Thursday, August 12, 2010

God's Nickname

When Moses asked God what his name was, God responded, "I am who I am." In Hebrew "I am" is rendered yahweh, and we have by long standing tradition assumed that Yahweh is God's name.

Although Exodus 3:15 maintains that "This is my name forever, this is my title for all generations," the Bible reveals that God has been given a lot of names over the centuries, nicknames which enhance his mysterious character or confirm his almighty power.

For many Semitic peoples, El is the word for God. It is probable that El and Allah share the same etymology.

In several places in the Old Testament God is called "El shaddai," the God of the mountain. Sometimes the Hebrew God is designated "Yahweh Sabbaoth," that is, Yahweh of hosts. God is also called "melek" (king) and "adonay" (lord).

Among other nicknames are "eben" and "tsur" and "ḉela," all of which can be translated as rock. In Genesis 49:24 he is called "the Rock (eben) of Israel." In Psalm 18:3 Yahweh is "tsur," or "Rock of refuge." And in Psalm 71:3 God is "ḉela," a Rock.

Last Memorial Day I visited Riverview Cemetery in Aurora, Indiana, with the primary purpose of looking for a rock. I was told about an Indiana Civil War soldier who had fought on Culp's Hill in the battle at Gettysburg. Sometime after the war, Captain Alexander B. Pattison of Company A of the 7th Indiana Infantry went back to Culp's Hill and searched for the rock behind which he had found protection during the battle.

I do not know how he managed it, but he had that rock cut in half and part of it shipped to Indiana, where it now rests on his grave, in section "I'" of Riverview Cemetery, Auroa, Indiana. The minie ball hits are still plainly visible.

Pattison died August 16, 1906, at the age of 71. His burial record gives his occupation as banker, and cancer as the cause of death.

As I stood behind Pattison's rock of refuge, I felt sure that he had prayed Psalm 144:

Blessed be Yahweh, my Rock ("tsur"),
who trains my hands for battle,
my fingers for war;
My safeguard and my fortress,
my stronghold and my deliverer,
My shield in whom I trust,
who subdues people under me.

Our ancestors of the First Testament were quite vocal in expressing their praise for God's protection, for being their rock of refuge. My visit to Pattison's burial plot and the sight of his rock from Gettysburg reminded me of King David's song.

O Yahweh, my rock, my fortress, my deliverer,
my God, my rock of refuge!
My shield, the horn of salvation,
my stronghold, my refuge,
my savior, from violence you keep
me safe.
"Praise be Yahweh," I exclaim,
and I am safe from my enemies (2 Samuel 22:3-4).

I suspect it was in light of the Old Testament that Jesus gave one of his apostles the nickname "Cephas," the Rock, Peter. It also suggests Jesus had a sense of humor. Surely he smiled when Peter tried walking across the water and sank like a rock.

Pattison's experience behind the rock at Gettysburg, the biblical references to Yahweh as the Rock of refuge, and Simon's being called the rock upon which Jesus would build his Church --all suggest that I ought to thank God often for being the foundation and protection of the Church and of my life.

And I think it's all right if I use his nickname in that prayer, for I have a hunch God smiles when I call him Rocky. Of course I must wonder what his nickname is for me.

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