The Names Of God: God’s Character Revealed Through His Names, by Lester Sumrall
In reading this book, we learn a lot more about the character of Lester Sumrall than we do about the character of God. That is not necessarily a good thing, but it is the sort of revelation that is not only about Mr. Sumrall himself but about the religious culture in which he springs, and it is a reminder to readers (and certainly to this one) that what we write reveals more about us than we may ourselves understand. The author comes off as a very critical person of others, but as the sort of person who may not come off as well as he thinks he would. He continually enjoins readers to follow what the Bible says, yet he clearly does not when it comes to the biblical Sabbath, and he openly acknowledges that his own beliefs about the nature of God are different than what was believed by those who lived in biblical times, whether Old Testament or New. He ridicules the process theology of Whitehead while, in practice, not believing in the consistent and unchanging nature of God himself. Likewise, he criticizes American believers for not being generous enough to others while humblebragging about his own fancy house and television studio supposedly so ornate because it brings honor to God, and even manages to criticize other Christian leaders for their corruption as if he did not live in a glass house himself. Again, this volume seems more about the author than it does about the character and nature of God, and that is a shame.
The book ostensibly seeks to describe the nature and character of God by looking at his names. These names are given in something that amounts to a compromise between the actual Hebrew names as best as we are able to understand them and the familiar but likely erroneous forms of those names to readers coming from Hellenistic Christendom. The essays are about the following names: Yahweh/Jehovah, Jehovah-Elohim, Jehovah-Elyon, El-Shaddai, Jehovah-Jireh, Jehovah-Repheka, Jehovah-Tsidqenu, Jehovah-Nissi, Jehovah-Shalom, Jehovah-Shamah), and the twelfth chapter is an invitation to the reader to get to know the being behind the name, as if the author was qualified to reveal God’s nature to anyone not knowing it particularly well himself. The essays blend scriptural exegesis with prooftexting and cultural criticism, where the writer seeks to place himself as a judge of society rather than a sinner in need of God’s grace himself. Beyond the usual failures of such an approach, the author manages to be entirely too simplistic when it comes to blessings and trials, putting himself in the position of espousing the theodicy of Job’s friends , which is never a good place to be.
Ultimately, if one does not particularly care for the author or his approach, what is the value of a book like this? For me, this book is a reminder of what is most important about studying the names of God in the first place, and that is seeking to have a relationship with God Himself and an understanding, however partial and incomplete, of His nature and the way that He reveals Himself to humanity. This book is a reminder that any attempts to engage in snobbery or limiting ourselves to calling God by one name or one pronunciation of a name is bound to fail because we simply lack the information to do so properly. Likewise, any one name of God is only a partial understanding of God’s complex and layered nature. Let us take the two general divisions of the nature of God into El(ohim) and Yahweh (or YHWH, or however one wishes to perform), which is spoken of as Adonai (Lord) by Jews because of the characteristic Jewish refusal to accept intimacy with God . El or Elohim often is used to describe God in a general sense as He can be comprehended through natural law or general revelation, while Yahweh deals with God in a covenantal and deeply intimate sense, and here the use of Adonai for lord suggests a discomfort and awkwardness with intimacy. Even where we may not know the exact names or pronunciations of names, our use of names and our refusal to use certain names suggests certain attitudes about how we feel about being close to God, and that gives this work some value even if the author’s self-absorption makes this a somewhat unpleasant if mercifully (170 pages) short book.
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