what’s in a name: name giving in genesis 2

Last week I heard Thomas R. Schreiner speak at Moore Theological College on the topic of “What the Bible says about Women in Ministry.” While briefly making reference to Genesis 1–3 he made a particular point that the man’s act of naming the animals and the woman is an exercise of authority on his part, and hence demonstrates his position of authority over the animals and the woman.

Frankly I’m surprised that appeal is still made to naming in discussions about women’s roles in the church. Read on for my reasons.

The first thing to note is that while many modern scholars appeal to naming, the New Testament writers never did. Paul does appeal to the order of creation and that the woman was deceived (whatever the significance of those appeals may be), he never mentions that Adam named Eve. If naming was such an obvious and powerful demonstration of dominion, and if the NT writers sought to establish this point, surely they missed a great opportunity here?

dominion is not fundamental to naming

The problem is that naming is not invariably a demonstration of authority. While it often does seem to express dominion over that which is named, there are some very clear examples where naming clearly does not express dominion.

The first is the most potent. In Gen 16:13 we read the following:

ותקרא שם יהוה הדבר אליה אתה אל ראי

Then [Hagar] named Yhwh who had spoken to her, “You are El-Roi…”

Here Hagar names Yhwh. If naming invariably expresses dominion, then Hagar would here be claiming dominion over Yhwh. The text, however, does not view Hagar’s actions negatively.1

Let me give one other example. Following Solomon’s birth Yhwh sends Nathan the prophet to speak:

‏וישלח ביד נתן הנביא ויקרא את שמו ידידיה בעבור יהוה

Then [Yhwh] sent a message through Nathan the prophet and he named [Solomon] ‘Jedidiah’ for Yhwh’s sake.

Despite Yhwh’s naming the child here, Solomon is never again referred to by this name. If naming invariably expresses dominion then what does it mean that the name chosen by Yhwh is ignored in favour of that chosen by David?

naming is fundamentally an act of character recognition

As it turns out, however, there is a fundamental feature of naming in the Bible and the ancient Near East. It is not dominion but character recognition. This is apparent in that names virtually always reflect something of the character of that which is being named, or at least it expresses some hopes about the character of that being named. We see this with Noah in Gen 5:29:

‏ויקרא את שמו נח לאמר זה ינחמנו ממעשנו ומעצבון ידינו

Then he named him ‘Noah’, saying “This one will bring us comfort from our work and the toil of our hands…”

The same is evident in many, many other examples of naming.

why this makes best sense of genesis 2

This actually makes very good sense of Genesis 2:18–25. The naming takes place immediately after Yhwh identifies a problem: “It is not good that the man is alone. I will make a suitable companion for him.”

Yhwh then proceeds to forms all the animals from the ground — in much the same way he had formed the man — and brings them to the man so he can name them. While this could be read as an exercise of authority and fulfilment of Gen 1, it seems odd to find a problem with creation and then delay resolving the problem while doing something largely irrelevant to the problem!

But understood as an act of character recognition, the naming of the animals becomes an integral part of the narrative as an attempt to resolve the problem. The man examines each animal to determine whether it would be a suitable companion. And the task fails as noted in verse 20: “but for the man no suitable companion was found.” It is clear that the naming was all about finding a companion. And it failed.

That it failed is not a slight on Yhwh’s abilities, it is clearly didactic. While a dog may be said to be “man’s best friend,” Genesis 2 makes it clear that a dog cannot replace human companionship. There is only one suitable companion for a man, a woman, and (I have argued), vice-versa. The man (and hopefully the reader) learns this from the failure of the close examination of all the animals Yhwh created.

When the woman is then built from the side of the man and presented to the man, he also names her, and in that act he recognises the long desired missing element in creation: his other half. His words express an awareness of her character, they are not an expression of his dominion over her. After all, in Gen 1 it was man and woman who together shared dominion over the animals, there was nothing there to suggest that man would have dominion over woman.

Furthermore, just because the idea of dominion is introduced in Gen 1 does not mean that all that takes place in Gen 2–3 must give expression to that dominion!

so what’s in a name?

Hopefully it is now clear that the primary function of naming in Gen 2:18–25 is that it represents the act of closely examining the characteristic features of that which is named. This aspect of naming is prominent throughout the Bible, where names reflect something of the character of the named. If naming in Gen 2:18–25 is understood primarily as an expression of dominion it makes the naming episode a largely irrelevant aside to the immediate narrative. If naming reflects a close examination of the character of that which is named, these verses become an integral part of the search for the missing element in creation.

In short, appeals to the first man’s naming of the woman to support the notion that there is a hierarchical relationship between men and women misreads Genesis 2 and is based on a flawed presupposition about the significance of naming.


  1. Likewise naming elsewhere in the ancient Near East fails to express dominion in all cases. For example, on tablet V of Enūma Eliš we read that the gods assigned a name to Marduk:

    (95) Then the great gods convened,
    They made Marduk’s destiny highest, they prostrated themselves.
    They laid upon themselves a curse (if they broke the oath),
    With water and oil they swore, they touched their throats.
    They granted him exercise of kingship over the gods,
    (100) They established him forever for lordship of heaven and earth.
    Anshar gave him an additional name, Asalluhi,
    “When he speaks, we shall all do obeisance,
    At his command the gods shall pay heed.”

    See COS I, p. 401. Here the gods are clearly not claiming dominion over Marduk since Anshar affirms their subordinate status immediately after naming him! In the Standard Babylonian version of the Anzu story there is a record of all the names given to Ninurta in different places. Given that the deity is being named it is again unlikely that there is any hint of dominion over that which is being named.


Ramsey, G. W., “Is Name-Giving an Act of Dominion in Genesis 2–3 and Elsewhere?” CBQ 50.1 (Jan. 1988), 24–35.

Shields, Martin A., Man and Woman in Genesis 1–3, M.Th.(hons) Dissertation, Sydney College of Divinity (1995), chapter 4.

12 thoughts on “what’s in a name: name giving in genesis 2

  1. Thanks for this Martin. I have been thinking about this myself for a while now. I have argued for a while that both the man and the woman had the role of tending and naming. Both are speaking roles, both have a teaching function.

    I would also argue that any hierarchical concept of men being dominant over women is a result of the fall, and it didn’t exist prior to the fall. I wonder if we can draw a better comparison to the nature of relationship in the garden when Paul tells the Corinthian church that the bodies of the man and women belong to each other.

  2. As Craig Bennett implies, the church has historically allowed men to be dominant over women because of the Fall, even considering it eternally God-ordained. What saddens me is that, if Jesus came to fully reverse the results of the Fall, why has that Good News never been applied to the relationship between men and women? Instead, it has often seemed that the gospel is only for men, not for women… who have been kept in a subordinate state for 2,000 years. The whole of Western society still reflects this, by and large, the women’s liberation movement notwithstanding. Surely the church should be at the forefront of proclaiming and modelling radical liberation for all the oppressed groups of the world, not just women, and certainly not dragging its heels reluctantly behind enlightened and progressive laws which have been enacted in both the USA and elsewhere! It is a shame when the world has to show the church the way to justice and equality in society.

  3. You might be right about church history, but in recent discussions complementarian scholars generally argue for hierarchy on the basis of pre-Fall aspects of Genesis 2–3, largely because of Paul’s appeal to the order of creation, that the woman is created ‘for’ the man, and that the woman was deceived. Based on my reading I think it is feminist scholars who have argued that any hierarchy between the sexes arises from the Fall and hence ought not to be thought of as reflecting God’s design of human beings.

    So complementarian scholars argue that hierarchy is inherently part of God’s design and so should be preserved.

    In my dissertation (see the academia.edu link above) I argue that there is nothing in Gen 1–3 which alone explicitly affirms such hierarchy. I do not discuss the NT texts and their use of the OT.

    And sadly it is true that the church has, in many places and at many times, been guilty of unjustifiably oppressing women (and other groups). Although when we speak of a Christian view of liberation we must remember that this, too, is radical: the first shall be last, our King is one who serves, etc.

  4. My reason for understanding the hierarchy as being post fall is I will intensify your labor pains;you will bear children in anguish.Your desire will be for your husband,
    yet he will rule over you.

    I’m sure though, you may have another article to link to this passage to explain what rule means in this context and that it may not denote headship as such.

  5. Hi Craig. This is covered in considerable detail in my dissertation, but I’ll probably summarise it in a blog post some time. My argument is that Gen 3:16b depicts antagonism in the relationship as both husband and wife compete to dominate the other. I argue that the word most English versions translate “desire” (תשוקה) has been misunderstood (it refers to “control” and not “desire”) and that “rule” should be understood modally. Thus the Fall introduces discord into the marriage relationship and it is not one-sided but from both sides.

  6. I am egal but understand the texts differently.

    I agree that naming primarily represents insight into a person, but essentially all the time it also indicates authority, authorized or not and recognized or not.

    Jesus gave new names to Peter, James, and John of the 12 and these were his closest 3 disciples. But certainly the reason he could do this is because he had authority over them.

    I see the naming of Jedidiah as explicitly providing a promise in contrast with the experience of first son that died. Given this purpose, I do not see any need to use it after that.

    This leaves Hagar. I see one of the overall themes in Scripture is one of progressive revelation, where later revelation builds on previous revelation. One of the early ways this theme is brought out is in Exo 6:3 I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by my name the LORD I did not make myself known to them. That is, God’s personal name YHWH (often translated as LORD as an evasive synonym to show respect) was not yet revealed to , according to this storyline. So the Patriarchs knew God as El Shaddai. But what about Hagar?

    Gen 16:11 And the angel of Yahweh said to her: “Behold, you are pregnant and shall have a son. And you shall call his name Ishmael, for Yahweh has listened to your suffering.
    Gen 16:12 And he shall be a wild donkey of a man, his hand will be against everyone, and the hand of everyone will be against him, and he will live in hostility with all his brothers.”
    Gen 16:13 So she called the name of Yahweh who spoke to her, “You are El-Roi,” for she said, “Here I have seen after he who sees me.”
    Gen 16:14 Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi; it lies between Kadesh and Bered.

    So Hagar hears God’s personal name YHWH but gives him a nickname based on God’s actions with her (seeing her). And this name El Roi then ties the name of a well to Hagar’s story, so that when passing the well one is reminded of the story, yet it does not contain the personal name of God and so invalidate the storyline of God’s personal name being unknown to the Patriarchs.


  7. Hi Donald, thanks for commenting. Clearly naming often incorporates the exercise of dominion over that which is named, but I don’t find the claim that it “all the time” indicates authority. In the footnote above I’ve cited a couple of examples from the ANE. I’m not convinced by your exegesis of Gen 16. For one, early in the chapter Sarai refers to God as Yhwh (Gen 16:2), so that name was not unknown and, since Hagar lived for many years in that household, it seems likely that she knew the name as well. Whatever Ex 6:3 means it cannot mean that no-one knew the name “Yhwh” before Moses. Aside from that, however, it seems to me you haven’t avoided the problem raised by viewing naming as “all the time” an exercise of authority when Hagar names Yhwh here. Describing it as a “nickname” (although in Hebrew there is no such distinction made) does not eviscerate the fundamental problem that such a view of naming raises.

  8. Frankly, I have come to the place where I don’t really care what so and so tells me the Bible says about women and ministry…go ahead and blow really hard…”I know whom I have believed”…and I don’t need any institution that tells me otherwise…sayonara to those who MUST dominate…I have better things to do that try to have fellowship with those who think it is below them to identify with me…this debate is over for me and for many others and so is much of the church…I left months ago for good…so those of you who intend to keep making an issue of this, go ahead and rock your socks off…and keep driving women out…I guess for you THAT is your gospel…would Jesus be proud of you?

  9. Thanks for responding. I will need to think more about the implications of Gen 16:2 with Ex 6:3, but at first to me it looks like a difference and when I see such a difference I immediately think that maybe those 2 verses are a part of different storylines in Scripture and whenever the storylines were merged, the author/editor did not see a need to make them consistent. Perhaps you have other better ideas?

    I do not see Gen 2 as involving individual naming, because the word name/shem is not used. I see it as a categorizing of the 2 human sexes and a recognition by the man that the woman is like him but also unlike him by a verbal wordplay (ishshah sounds like it derives from ish by adding the feminine suffix ah, although one can see that it is not true when written, it sounds that way when spoken).

    I do see Gen 3 as an individual naming of the woman as Eve (as name/shem is used), but unauthorized and therefore an example of “he will rule over you.”

    I agree Hagar and El Roi is a falsifying anomaly to any claim that naming always implies authority. Thanks for your insights.

  10. Judy, I understand your frustration in many ways. Unfortunately debates such as these do seem to proceed very slowly within the church, but I pray that you would find a church you can feel safe and supported.

  11. Hi Donald. Your first impression on the inconsistent editing of sources has a long history within some parts of critical scholarship, but I think it is unnecessary in this case. Ex 3:14–15 seems to me to imply that prior to this revelation to Moses the Israelites did not know the significance of Yhwh’s name and nor did the patriarchs.

    On the use of the noun שם (šēm, ‘name’) in Gen 2, Phyllis Trible tried to argue that its presence was integral to authoritarian naming, but this has been effectively shown to be false by Ramsey and in my dissertation (both cited above). Furthermore, the noun is used in Gen 2:19–20 and so the context has established that this naming is taking place.

    Finally, the claim that naming inherently expresses dominion by the namer over the named is widely assumed but rarely demonstrated (I’ve never actually seen a formal argument seeking to demonstrate the truth of the claim!). I’ve cited a number of examples from the ANE which would call it into question. Given that the naming clearly serves as an expression of insight into the character of each creature, there seems no need to make claims about its significance which are superfluous to the narrative.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.