IN THE EXODUS, the children of Israel exchanged masters. They went from being slaves of the Egyptian Pharaoh to being servants of the King of the Universe. Yahweh, the God of Israel, signaled this exchange in a message he conveyed to Pharaoh through Moses: “Thus says the Lord, ‘Let my people go, that they may serve me’” (Ex 8:1).
Slaves in the ancient Near East often were tattooed with the names of their masters, and temple workers sometimes were branded with the name of the god they served.(1) God did not tattoo or brand his people, but he did “place his name upon them” through a special blessing pronounced by the high priest (Nu 6:22-27).
The priestly blessing illustrates God's love for the Israelites, whom he called his “treasured possession” (Ex 19:5).
The Hebrew word for “treasured possession,” segullah, can refer to a royal treasury (1 Ch 29:3; Ecc 2:8). Cognate words in Akkadian and Ugaritic denote someone who enjoys special status with a king.(2) God also called the Israelites “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex 19:6). He was setting them apart as his instruments in bringing blessing to the whole world, continuing the plan that he had begun with their ancestor Abraham (Ge 12:1-3).
At Mt. Sinai, God revealed to Israel the Ten Commandments, giving them the principles necessary for success in their special calling. One of the commandments summarizes that calling: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain …” (Ex 20:7). We typically associate this commandment with acts of speech. But it is much broader. The Hebrew word for “take,” nasa, means to bear or carry. God’s name had been placed upon the Israelites (Nu 6:27), and they carried his name in the world as his representatives. They were not to bear his name in a vain-i.e., a useless way. Their behavior would affect God’s reputation in the world, so they were to live in a way that would represent him well.
The clothing worn by the high priest symbolized Israel’s priestly calling. Fastened to the front of the priest’s turban was a gold medallion engraved with the words qodesh laYahweh (“holy, belonging to Yahweh”). On his apron were twelve gemstones, each inscribed with the name of a tribe of Israel (Ex 28:15-21, 36-37). The high priest, carrying God’s name and the names of the twelve tribes, was God’s representative to Israel and Israel’s representative before God. Analogously, Israel carried God’s name in the world and represented God to the nations and likewise, the nations before God.
The Ten Commandments, along with additional instruction elaborating on those commandments, guided the Israelites in bearing God’s name in the promised land. When Israel followed God’s teaching they would prosper, and the peoples around them would take notice (Dt 4:5-8). “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people,” they would marvel (v 6).
We catch glimpses of this ideal picture during Israel’s golden age under David and Solomon. David envisioned building a temple, a “house for the name of the Lord” (1 Ki 8:17), and construction was carried out under Solomon. The temple was intended to be a witness to the nations (vv 41-43) so “that all the peoples of the earth may know that the Lord is God” (v 60). Moreover, Solomon’s wisdom was legendary, and rulers traveled great distances to seek his counsel (1 Ki 4:29-34; 10:1-10, 24).
After Solomon’s time, Israel strayed from God and fell into idolatry and other forms of immorality. Such actions “profaned God's name” (Lev 18:21; 19:12; 21:5-6; Pr 30:9). Israel’s apostasy eventually led to their defeat at the hands of foreign powers and exile from the land, causing further damage to God’s reputation (Eze 36:17-21). However, like Daniel and Esther, a faithful remnant effectively bore God’s name in exile.
The tendency of many Israelites to stumble did not abort God’s plan, which includes the solution to the problem of human weakness and sin. At the optimal time (Gal 4:6) God sent Jesus of Nazareth, who is both a descendant of David and the Son of God (Lk 1:26-35). An ideal Israelite, Jesus represented God perfectly, giving a clear picture of God’s character so that whoever saw Jesus saw his Father (Jn 12:45). His atoning death and subsequent resurrection brought reconciliation between God and man and the promise of eternal salvation (Ro 5:10).
The disciples of Jesus from Israel and the nations constitute a new covenant people, known like their forebearers as “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Peter 2:9).
Jesus trained a group of Jewish disciples. Then, empowering them with the Holy Spirit after his resurrection (Lk 24:49; Acts 2), he sent them to make additional disciples, carrying “the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 28:18-20). Their disciples soon included people from both Israel and other nations, a development foreseen by the biblical prophets. For example, Isaiah pictured a time when people would write Yahweh’s name on their hands and seek to be joined to Israel (Isa 44:1-5).
The disciples of Jesus from Israel and the nations—in every generation—constitute a new covenant people, known like their forebearers as “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Pe 2:9).
We, his people, bear the name of Jesus before the world and so have a responsibility to represent him well (vv 11-12). We follow our Master in praying, “Father, hallowed be your name” (Lk 11:2). In other words, “May your servants represent you in a way that honors you and enhances your reputation in the world.” By the power of God’s Spirit who works so mightily in us, may we all as name-bearers strive to carry out the words of that prayer.
(1) See, for example, Carmen Joy Imes, Bearing God's Name: Why Sinai Still Matters, InterVarsity Press, 2019, p. 85.
(2) Bearing God's Name, p. 31.
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