Though we toss off phrases like ‘the sanctity of life’ as though we all knew what we mean by that, the biblical literature traces the shape of such things in more narrative form.
Biblical narrative tends to insist on a couple of foundational dynamics that modern life obscures with a vengeance. For one, the narratives suggest that no life is so small or marginalized that it becomes no candidate for YHWH’s extraordinary attention. So does a poor woman’s dilemma become the centerpiece of several chapters of Israel’s epic history while the Omride Dynasty under which she lived—a period of rule which we know from archaeology to have been among the most impressive that ancient Israel produced—is spared just a few words.
Second, there is to be seen an enduring impulse strong and persistent enough to become almost a declaration, if the constraints that are native to narrative and story are taken into account. This concern is fleshed out in various ways that tell us that no life—not its end—is to be forgotten in any absolute sense. So, for example, the blood of doomed Abel cries out from the ground into which it was spilt. So all tears shall be wiped away, even long after the eyes of the weeping have been closed in death. And so forth.
Arguably, the Bible’s long and perhaps tedious genealogies find their energy in this conviction. The twin narratives of Israel in the biblical literature linger over names, as though something might be lost on the day that Israel should stop pronouncing them.
One seldom knows what drama, joy, pain lie behind the peculiar abbreviation of a life that becomes a mere remembered name. Yet there can be no doubt that these human beings lived in three dimensions, as we do.
Take Na’arah, for example, whose two and a half syllables her parents gave her in some pique of whimsy. Or was this name—we might translate it ‘Girl’ or ‘Girlie’‚—a nickname, perhaps even a father’s term of endearment. We know ‘Girlie’ only as one of the two wives of a certain ‘Asshur the father of Tekoa’ (1 Chronicles 4.5-6).
She is, the shape of biblical memory insists, not to be forgotten. So we pronounce her name still, though we stumble over its oddness.
Or take Rinnah just a few verses later (1 Chronicles 4.20). Grammatically, the name is feminine. Indeed, it has a hint of the effeminate about it, as though one were to name a boy-child ‘Joy’ or, more plausibly, ‘Kelly’.
Yet we have no reason to suspect that Rinnah—one of the four sons of Shimon—was anything other than a man’s man.
His name means ‘shout of joy’. We may be permitted to wonder what it was in the lives of Rinnah’s parents’ lives that moved them to name this almost forgotten child ‘Shout of Joy’. The book of Job, helpfully, recalls a shout in the night that attaches itself to a child’s birth or, more interestingly, conception.
Something warmed a parent’s heart. A man carried the echo of it for a lifetime. His life had meaning and—one in a billion—entered sacred Scripture to be recalled by those who read it and know nothing of him but his name.
Unenthusiastic about windy discourses regarding the sanctity of life, the Bible teaches us that no name abbreviates a meaningless life.
Our community becomes ever so slightly impoverished on each over-busy moment when we cease to name names.