Monday, June 26, 2006

The Power of Names

For some time, when I was inclined to think about it, I was a little perplexed about the few times in the first few lines of Bereishit when God has to go about naming things. I mean, there he is all busy doing Creation why would the text specifically announce that he also gave them names? What's the deal?

3 And God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good, and He separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light "day," and the darkness he called "night." And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.
6 And God said, "Let there be an expanse between the waters to separate water from water." 7 So God made the expanse and separated the water under the expanse from the water above it. And it was so. 8 God called the expanse "sky." And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day.
9 And God said, "Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear." And it was so. 10 God called the dry ground "land," and the gathered waters he called "seas." And God saw that it was good.


So much naming.

It appears to me now that really it was the extension of the same ancient idea that if you name something, or at least know its name, then you gain power over it. The act of God naming all of these things indicates that God has power over them.

But the naming doesn't end there. Bereishit 5:2 - "He created them male and female and blessed them. And when they were created, he called them "man."

Here we see that not only does the Bible claim that God has power over the physical world, but man itself. But that much we knew already.

Further, we have other examples of naming things. Bereishit 2:19 - "Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name."

See, it sounds a little silly, all of this pointless naming if you don't understand its significance. Man's naming of the animals shows his power over them. This then jives nicely with God's instructions to "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground" (1:28). Since man named it, man has power over it.

This then brings me to my last example of naming in the Bible, 2:23 - The man said, "This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called 'woman,' for she was taken out of man." Hence, according to the Bible, by virtue of the fact that man named women he has authority of her.

Now, compare what you've learned here to the first few verses of the Enuma Elish, the Sumerian Assyrian story of creation:

When on high the heaven had not been named,
Firm ground below had not been called by name . . .
When no gods whatever had been brought into being,
Uncalled by name, their destinies undetermined

Naming is very important, for without naming the objects have no character, no destiny. It makes good sense that the Biblical creation story was written as some sort of monotheistic (or monolatrous) response to either the Sumerian story or to the general idea and gave to God the power of naming and hence authority over the world.

9 comments:

Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof said...

Firstly the Enuma Elish is Assyirian and not Sumerian. It is derived from teh Sumerian and believe it or not the Actual Sumerian story is somewhat different. It involves mostly gods having sex and their chief god Anu ruling under Enki. Its funny I've been reading up on this latley. In fact as far as I recall no naming takes place in the actual Sumerian accounts. The enuma Elish from what I gathered was written as a Hymn to the Babylonian gods and discusses the war between Marduk and Tiamat. This was a babylonian interpretation of sumerian mythohistory. So your arguemnt about name-calling equaling power over it will have to be better substantiated.
A)Sumer didn't use this as a major practice
B) Neither did Egypt
C) If you believe that the book was written down many years later than Sinai then why would they write something as a response to the sumerians if anything it would be a response to the local creation stories, or at the very least the egyptian one, as Egypt is closer than Babylon to the land of the Jews.

Orthoprax said...

Tzedek,

"Firstly the Enuma Elish is Assyirian and not Sumerian"

You're right, it was my error. Though the Enuma Elish myth is based directly off of Sumerian myths.

Though even in the Sumerian texts naming is important too. "When heaven had moved away from earth,
And earth had separated from heaven, And the name of man was fixed;"

It doesn't say who or what did the naming, but we still have a focus on names.

"So your arguemnt about name-calling equaling power over it will have to be better substantiated."

I should have been precise. I think the idea was that the name defines the object. It defines its characteristics, destiny, powers, place in reality, and so on. And those that give the name are that which defines its place - hence the position of power.

"Sumer didn't use this as a major practice"

Ok, so forget Sumer. I referred to the wrong time period.

"Neither did Egypt"

You should also look up Egyptian use of execration texts where they would write down the names of their enemies on ceramics and then smash them in an effort to destroy them magically.

Egyptians also believed that the true power of Ra lied in his heart where his true name was engraved at the moment of creation. They believed that if you could possess the name of Ra, you could become all powerful.

Egyptian children were given two names. One for public use and one private "real" one to be kept privately for fear of nefarious magical efforts.

The focus on names in Egypt is why tomb painting were made with pleadings to the gods to ensure that the deceased name would live forever, hence ensuring immortality. The huge structures were made to enshrine the person's name while disgraced pharoes had their names systematically removed from structures once constructed in their honor.

I don't know for certain, but I think there was a general belief in something profoundly mystical and powerful in things' names all over the ancient world.

"If you believe that the book was written down many years later than Sinai then why would they write something as a response to the sumerians if anything it would be a response to the local creation stories, or at the very least the egyptian one, as Egypt is closer than Babylon to the land of the Jews."

Like I said, forget Sumer. My mistake. They would have been familiar with Assyrian myths though, and that is the Enuma Elish. And even if they didn't know of the text itself, they probably were familiar with the general ideas. And you're right, it needn't be limited to the influence of just one mythos. Egyptian beliefs could very well have played a role.

Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof said...

I was unaware of the naming factor in egypt. I read their creation story and found nothing. I was reffering to the context of naming in creation which seemed to be the basis of your argument. I did not realize we were going to look at other areas of culture. If so you will have to illustrate this as true in Ancient Israelite practice as well. It seems to me that Ancient Israelite tradition used names as definitions of the person, or who they are. For example Yitchak is called that because his mother laughed when she heard of his possible conception. Alternatively it is because he brought Schok (joy) to his parents upon his birth. (By the wy his name axctually shows up in the Prophets spelled Yischak rather than Yitzchak so this is founded).

The act of naming things implying power is your conclusion based on reading these texts. But in truth is it any different than naming something today. Do we ourselves also name our objects for the purpose of giving them conception? Does not naming something give it a context by which to grasp it?

If anything it seems more like the name was viewed as a way of tapping into that power, not the power itself. This would be a more logical claim than saying that calling something by name meant power over it, rather it seems that in using its name in some ritual one could focus the power asscoiated with it. That would seem more inline with what I have studied of the ancient world. Calling did not mean power over but tapping into. Not as subtle a distinction as might be thought.

Orthoprax said...

Tzedek,

"If anything it seems more like the name was viewed as a way of tapping into that power, not the power itself."

Yes, if you knew the name then you could tap into the power, I agree. But if you were the one _giving_ the name then you are defining its character and its power.

"If so you will have to illustrate this as true in Ancient Israelite practice as well."

Well, that would be difficult since our primary source for ancient Israel is the Bible itself. But throughout the Bible you can find hints about the primal importance of names. Why is the name of God so secret? Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord your God in vain. It just lines up well with the name/power link.

"It seems to me that Ancient Israelite tradition used names as definitions of the person, or who they are."

Yes, true. The names that people are given in the Bible defines their existence in some way. And characters often have their names changed in some way or another. Names are deeply significant.

"Do we ourselves also name our objects for the purpose of giving them conception? Does not naming something give it a context by which to grasp it?"

But it's not just for context in the Biblical creation story. Naming is everywhere. It shows how God can create with a word, he defines its characteristics by giving it a name.

Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof said...

But it's not just for context in the Biblical creation story. Naming is everywhere. It shows how God can create with a word, he defines its characteristics by giving it a name.

Very True. The whole point is that G-d is creating when He "speaks". This however is different from the Sumerin/Assyrian story where creation doesn't come about through speech but through definition. Especially that whole war with marduk and Tiamat bit.

Anyway we define force as Mas multiplied by acceleration. (F=MA). We thuse use that word to define what we observe. G-d however is not defining so much as He is Creating. The definitions are man made. We define circles, we define natural phenomena which G-d created. How G-d defines them however is more likely to be found in physics and in the esoteric meaning of the letters which comprise the names moreso than the names themselves. However this is still insufficent because in order to know how G-d defines something means that one has to be G-d. Since this is impossible there isn't much point in attempting to figure it out in totality.

Nice Jewish Guy said...

You should also look up Egyptian use of execration texts where they would write down the names of their enemies on ceramics and then smash them in an effort to destroy them magically.


Interesting..how some things stay constant throughout history. I was watching the film "Colors" on Bravo the other night, where Robert Duvall & Sean Penn play L.A. cops dealing with gangs in L.A. Penn catches a young local gang member graffitiing rival gang members' names on a wall and crossing them out, which is a way of threatening those named with death.

hayim said...

If you are discussing the power of naming in the Creation story(ies), it is important to note that the symmetry is sometimes broken - e.g., the Sun and the Moon are not named, just created and described as the "greater light" and the "lesser light" (verses 14 - 19).

Some commentators think that the phrase is actually missing from our text of Bereishit.

As opposed to them, Cassuto (From Adam to Noah) tries to find a consistent explication without having to emend our text :

"According to the conception current in the Ancient East, the name of a thing was to be identified with its essential nature and existence; hence to name a thing meant to bring it into being. The Babylonian account of creation begins as follows: 'Ere the heavens above were named, or the foundation below was given an appellation', that is, before the creation of heaven and earth (...). Many commentators detect a similar concept in our verse (v 5). But this interpretation is difficult, since it has already been stated earlier that the darkness and the light were in existence before they were given names. It is more correct to suppose that the intention here, in conformity with the general thought of the section, is to explain that the two divisions of time known to us as Night and Day are precisely the same as those that God established at the time of creation, the light being the Day, and the darkness the Night (...).

If then goes on to explain why naming the Sun and the Moon would be unnecessary, ayen sham.

Orthoprax said...

Hayim,

Interesting.

Anonymous said...

Keep up the good work »