These are the names: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin, Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher.
So begins the book of Exodus.
As I read these names, I’m struck by this business of naming in the Bible. In the search for a helper for Adam, God parades the animals and the birds and all the living creatures before Adam and says, “name them.”
As Adam names each living creature, something is revealed in the name which makes it clear that this creature and that bird and the other living thing of the field is inadequate to be a helper to Adam.
There doesn’t seem to be any intimacy, any relationship. And so, God puts Adam to sleep and literally rips Adam in two in order to create a helper for him. When Adam wakes up from what must surely have been the most extraordinary surgery ever, he names the helper ISHSHAH – a name which describes the intimate connection between them.
Names have weight.
They’re not just a sticky note for the purpose of identification — names reveal intimate details of who we are. They reveal connections and relationships. Sometimes a name reveals radical transformation. Like Jacob (heel grabber) who became Israel (God fighter).
Juliet famously asks: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.”
But that’s not true. A name has meaning; sometimes it means everything. Romeo and Juliet cannot escape from the names that reveal who they are, especially who they are in relation to the other, or in relation to the animosity that both connects and severs their families.
Names have meaning.
So — the writer of Exodus begins with, “These are the names…” Jacob, Reuben, Simeon — these names bear the fingerprints of God’s engagement with a peculiar little family in the backside of beyond, almost farther back than memory can hold. By calling Israel “it”, Pharaoh tried to obliterate their names and thereby their connection with God.
But God remembers! And God does not let go of those with whom God is in relationship.
Pharaoh’s not around anymore to rob people of their names. But empires still exist — not least among them are the empires of racism, militarism, consumerism and individualism. Our interactions with other human beings made in the image of God thus become commodity exchanges rather than relational encounters, permit us to depersonalize, to dehumanize.
I’ve been thinking a lot about names these days. About how often the way we live robs others of their names.
It’s time to begin our days with, “These are the names: Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd…”
Remember that they, too, have names that reveal who they are. Human beings made in the image of God, and like clay in the potter’s hands, bear God’s fingerprints all over them. These are the names.