Genesis 12

We find a kind of mini-Exodus plotline in this chapter (verses ten through twenty) wherein Abram and Sarai (not yet re-named Abraham and Sarah) journey to Egypt to avoid the worst of a famine, Sarai is essentially taken captive by Pharaoh, God/“God” dispatches plagues onto Pharaoh and his household, and then Abram and Sarai are sent off with a great quantity of freshly gained wealth. There is a large amount of misogynism in this section (i.e. Sarai is so beautiful that Abram fears he’ll be killed over her by lustful Egyptians and so passes her off as his sister, Pharaoh’s courtiers see her and tell Pharaoh of her beauty whereupon he has her brought – abducted, really – into his home, one can only imagine what happens next, and Abram ends up getting numerous livestock and slaves out of the deal; verses thirteen to sixteen), but then there was a large amount of misogynism in the ancient world and – indeed – there is a large amount of misogynism in our world still. May we continue to work towards alleviating and eliminating such from our societies. Here though I want to focus on a snippet that precedes this narrative; but first some words of introduction.

The human animal seems particularly concerned with names within our rather striking and entirely unparalleled language use (but in that not unique: quite a number of other animals (and especially mammals, e.g. dolphins, elephants, other apes, etc.) use some form of sound and/or indicative system that functions similarly to our own), and that is highlighted here in verse eight where we read:

12.8: “From there he [Abram] moved on to the hill country east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and he built there an altar to the LORD and invoked the LORD by name.”

This is intriguing because we do not actually know God’s/“God’s” name yet (that is revealed to Moses in Exodus 3.15) and nor has Abram – at least according to the text we have – been told how he ought to refer to the being that commanded him in verse one of our chapter to “Go forth from your native land”. Of further interest is that “LORD” is employed here, typically indicating the Tetragrammaton rather than the Hebrew term El which is instead translated as “God”; this might be an indication of the later editing and redacting that took place in a series of layered textual work over a number of centuries during the Bible’s compilation, but let us table that discussion to focus on the specific and evidently important mention of this appellation occurring “by name”.

What is it about a name? A proper noun carries all manner of symbolic and interpretive associations, and it is these referents that allow for the skillful and efficient engagement with conceptual packages: a single oral (or graphic) unit is able to convey a wide array of information which the brain can then automatically and pre-consciously (in pre-awareness) process without requiring the effortful and energy-draining procedures of active cognition and manipulation in short-term memory. This is precisely why much ado is made over corporate and product branding, sports teams’ monikers, groups and organizations, and on and on (including, let us remember, Abram and Sarai/Abraham and Sarah, plus many other re-designated characters to follow). It is also a primary reason there has been such conflict over the “name” of God/“God” (even here in the Tanakh we have what appears to be an extended and probably difficult transition between God/“God” as El and as the Tetragrammaton; this is powerfully explored by R. Scott Chalmers in a work I would happily recommend). Abram builds an altar and calls on God/“God” in a prayer of praise or pleading or both; how does he speak “God/‘God’”? We do not know, but the desire is there to name, to address the Other with the particularity so entailed, to attempt to define in a way comprehensible to him the immeasurable vastness of what cannot be contained: not for the divine but nor for anything, the wholeness of which will always evade our limited human capabilities. Yet we can get closer, we can approach; and it is the refusal to quit that attempt which marks our tenacity and insistence in this endeavor to invoke, and so to relate.

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