Ha-shem — The Name

Ann Spangler
Ann Spangler

Shem is the Hebrew word for “name” (the “Ha” before it is the definite article). The Bible speaks of Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem as the place where God’s name would dwell—the place where his people could pray and be heard.

God’s name is associated with his glory, power, holiness, protection, trust, and love. To call on his name is to call on his presence. To act in his name is to act with his authority. To fight in his name is to fight with his power. To pray to his name is to pray to him. In fact, the very first mention of prayer in the Bible appears in Genesis 4:26: “At that time people began to invoke the name of the LORD” (NRSV). Though we are to exalt God’s name and proclaim it to the nations, it is also possible to dishonor it, which is the same as dishonoring him. God’s name is his reputation.

Though God’s name is holy and powerful, it cannot be invoked as a magic formula. Rather, his name becomes powerful whenever it is uttered by men and women who are exercising their faith in God. When we pray to Ha-shem (ha-SHAME), we are praying to the holy God who dwells in our midst, hearing and answering our prayers.

Jesus taught his own disciples to pray by saying, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. . . .” Jesus also promised to do whatever we ask in his name. Philippians 2:9–10 affirms that God has exalted Jesus and given him “the name that is above every name” (NIV).

Praying to Ha-shem

In the category of “what will they think up next,” comes a new translation service that will check on prospective baby names in a variety of languages. For a little over $1600, you can protect your children from being embarrassed in the event they ever become world travelers.

Not long ago, musicians Gwen Stefani and Gavin Rossdale named their son Zuma, great-sounding in Arabic because it means “peace,” but not so great in the Aztec language of Nahuatl because it means “Lord frowns in anger.” Speaking of frowning, I should point out that Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes might not be too happy to learn that their daughter Suri’s name means “turned sour,” in French, “pickpocket,” in Japanese, and “horse mackerels” in Italian.[1]

Though most of us pay little attention to the meaning of names—our own or others—in the biblical world a person’s name often carried great meaning, signifying their essential character or touching on their story. The Bible is full of such names: Nabal, whose name means “fool” certainly acted like one; Isaac, whose name means laughter, was born to a ninety-year-old woman who must certainly have laughed as she thought about God’s ability to keep even the most incredible of promises.

This equation of name with character is no more evident than in the names and titles attributed to God in Scripture. To know God’s name is to enjoy privileged access to him. When you know his name, you know something very basic—you know who to pray to whenever you need help.

By revealing his name, God was inviting his people into relationship with him. But this was a risky venture because they could choose to live in ways that either honored his name or dishonored it. The same is true today. Dishonoring God’s name is like pasting a Christian bumper sticker on your car and then driving like a maniac or like invoking God’s name and then being indicted for bribery. Remember the commandment that forbids us from taking God’s name in vain? Cursing is an obvious way of breaking it. But living in a way that contradicts God’s character is also taking God’s name in vain.

As you think about God’s Name, his Ha-shem, thank him for revealing himself to you, for calling you into relationship, and inviting you to call upon his Name.

[1] Kylie MacLellan, “What’s in a Name? More Than You Might Think.” Posted at https://www.reuters.com/article/lifestyleMolt/idUSTRE5AG2DO20091117, accessed on April 26, 2021.


Originally published May 17, 2021.