The Power in a Name
You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name. Exodus 20:7 (NIV)
For many years, communication theorists have proposed that the language we use not only reflects the world we live in but also shapes the way we see it. They call this notion linguistic relativity and the best-known hypothesis related to the concept is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.
One of the most engaging conversations with students about the concept of linguistic relativity relates to how the names they are given at birth. The name you have been given can tell of family ancestry, generation, culture, prominence, status, and ethnicity. It reflects in many ways how others see you or speak to you or make assumptions about you (race, gender, age) before they even meet you. This is one reason we are told in the Old Testament to think about how we use the name or names of God. Not only does it reflect on God, but it also reflects how we see God in the world.
Originally, the name by which God was known to His people was YHWH (Yahweh) or “I Am” as He revealed to Moses (Exodus 3:14). Later in their history after Babylonian captivity, the Israelites ceased to use the name Yahweh, replacing it with Elohim which means simply “God,” as a way to acknowledge there was only One God and He was sovereign over all other gods. The name of Yahweh was increasingly seen as too sacred to say aloud, so the Hebrew Adonai (“My Lord”) was used in the synagogues and, later in the New Testament, the Greek Kyrios (“Lord”) was used as well. While working to produce copies of the Hebrew Bible, Latin-speaking Christian scholars replaced the Y (which does not exist in Latin) with a J thus developing the name Jehovah which spread later throughout medieval Europe. Early Christians in the 19th and 20th centuries reverted to using Yahweh.
The name we use for God reflects how we know Him and see Him. How quickly and commonly we use His name can shape our understanding of Him.
Reflection: What are your most favorite names for God? How do you use them to reflect how you see Him?
Today’s Challenge: Take one of the names of God included here and do some research to gain deeper understanding of what the name means and how it reflects a characteristic of God.
- Donna M. Elkins, Spalding University
 Lucy, J. A. (2001). Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Retrieved from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/psychology/sapir-whorf-hypothesis
 Yahweh.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Yahweh