What’s In a Name?: The Divine Name of YHWH and the Search for Our True Identity in Inheritance
In Inheritance, the final volume of Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Saga, the main character Eragon and his dragon Saphira go in search of the answer to a prophecy posed by a werecat—“Then, when all seems lost and your power is insufficient, go to the Rock of Kuthian and speak your name to open the Vault of Souls” (377). As an earlier portion of this prophecy proved reliable in the previous book, Eragon makes a difficult decision to leave the army he is leading to go in search of the Vault of Souls. What follows is an inward struggle for Eragon as he seeks his true name, which is closely linked with his true identity. As earlier books in the series have revealed, the true name of any object or person is the word/words in the Ancient Language that declare the very essence or identify of that object or person. Thus, Eragon’s task in finding his true name is a task also to find his true identity. Who is he? What are his strengths? What are his weaknesses? What moves him emotionally? What is his character? What is his essence? What is his true identity? What is his true name? Over the course of three days, Eragon wrestles with his true identity. Eragon’s struggle to discern his true name has much to do with his desire to believe he is still the same person he was when he and Saphira first set out on their journey. He only learns his true name after a simple realization: “I am not who I was” (546). Upon learning his true name, he says, “I am not who I was[…]but I know who I am” (547). That morning, he and Saphira speak their true names to the Vault of Souls and accomplish their task.
Though Paolini does not use any overt Christian imagery, this essay proposes that it is nonetheless a fruitful exercise for Christians to wrestle with their true identity as Eragon did in Inheritance. The essay will begin with the important biblical foundation of the divine name of YHWH before continuing into an examination of how a Christian may wrestle with his or her true identity and what each of these identities have in common. Perhaps the most foundational passages in all of the Old Testament are Exodus 3 and Exodus 34. In Exodus 3, Moses encounters the Lord speaking out of a burning bush. When Moses is commanded to return to Egypt to lead out his kinsman, he asks the Lord a clarifying question. He asks what he shall say when he returns to Egypt and tells the Israelites that God has spoken to him, and they ask the question, “What is this God’s name?” The Lord responds with the declaration, “I AM WHO I AM.” The divine name of YHWH is thus revealed to Moses and the Israelites, and the name itself speaks to God’s unchangeable character. This character is revealed in Exodus 34. In this passage, while passing by Moses to show him his glory and declare his character, YHWH declares His divine name (noted by the author in Ex 34:5), and says, “”The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7 keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Ex 34:6-7). This revelation becomes foundational for later OT authors as they frequently quote or allude to it in order to explain why the LORD acts as He does (cf. Neh 9:17; Ps 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; Nah 1:3; among others). Not surprisingly, emphasis on the divine name is also a focus of the OT writers, especially in the Psalms. For example, both Psalm 103 and 145, each of which identifies YHWH according to His character as revealed in Ex 34, also speak of blessing His name (103:1; 145:21).
While much could be said regarding the importance of the divine name and divine character in Scripture, the focus of this essay is ultimately upon how a Christian can seek to discern his or her true identity as Eragon does in Inheritance. Thus, just one further emphasis should be noted. In addition to the attributes mentioned in Ex 34, one other OT passage links the divine name of YHWH with a significant claim about who YHWH is—Deuteronomy 6:4. This verse, which begins the well-known Shema, declares that YHWH is one. In addition to a claim of unity, this oneness may also speak to YHWH as exclusive, that is YHWH alone. In response to all of the gods of other nations, YHWH makes the exclusive claim that He alone is the One True Sovereign and Creator of all the universe. This claim is not only important for the wilderness generation who first heard it, but it remained a central part of Jewish worship through the 1st Century AD in which the people would recite the Shema twice each day. It is into this context that Jesus stepped on the scene and boldly declared, “Before Abraham was, I AM” (John 8:58). The dramatic revelation of the NT, among other things, is that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the eternal Word of God become incarnate, is included in the “unique divine identity of YHWH.” The unity of YHWH as declared in Deuteronomy 6:4 must now be radically reinterpreted; not because YHWH is not One, but rather because He is One, but in a way previously unexpected. Just as the passages about YHWH in the OT may then help one understand who Jesus is, at the same time an understanding of who Jesus is helps one understand the nature of YHWH.
The reason for this lengthy introduction is because one’s understanding of YHWH through the revelation of the identity of Jesus is profoundly important for one’s understanding of his or her own identity. It is to this that the focus now shifts. As mentioned previously, Eragon’s struggle to discern his true name and true identity in Inheritance may be a valuable task for the Christian. However, before explaining how one might go about such a task, it may prove helpful to explain why such a task is necessary. Though the limitations of this essay do not allow for a lengthy reply, some brief explanation must be provided. The Christian life is fundamentally demonstrated by outward expression. Scripturally and historically Christians have demonstrated their faith through public worship, evangelism and missions, and care for the poor and needy. Each of these tasks is an outward expression of an inward commitment to following Christ. However, simply because one cares for the poor or worships publicly does not mean that there is an inward commitment. Precisely because it is possible not only to fool others but to fool one’s self into believing that one is living in accordance with God’s will, several passages point to the need for introspection. For instance, one powerful example is 2 Corinthians 13:5 where Paul writes: “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” Another example is 2 Peter 1:10: “Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall.” Though not as explicitly introspective as Paul’s command, Peter’s exhortation nonetheless points to self-examination and its importance in the Christian life. If such self-examination is not only possibly fruitful but Scripturally mandated, then how might one go about such a task?
In Eragon’s attempt to discern his true name, he focused upon four primary facts: 1) his strengths; 2) his weaknesses; 3) his desires; 4) how he had changed from who he was before to who he was now. Eragon’s strengths were things such as loyalty and courage, whereas his weaknesses were pride and arrogance. His desires included first and foremost the defeat of the evil King Galbatorix, but they also included his hope for a relationship with Arya, a elven princess and warrior. Finally, he recognized both that he had changed and how he had changed. Before his plan had been to return to Palancar Valley where he had grown up, but as he matures, he finds that returning to Palancar Valley does not retain a place in his heart. This recognition, “I am not who I was,” is what fuels his ability to recognize his true name. For the Christian, discerning one’s true identity may follow a similar path. For example:
1.What are my strengths?
For the Christian, this would certainly include at the outset one’s spiritual gift, which is to be used in service to the church. It may also include certain skills that could be of use, such as education, leadership ability, and trade skills that can advance the education and service of the church, community, and beyond. Finally, it may be those areas in which the Christian has developed virtue, defined here as those characteristics of Christ-like behavior that have been developed over time through repeated conscious decisions and discipline.
2. What are my weaknesses?
For the Christian, this would certainly include those sins that are a daily battle. It may also be self-imposed limitations. The reason the term self-imposed is necessary is because there is a recognition that not all Christians have the same giftings. This is not bad, however, as Scripture clearly demonstrates that a hand without a foot is not useful, and vice versa (1 Cor 12:15). Thus, to say that one is not gifted at preaching is not a weakness (at most it is the absence of that strength). Self-imposed limitations, however, are those areas that a Christian does have the ability to make a difference but does not follow through because of a self-imposed limitation, usually fear or feelings of inadequacy for the task. These self-imposed limitations, because they arise from lack of trust in God’s ability to work through the Christian, are weaknesses.
3. What are my desires?
The desires of a Christian will also certainly play a part in his or her identity. Does one desire the things of the world? Jesus says that one who is truly his disciple ought not store up treasures on earth where moth and rust destroy (Matt 6:19-20). Similarly, if friendship with the world is enmity with God as James plainly states (James 4:4), it seems that desiring the things of the world would be at enmity with God’s desire. On the other hand, does one desire what God desires? Does one desire right things? For example, Isaiah 26:8 proclaims “In the path of your judgments, O LORD, we wait for you; your name and remembrance are the desire of our soul.” Does one boast that he understand and knows YHWH as the God who does steadfast love, justice, and righteousness because He delights in such things (Jer 9:24)? The NT emphasis on repentance seems to imply a desire and love for the things that God loves, but an equal hate for the things that God hates. Christians are to have the same desires as God.
4. How have I changed from who I was before to who I am now?
This is perhaps the central focus of much of the Pauline literature. For example, Paul speaks in Colossians 3:5-17 of taking off the old self and putting on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator (v.10). Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:17 that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” Similarly, Paul exhorts his audience in Romans 12:2 to be transformed by the renewing of their minds, which are no longer conformed to the pattern of the world. In each of these instances, there is a clear change in behavior, motivation, and desire in the person before and after relationship with Jesus Christ. This change is a mark of their new identity.
There are perhaps several more steps a Christian could take in discerning his or her true identity, but it is intriguing how a focus on the same questions that Eragon asks himself may yield fruitful results.
The final consideration of this essay is the manner in which certain aspects of the true identity of each Christian are universally true of all Christians. On a basic level, if each Christians has been given a spiritual gift, and the spiritual gift is listed among the strengths of the individual that helps clarify his or her identity, then all Christians will possess at least a similar category in their true identity, even if the specific gift differs. However, there are much stronger connections between each believer. Consider, for example, what defines a Christian. Though several definitions could be advanced, it seems acceptable regardless of the denomination to state that a Christian is one who has put his or her faith in Jesus Christ. Thus, the object of the faith is universal. Similarly, Christians believe that Christ’s death on the cross was a sacrifice by which one’s sins can be washed away. There is redemption because of the blood, suffering, and death of Jesus Christ. Thus, the cure for sin is universal. Still further, all Christians believe that Christ did not remain dead, but rose again on the third day. Though the application of this truth varies among denominations, its necessity does not. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:17 that if Christ is not raised, then faith is in vain and all are still in their sins. Thus, the victory is universal. Finally, all Christians have some hope of the life to come. Thus, the hope is universal. In each of these core aspects of Christianity, there may be differences in the understanding of the details, but the fundamental claims of Christianity are universal. The identity of a Christian will certainly include some statement like the following: “I have faith in Jesus Christ, who by his death, saved me from my sins, and by his resurrection, conquered death and brings hope of new life, and that I will spend eternity in His presence.” One benefit of the recognition that this statement is universal to all Christians is that it helps break the mold of me-first Christianity. If this is the joyful claim of all Christians, then it is primarily a God-first, or Christ-first, Christianity, in which each individual joins with the community of believers to make the same dramatic claim about his or her identity: “I am redeemed!”
Still further, the gospel proclamation is that all who are in Christ have become part of the one people of God. Unlike Christ, we do not belong to the family of God by virtue of our own identity. Rather, we learn in Romans 8:15-17, that we “have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs–heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” The wonderful news is that each individual who is united to Christ through faith has become a part of God’s family through adoption as sons! Thus, the universal proclamation of the identity of all Christians includes the simple yet powerful claim—“Child of God.”
So in what way do all of these thoughts come together, and why is this a fruitful exercise? The reason once again why this is a fruitful exercise is that Christians are called to examine themselves. Paul’s statement is to examine ourselves to see if we are in the faith. But beyond this initial reason is still further confirmation of the eternal consequences of our true identity in Revelation 3. Here John writes of those whose names are in the book of life. If we are to examine ourselves to see if we are in the faith, it is precisely because God will examine us at the judgment with the same purpose, but with a much keener and wiser eye than we possess. Will we examine ourselves prior to that day that we might be assured that our name is in that book? Moreover, beyond simply proving that discerning our true identity is a fruitful exercise, Revelation 3 also helps bring together the various parts of this brief exploration into the divine name and the search for our true identity. When we come before the Lord and our name is found in the book of life, we will each have a unique name and identity. But though our true name and identity will be unique, we will not be found in the book by virtue of our own name. Rather, we will be found in the book because our name includes the all-important claim that is the true identity of all Christians—I am a child of God by virtue of faith in Jesus Christ, by whose death I have been saved from sin and by whose resurrection I have hope of new life. It is by virtue of Christ alone that our name will be found in that book.
In conclusion, then, just like Eragon, the search for our true identity must take into account who we were and who we are. We have been radically reconstructed, rebuilt, recreated, through our relationship with Jesus Christ. Just like Eragon, we can state: “I am not who I was…but I know who I am.” Yet as Christians, I believe we are only capable of understanding our true identity in light of our understanding of the identity of YHWH, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and our place as God’s people as a result of faith in Him. Thus, we can say confidently that “I am not who I was…but I know who I am…because I know I AM!”
Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament’s Christology of Divine Identity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).