The Power Of A Name: The Power Of Naming

Adam's naming of the animals raises complex issues, including the deeper meanings of our names.

Commentary on Parashat Bereshit, Genesis 1:1 - 6:8


  • God creates the world and everything in it in six days and rests on the seventh. (Genesis 1:1-2:3)
  • Adam and Eve are placed in the Garden of Eden, where they eat the forbidden fruit and are subsequently exiled. (Genesis 2:15-3:24)
  • Adam and Eve have two sons, Cain and Abel. Cain kills his brother, Abel. (Genesis 4:1-24)
  • Adam and Eve have another child named Seth. The Torah lists the ten generations from Adam to Noah. (Genesis 4:25-5:32)
  • God regrets having created human beings and decides to destroy everything on earth, but Noah finds favor with God. (Genesis 6:5-6:8)

Focal Point

Adonai (God) said, “It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him.” And Adonai God formed out of the earth (ha-adamah) all the wild beasts and all the birds of the sky and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that would be its name. And the man gave names to all the cattle and to the birds of the sky and to all the wild beasts; but for the man no fitting helper was found. (Genesis 2:18-20)

Your Guide

Why does God empower Adam to name the animals if naming had previously been a divine activity?

The text states that the animals were brought to the man “to see what he would call them.” From whose perspective is this text presented?

Why did God not create a companion for Adam from the beginning?

By the Way…

“What is man, that Thou art mindful of him?” (Psalms 8:5) God answered them, “The man whom I desire to create will possess wisdom that shall exceed yours [the heavenly hosts.]” What did God do then? Assembling all the cattle, beasts, and fowl, God made them pass before them [the heavenly hosts] and asked them, “What are the names of these?” They did not know.

When, however, God created man and, making them pass before him, asked him what the names of these were, he replied, “This should fittingly be called an ox; that, a lion; that, a horse; that, an ass; that, a camel; and that an eagle,” as may be inferred from the text, “And the man gave names to all the cattle.” Then God asked him, “And you, what shall be your name?” He answered, “Adam.” God persisted,” Why?” And he explained, “Because I have been created from the ground.”

The Holy One, blessed be God, asked him, “And I, what is My name?” Adam replied, “Adonai.” “Why?” “Because you are master over all created beings.” Hence it is written, “I am Adonai, that is My name.” (Isaiah 47:8) It means, “That is the name by which Adam called Me; it is the name that I have accepted for Myself; and it is the name on which I have agreed with My creatures.” (Numbers Rabbah 19:3)

“And you shall no longer be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I make you the father of a multitude of nations…” And God said to Abraham, “As for your wife Sarai, you shall not call her Sarai, but her name shall be Sarah.” (Genesis 17:5,15)

Since a number of women [in the Bible] are nameless, it is ironic that naming often appears in Genesis as a mother’s prerogative. Eve, Sarah, Hagar, Rebekah, Rachel, Leah, the daughter of Shua (Judah’s wife), and Tamar are all involved in the naming of their children. In a number of cases, the child is named after a prophecy or utterance made by its mother. (Jane Rachel Litman, “Themes of Genesis” in Lifecycles: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life, Volume 2, edited by Debra Orenstein and Jane Rachel Litman, Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 1997)

In adam and adamah there is an obvious play on words, a practice that the Bible shares with other ancient literatures. This should not, however, be mistaken for mere punning. Names were regarded not only as labels but also as symbols, magical keys, as it were, to the nature and essence of the given being or thing. (Ephraim A. Speiser, Genesis: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, Anchor Bible, volume 1, 1964)

In life, you discover that people are called by three names: One is the name the person is called by his father and mother; one is the name people call him; and one is the name he acquires for himself. The best one is the one he acquires for himself. (Tanchuma, Vayak’heil 1)

Each of us has a name given by God and given by our parents. Each of us has a name given by our stature and our smile and given by what we wear./ Each of us has a name given by the mountains and given by our walls./ Each of us has a name given by the stars and given by our neighbors./ Each of us has a name given by our sins and given by our longing./ Each of us has a name given by our enemies and given by our love./ Each of us has a name given by our celebrations and given by our work./ Each of us has a name given by the seasons and given by our blindness./ Each of us has a name given by the sea and given by our death. (Zelda, “Each Man Has a Name,” as adapted by Marcia Falk in The Book of Blessings, New York: Harper Collins, 1996, p. 106ff.)

Your Guide

In what way does the Numbers Rabbah text further explain the role of humans in the world as partners created in the image of God?

Does the act of naming confer leadership? Since some biblical women are cited as naming their children, does that act make them leaders? If so, then how can we explain the Bible‘s depiction of a woman as a “fitting helper” for Adam?

Discuss the statement made by the biblical scholar E. A. Speiser with regard to the power of names and words in our biblical and rabbinic texts.

Does the Tanchuma text or the poem by Zelda better illuminate the concepts of names and naming as expressed in the Torah text?

How does each text add different insight into the way in which names and naming are utilized in the biblical text?


God gave human beings the ability and power to name. Just as God separates light from darkness and dry land from water, this biblical text affirms that humans–created in the image of God–may seek to bring order to our chaotic and dynamic world through the process of naming. The power to name can be experienced in our everyday lives; for example, nothing grabs the attention of a misbehaving child more effectively than a parent–the bestower of the child’s names–calling him by his first, middle, and last names.

The rabbis caution us, however, to use the power of our voices and our words wisely. We must make certain that we use the divine gift of naming in a moral, appropriate, and thoughtful manner. We must also reject feeling that we are destined to live with and exemplify only the names given to us by others. Our tradition teaches that through our own choices and actions, each of us can name and rename ourselves. By doing so, each of us can bring honor to God, to the bestowers of our names, and to ourselves.

The following article is reprinted with permission from The Union for Reform Judaism.

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