It is the unlikeliest of doomsday machines, a computer programmed to write out every possible combination of letters forming the nine billion names of God. In a famous short story written by Arthur C. Clarke in 1953, a Tibetan monastery hires a Western computer firm to complete a task that the monks have been painstakingly carrying out by hand for three centuries, without making much headway. The two computer technicians assigned to this project only belatedly discover its true objective. The monks believe that once every permutation of God’s name has been listed, his ultimate purpose will have been achieved, and he will ring down the curtain on creation. As the project nears completion, the technicians worry that their clients will be angry when their efforts do not produce the desired effect, so they decide they’d better vacate the monastery. They set off by horseback at night for a nearby airstrip, where an ancient DC-3 waits at the end of a runway. Just as the computer completes its final run, with the airstrip in sight, the technicians look up to the heavens. Clarke ends the story with these words: Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.
Many religious traditions ascribe great power or significance to the name of God and often surround it with various strictures governing how it is written or spoken. The Lord made clear to the ancient Hebrews that he was not a God to be trifled with – least of all in using his name in vain. Christians generally understand this to mean they should avoid profanity. Orthodox Jews avoid using God’s name altogether outside of formal prayers, otherwise referring to him only obliquely as Hashem, meaning “the Name.” By tradition, the name the Lord revealed to Moses on Mt. Sinai was uttered only by the high priest on a single occasion each year, and then only within the inner sanctum of the temple in Jerusalem. Following the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. and the elimination of the priestly office, the pronunciation of God’s name was lost, since the ancient Hebrew texts give only the consonants. The Old Testament God is referred to as “Jehovah” in the King James Bible and “Yahweh” in later translations; both are derived from the same four consonants transliterated as YHWH.
The Lord is conspicuously reluctant to identify himself by name in his early encounters with Old Testament notables. The patriarch Jacob wrestles with him through the night, refusing to let go until he gets a blessing. Jacob asks the name of his otherworldly adversary, but his question elicits only another question in reply, "Why is it that you ask my name?" Moses gets a bit further when he points out that the Hebrew slaves in Egypt are unlikely to follow him into the wilderness if they don’t even know the name of this God who is promising them a homeland flowing with milk and honey. But the Lord’s response is less a name than an affirmation: I AM WHO I AM. He adds, "Say this to the people of Israel, 'I AM has sent me to you.’”
According to mystical Kabbalist tradition, all of creation is contained within the ineffable name of God, and those few who know its secrets cannot utter the name without invoking its power. In the biblical creation story, the Lord literally calls the world into being by naming it. The power of naming is God’s gift to mankind, but the man does not name himself or the Lord who made him. Naming rights belong to the Creator, and the name of God is uniquely his own. He is not only the ground of our being, as Martin Buber put it, but he is Being in the first person singular. “For I am God, and there is no other,” he declares. I AM WHO I AM.
For mortals to utter this name is thus to stand in God’s place and to claim dominion over creation. Is it not the birthright of those created in God’s image to exercise dominion over his creation? And yet, according to ancient belief, even the high priest risked annihilation in invoking God’s name. There are certainly grounds for such apprehension, although not necessarily in the way we might imagine. To utter God’s name is, in effect, to call him into being and to discover there is one I AM and no other. Our paltry claims to a separate existence are extinguished as assuredly as moonlight is obliterated by the light of the sun. Perhaps this is what the Prophet Muhammad was getting at when he said, “He who knows himself knows His Lord.”