by Father Mike Stubbs
Identity theft poses a particular problem in our technologically advanced world.
Criminals hack into computers storing personal information: social security numbers, bank account numbers, passwords. But the most important piece remains the person’s name. That is the key that unlocks the door to the person’s identity.
In the ancient world, knowledge of a person’s name could lead to control over the person. In some societies, each person was given a secret name to prevent that from happening. Besides the secret, true name, the person also possessed a working name that others would use in everyday life. But only the secret name represented the person’s true identity.
Magicians would sometimes utter the name of a powerful spirit or god in their conjuring, in the belief that the name itself would make the spell effective. We see an example of that in the early days of Christianity. “Then some itinerant Jewish exorcists tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those with evil spirits, saying, ‘I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul preaches’” (Acts 19: 13).
This use of names in magic also partly explains why later Judaism was reluctant to pronounce the proper name of God out loud. Eventually, only the high priest said God’s proper name once a year, on the day of Yom Kippur, in the Holy of Holies.
Finally, the exact way to pronounce God’s name was lost, although many scholars believe that it was something like “Yahweh.”
If magicians did not know how to pronounce God’s name, they could not use it to cast spells. This concern also partly explains the second commandment: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord, thy God, in vain.”
Sunday’s first reading, though — Is 45: 1, 4-6 — does not exhibit this protectiveness toward God’s name which developed in later Judaism. There is no attempt to mask God’s identity: “I am the Lord and there is no other, there is no God besides me.” God has no reason to hide. God is not afraid of being manipulated by others.
At the same time, God is able to manipulate Cyrus, the king of Persia, into doing God’s will. Even though Cyrus does not know God’s name, God knows Cyrus’ name: “I have called you by your name, giving you a title, though you knew me not.”
In order to emphasize it, the prophecy repeats Cyrus’ ignorance of God: “It is I who arm you, though you know me not.”
Cyrus may not know who God is, but God has set the goal of having all people knowing who God is: “So that toward the rising and the setting of the sun people may know that there is none besides me.” The words, “the rising and the setting of the sun” represent the east and the west. God wants everyone to know God.