catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 14 :: 2005.07.15 — 2005.07.28


Grace in naming

Consider this scenario: a married woman named Nora finds out that she?s unable to conceive children. Knowing that her husband Mark badly wants to have a child of his own, she suggests that he have a baby with a surrogate mother. He accepts her suggestion and Nora asks Inez, the pretty young Mexican woman who?s been cleaning their house, if she would be willing to serve them in this way. Inez agrees because Mark and Nora are offering a considerable sum of money that will help pay for her children to join her in the States. Because Inez is an illegal immigrant, there can be no doctors involved, so Steve has sex with Inez several months in a row on schedule until she conceives.

However, soon after Inez becomes pregnant, she starts making annoying phone calls to Nora, focusing particularly on the fact that this baby won?t really belong to Nora and professing the special bond she now shares with Mark. She even proposes moving into their house so she can be closer to the baby when it?s born. When Nora accusingly mentions these phone calls to Mark, he assures her that he has no particular attachment to Inez, only to the baby. Nora relays Mark?s statement to Inez, which only exacerbates the mutual annoyance. Finally, an obligatory dinner engagement erupts into chaos as Nora and Inez become physically abusive toward one another. Inez leaves with an angry promise that she will move back to Mexico and keep the baby for herself.

Maybe you?ve figured out already that this is not a story from daytime television, but from Genesis 16?with some embellishment and pseudonyms. It?s really quite shocking when you consider it in a current context. But even more bizarre is what comes directly after this story, recorded in Genesis 17. After all of the childish threats and bickering between Sarai and Hagar, after the sexual exploits between an eighty-something Abram who?s in a position of power and a slave girl with little choice in the matter, God chooses to confirm a covenant with Abram to make him the first father of God?s chosen people. I?m left wondering whether God couldn?t have chosen a more respectable couple than the dirty old man and his annoying, self-pitying wife.

What fascinates me most about the stories told in these two chapters is the role played by the act of naming, first in the account of Hagar?s escape. The Bible doesn?t provide many details about Hagar?s perspective on her situation, but we can creatively fill in some of the blanks. I imagine that Hagar, as a pregnant foreign woman who?s just fled both her mistress and her husband (who in spite of their abuse represent her only security in the world) must have been terrified to be confronted by a messenger of God. But words of assurance come in the form of Ishmael?s name: ?God hears.? After the angel conveys a message that is a strangely mixed blessing, Hagar responds in an equally strange way by naming the Lord: ?The One who sees me.? This naming is difficult to understand unless we put ourselves in Hagar?s position as being a powerless woman expecting to be judged for her impulsive rebellion. In the presence of God?s judgment, as Brianne Donaldson points out in an article in this issue, we are known to our fullest extent and need not fear being judged according to an abstract summary of our actions. We are seen wholly as we are, which we can glimpse in our human relationships when we become more comfortable with our faults in the presence of those who know us well enough to understand our motivations and who we are becoming as a result of our mistakes?therefore, Hagar?s humble, grateful naming.

Following the command of the angel, Hagar returns to Abram and Sarai and bears a son. The next chapter, though it fast-forwards 13 years, contains a record of three more namings. As God is sealing the covenant with Abram, He gives Abram a new name as a symbol of the promise that he will be ?the father of many,? namely God?s chosen people. God fulfills this promise in spite of Abraham?s impatience and, being ?the One who sees me,? names Abraham?s coming son Isaac (?he laughs?) in accordance with the 99-year-old Abraham?s secret amusement. And Sarai, whose given name appropriately means ?quarrelsome,? receives the honor of becoming a ?princess? as Sarah.

Unfortunately, we?ve lost much of our reverence for the importance of naming. Many faith traditions (including some within Christianity) take naming very seriously, realizing that a name is deeply connected with identity. In this Genesis story, God displays an ability not only to name us for who we are and who we will be, but also to choose and transform us for great good in spite of ourselves. It is the miracle of coal becoming a diamond. It?s the miracle of a quarrelsome woman becoming a princess in the eyes of the One Who Sees Us.

And this is the judgment we need not fear: the judgment of God incarnate who knows us in our entirety and loves us anyway, the judgment of a merciful God who constantly transforms our mistakes and names each new creation good. God?s naming, in both a literal and figurative sense, is a symbol of grace worth noting and, when we can, imitating in deep relationship with others.

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