Exodus 3:13-15 (Common English Bible)
So in verse 15, God tells Moses to tell the people of Israel that their God is Yahweh. And by the way, the name Yahweh is used over 6,500 times in the Old Testament, and you see it in your Bible whenever you read the word “LORD” in all capital letters.
But what does that mean? Well, chances are that if you’ve spent much time around the church you’ve heard that Yahweh means “I am” or “I am who I am,” but the reality is that when God says that he is “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh” he could have been saying more than just one thing.
God may have been saying “I am who I am.” But God could’ve also been saying, “I am what I am,” or “I am what I will be,” or “I will be what I will be,” or “I am what I cause to be.”
So what exactly did God tell Moses that God’s name is? Because all of those possible definitions just make it confusing. Well, J Edgar Park— who taught at Boston and Wheaton University — explains that being confusing was kind of the point. He writes that God told Moses, “I am that I am…to confound mortality, that durst question God, or ask him what he was. Indeed he only is; all other things have been and shall be.”
So God may have told Moses that God is who he is simply to remind Moses that God is and will always be greater than we can possibly imagine. God is the only one who has always been…everything else comes from God.
But there’s another interpretation that I like better. This one comes from something called the Midrash — which is essentially the written version of the Jewish oral tradition of rabbis interpreting scripture. And according to the Midrash, God is what God is by the virtue of his deeds. Which is to say, you cannot know God until you experience God in your own life.
You cannot know God until you experience God in your own life.
Let me say that again because I don’t want you to miss it. When God tells Moses God’s name, God tells Moses you cannot know me until you experience me in your own life.
And this makes perfect sense when you read what God says next. After God says that he is Yahweh, God goes on to say that he is the God of Israel’s ancestors. He is the God that Abraham knew. He is the God that Isaac knew. He is the God that Jacob knew.
And, now, God wants to be the God that all of Israel knows too. God wants to be the God that the people of Israel experience in their own lives when God releases them from captivity. God wants to be the God that the people see reach into their lives and change their lives forever.
And that isn’t just who God was back in the book of Exodus. This is who God is today and will always be. God wants to be the God that you know. God wants to be the God that you experience in your life. God wants to be the God that you see reach into your life and change your life forever.
Or to put it as simply as I can, God wants to be your God.
God wants to be your God.
God wants to be the God your turn to in good times and in bad. God wants to be the God that helps you through whatever you face. God wants to be the God that leads you throughout your life. God wants to be the God that helps you become who you were created to be. God wants to be your God.
That is who God is.