Names and No Names

Bible readers have at times wrestled with anxious thoughts about the presence of so many unnamed people in the Bible.

Why is Noah named but not his wife?
Why doesn’t God give us the name of the Levite’s concubine?
Who are the widows in the books of Kings?
What is the name of the woman from Canaa who asks Jesus to deliver her daughter from a demon (Matt. 15.22–28)?
And who were the two thieves crucified next to Jesus?
The list is a long one. What does all this mean?

I’ve thought already a bit about proportional play like this, and as I see it, this is more of the same. But sometimes, for those who have a heart, this particular disproportion can be unsettling, even leaving a sortof sour taste.

We might feel inclined to amplify the voice of these characters with no names, to extend their stories. Some readers respond by giving names to the unnamed, rescuing them from the seeming indignity God inflicts in the hopes of implanting them more firmly into the public memory. These new names and stories can take on a life of their own, recorded in extra-Biblical texts, appearing in popular novels, at Christian conferences, in all kinds of places. The lines between the Bible and other texts become blurred in cultural consciousness. This is dangerous play.

And some have responded in other ways, by thinking that the left out names are a manifestation of a patriarchal society, the no-name stories recorded by human authors who cared little about women and other marginal people. These men didn’t care, but God cares. I have been sympathetic to this. But in the end this too positions the Divine Author beyond His own story, sets Him at odds with it. More dangerous interpretive play.

I found myself thinking about this again yesterday as I was working on the Shunammite woman in 2 Kings 4 and 8. There’s of course the reality that God doesn’t name her. Ouch, God. We who are women might see this as a slight, we who are often unseen, unacknowledged, underestimated, undervalued, oversimplified by human men.

Ok, so there’s that real problem, that genuine hurt. I’ll get to that. But what also caught my attention was the absence of the king of Israel’s name, considering that we already know his name from earlier in the text. In fact, flipping back, I was surprised to see that the king of Israel who restores the Shunammite woman’s inheritance is none other than WICKED King Jehoram (sometimes called Joram), brother of Ahaziah, son of Ahab. We have to go backwards quite a few pages to discover this, five chapters about!

Now Jehoram the son of Ahab became king over Israel at Samaria in the eighteenth year of Jehoshaphat king of Judah, and reigned twelve years. 
He did evil in the sight of the Lord, though not like his father and his mother; for he put away the sacred pillar of Baal which his father had made.
2 Kings 3:1-2

All in, this seems an interesting moment to explore unnnamed people. In 2 Kings 8, God gives us a woman whose name is entirely absent AND a powerful male ruler whose name has become gradually invisible. And at this point, it’s starting to make sense to me, little by little.

Here, it seems, the symbolic role of King Jehoram’s crown in redemptive history is more important than the named individual holding it. God wants to teach us something through this king’s position, and his name – or more importantly, his character – gets in the way. It’s irrelevant, it’s interference, so God miminizes it. More proportional play.

But that leaves us with the Shunammite woman. Why is she not named? Her character doesn’t get in the way, surely! Does God not care for her like He cares for Naomi, for Deborah, for Ruth?

The two nameless characters considered together help us make sense of this. Like that of the wicked king, the meaningfulness of the Shunammite woman extends far beyond this particular woman in this particular moment. God wants us to see: We who believe are all the Shunammite woman. I understand this to mean that in order to help us apply ourselves to the text, God minimizes this woman’s name.

God wants us to consider King Jehoram and the Shunammite woman in light of His eternal purposes. But the effect of each is something altogether distinct, this king and that woman. Where one fades, does God not elevate the other?

This much I know for sure: God loved the Shunammite woman during her time on the earth, even before time began. He loves her still, and history is witness. But the text reaches out beyond her story and her name, to all believers whose name Jesus knows. And in fact, we can go further.
For as we read, we see: God never names His church.
Instead, see here whose name we have.

“I called you by my name” (Isa. 43:1; Isa. 49:16; Rev. 2:17).

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