Yesterday, Suzanne asked the question, “If, as some argue, naming the animals indicates dominion over them, and Adam names Eve, then does he have dominion over her?” In the comments on that post, several people mentioned examples of naming which seem to undermine the notion that the act of naming always implies dominion.
What then is the significance of the act of naming in the Bible? Is there any? Is there some sense of “right” or “authority” implicit in the act of naming? Or is the focus in such descriptions on the character of the person or thing named?
If we look carefully at the creation narrative, we see in Genesis 1 that God names each aspect of his creation. God’s dominion over his creation is never in question in this passage, and in no sense can it be said to be “established” through the act of naming. Rather, we see God looking at his creation, evaluating its worth, and identifying the unique character of each individual aspect. If there is any “right” or “authority” which can be attached to these acts of naming, it is the right of a creator to name his creation. Just as an artist has the prerogative to give his masterpiece a title, so it is God’s prerogative to name the various aspects of his creation.
At the end of Genesis chapter 1, God creates humanity and gives “them” (male and female) the “creation mandate” to fill the earth, subdue it, and rule over it. Thus, dominion is certainly a theme of the creation narrative, but it is one which is established through an explicit command rather than being merely implicit in some human act.
In Genesis chapter 2, the narrative backs up and focuses on the creation of humanity in more detail. Adam is created first and placed in the garden to “work/serve” (עבד) it and to “keep/guard” (שׁמר) it. In this way, God places Adam in a position of authority over creation, yet that authority comes with the responsibility to care for and protect the creation he has been given dominion over.
Next God provides for Adam’s need for sustenance by giving him every tree for food, except for the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” In this way, God showers Adam with abundant provision while nevertheless making it clear that he does not have unlimited authority over creation.
After identifying Adam’s need for companionship, God brings the animals to the man to “see what he would call them.” Like an artist putting his works on display, God encourages Adam to evaluate and identify the unique character of each of his fellow “living beings.” That’s quite an honor in itself, but amazingly, the Bible also says, “whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.” Imagine an artist setting up an exhibit of all his works, then inviting an art critic to evaluate his work and come up with the title for each painting. Whatever titles the critic comes up with, the artist is content to let stand. That is what God does for Adam when he allows Adam to name all the creatures.
In this way, Adam’s act of naming the creatures is an example of the extent to which God has “passed the mantle” of authority over creation to Adam. The picture is one of a master craftsman training an apprentice to carry on and complete his work. God gets Adam involved in creation, not as a spectator, but as a junior craftsman, a caretaker-in-training, a steward, and a vice-regent.
Should we conclude from this that anything Adam names he has authority over? Not at all. Adam’s act of naming in Genesis 2 is not an exercise of dominion, but a recognition of the individual character of each creature named. When Hagar names God in Genesis 16:13, she displays this same ability to recognize the unique character of the person named, but it is clear that she has no authority over the God she has named. Likewise, the patriarchs named all kinds of places in Canaan which they did not yet possess or have any authority over. Our propensity to name things shows that we are “like God” in our ability to evaluate, identify, and recognize similarity and difference. It does not, in itself, imply authority.
The only connection between naming and “dominion” in Genesis 2 is that Adam’s naming of the creatures is one of a number of ways that God grooms Adam for a position of authority and responsibility over creation. If complementarians and egalitarians are to debate the significance of this connection for questions of gender, they must focus on whether it is significant that Adam is given the opportunity to name the creatures before Eve is created. Does this fact imply that God has passed authority over creation to Adam as male or to Adam as human (and therefore also to Eve)? If Adam is given such authority before Eve is “taken out of” him, does that mean that she is excluded from that authority or that she participates in it?
Whatever our answers to those questions, we need to understand that all such questions are peripheral to the main points of the creation narrative, which are that God is the author of creation, that humanity has been called to reflect God’s image by reigning over and caring for creation, and that we can only accomplish that creation mandate as male and female. The genius of the naming episode in Genesis 2 is that it serves to establish and reinforce all three of those points.