The power to name

Last week I wrote a little bit about what I was reading in Genesis about the first person choosing a companion. As I read on afterwards one of the things I noticed was the emphasis on naming. (I don’t like using chapter and verse references if I don’t need to because I think they break up the flow of the text and because I’d prefer if folks go back and read the story rather than just looking at particular verses out of context. But in this post I’ve been looking at the first three chapters of Genesis.)

Genesis starts with an account of creation. In this account the creator is called Elohim – which actually looks like a plural word in Hebrew. It’s like having a deity called ‘Gods’. Anyway, as Elohim is creating things Elohim makes a point of naming some things but not others.
Elohim separates darkness and light, naming them Day and Night.
Elohim separates the primeval waters by making a firmament, a big bowl, which Elohim names Sky.
Elohim separates the land from the water, naming them Earth and Seas.
Elohim makes plants, but doesn’t name them.
Elohim makes lights in the sky, but doesn’t name them.
Elohim makes sea creatures and birds and sea monsters, but doesn’t name them.
Elohim makes farm animals and creeping things and wild beasts, but doesn’t name them.
Elohim makes people, but doesn’t name them.

After all this we have a different account of creation. Things happen in different order and in this account the creator is named differently: YHWH Elohim.
In this account the animals are named, but it is the first person who names all the animals, in the context of searching for a suitable companion.
When YHWH Elohim creates another person to be the first person’s companion, it seems like the first person tries to name the second person:
     ‘This at last is bone of my bones
         and flesh of my flesh;
      this one shall be called Woman,
         for out of Man this one was taken.’ (2:23. NRSV.)

So, what is going on with naming in these stories? My sense is that naming in these stories is an act of one exercising power over another. The one who names the other has the opportunity to define the other. Is the first person trying to define an dominate is companion even from the very beginning? Is this a foreshadowing of what is to come? Later on we are told that the man named his woman Eve…

I think this story reflects the patriarchal nature of the societies that birthed it, and that this may be why the man is portrayed as defining and dominating the woman. How different is our society though? Which people in our society have the power to name and define others?

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