And God said: יְהִי אוֹר

I apologize for the Hebrew, but you’ll understand in a minute. And God said, “Let there be light” (“yehi’or”). There is an old mystical Jewish notion that when God created things, He did so by speaking them into existence, such that there was an exact correspondence between the word spoken and the thing created. On that basis, it was believed that a person speaking the same word (in Hebrew, of course) could cause that thing to exist as well. It is, at first take, a rather magical presentation of God’s creative act. But the instinct is, I think, spot on, and points to one of the great problems in the nature of language itself.

Language, across time, has been more and more abstracted from the objects of the world. This is particularly the case in modern languages such as English with its vast vocabulary, largely constructed from borrowed words. Yesterday, I commented to a couple of adolescents that they were “intrepid.” Of course, I got blank stares. Their mother encouraged one saying, “You know what that means.” She couldn’t recall it. Adults could be prompted by recalling the phrase, “fear and trepidation.” But then, most adults would mistakenly think the word was a synonym for fear. In Latin, it shares a root with “tremble,” and has a root that means to “shake.”

This is an example of much of our borrowed language and the development of metaphor. We say a word (“intrepid”) but do not hear its meaning (“shake”). There is something of a break between what we say and what we think. That break (I was going to write “disjunction”) itself represents an alienation in our word, a life lived in abstractions. If you would like to relive the experience of an untutored adolescent, try reading through a few pages of David Bentley Hart’s work.

Let’s consider Adam. God creates with a word, speaking creation into existence. He makes Adam, however, by hand, in His own image likeness. Rather than being “spoken” into existence, Adam himself is a “speaker,” like God. We see Adam’s role as speaker in the naming of the animals:

And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and He brought them to the man to see what he would name each one. And whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. (Gen. 2:18)

And, of course, the naming doesn’t stop there. God forms woman taken from the side of the man. Adam declares:

“This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman,’
for she was taken out of man.”

Man is a “namer.” This is quite significant in understanding what it means to be human. For the giving of names to the animals is an act of “sub-creation” (to use a term that Tolkien liked). The name of an animal is its nature. God created the animals, and man made them what they are.

C.S. Lewis held that pets were more like the animals of the Garden than are the wild animals, in that they clearly prefer the headship of humans and respond to it in a marvelous way. Under the headship of a human, the lion will indeed lie down with a lamb. The many stories of saints and animals (even in the wild) also point to this role. Creation groans for the liberty it finds when the “sons of God” return to their proper place and role.

The fall of human beings into sin does not destroy our capacity to name, but it begins the long road of alienation from which we increasingly suffer. The Jewish notion of the connection between thing and names in creation has a counterpart in the Christian doctrine of the logoi of created things. All created things have their inner reason (logos) and purpose. The patristic tradition describes “natural contemplation” as the process of perceiving and understanding the logoi of creation. This is not an exercise in viewing creation as abstraction. Indeed, it is the complete opposite. Such theoria is properly an act of communion in which our perception and knowing enters that original participation with creation that was intended by God.

This is particularly manifest in the ministry of Christ. His word to the winds and the sea, “Peace, be still,” is not a forcing or coercing of nature. He who is the Logos, speaks to the logoi of the groaning creation. Creation hears again, for the first time since Eden, the voice of the True Adam who knows its name. “What manner of man is this that even the winds and the sea obey him?” they asked. The answer is, “What manner of men are we that the winds and the sea do not obey us?”

Christ not only recalls our role in naming creation, we hear Him speak our true name as well. The calling of the disciples has this quality. How is it that they drop what they are doing, leave everything and follow Him?

The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. (Jn 10:3)

This is true in our interaction with Christ, just as it is true of the whole creation:

Lift up your eyes on high: Who created all these? He leads forth the starry host by number; He calls each one by name. Because of His great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing. Isaiah 40:26

As Christ speaks our name, he speaks us more fully into the image and likeness of God. Slowly, we begin to recover the truth of our role as those who give names. It happens in Holy Baptism and continues (properly) throughout our lives. Most especially, we are taught to love the name of Jesus. This is the true name of the Logos, “from [whose Father] the whole family of heaven and earth are named” (Eph. 3:14). It is in speaking Christ, both to one another, and to the whole creation, that we begin to discern the truth of everything around us.

In the writings and hymnography of the Church, we are often described as “rational sheep” (λογικά πρόβατα). This could be translated as “sheep who speak.” It is unique to human beings – among the other animals we are like gods (my apologies to cats). However, the further we move away from God, the more our speech degenerates into noise. When our words (logoi) cease to rhyme with the Word (Logos), the original purpose is lost and our words move towards non-being (the “essence” of evil). It is such meaningless speech that is referenced when the Scriptures enjoin us to refrain from “idle talk.” It is not “chit-chat” that is troublesome, but words whose purpose has been lost and drowned in the noise of non-being.

This is love: seeing and naming all things for who and what they truly are. It is the heart-cry of all creation, the meaning of its groaning and travail. Understanding this, we begin to remember why we were given the faculty of speech in the first place. We speak because we exist in the image and likeness of God, the Speaker of all things. If we hear words of cursing and condemnation, they were not spoken to us by God but by those who have begun to lose their capacity for true speech. Speak carefully, all of creation is listening.


About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



, ,



34 responses to “And God said: יְהִי אוֹר”

  1. Eugene A. Koene Avatar
    Eugene A. Koene

    The Jewish mystical tradition to which you refer, of speaking things into existence by naming them, reminds me on some level of the “name and claim it” of some of the prosperity preachers. Would you care to comment on the distinction between such disreputable “theology” and a true application of the principle that our being created in the image and likeness of God makes us in some sense “co-creators” with God? Or am I completely missing the point?

  2. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dave, I stand corrected. I think I misheard it. I should have done my homework better – particularly when I was tempted to disagree with the Bard.

  3. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    That example (“name it and claim it”) is a good example of the heretical misuse of the truth. Most things that are false have just enough truth about them to convince people.

    We are not “co-creators.” I like Tolkien’s term of “sub-creation.” We do not ever bring something into existence out of nothing. We, at most, form and shape things – which is what is taking place with “naming.” However, the most common examples of the power of such “naming” can be found in our daily speech and the lies and gossip and such that we engage it. They do real damage.

  4. Ted Avatar

    Being fairly new to this blog, I am curious as to why DBH is seen as an “untutored adolescent”? I am not a strong admirer, but I do find some of his books to have good insight.

  5. Byron Avatar

    Father, is the act of creation found in carrying a child and giving birth an act of “naming”? Is this experience of creation a “naming” action by the woman?

  6. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I love looking up roots of words. My favorite is the word “nice” as it shares a root with the word ignorant and originally it was synonomous with being empty headed.

    From personal experience you usually will not get in trouble by saying someone sure made a “nice” comment. But you will if you tell someone they made an ignorant comment.

    On a more serious note, in many tribal societies when a child is born, the father takes the child out of the village and whispers that child’s name into it’s ear. This the child is the first person who hears his/her name spoken. He/she is formed around the name.

    That is similar I think to God having Adam name each animal.

    My parents named my older brother. His name fits him and always has. When I was born, my parents, in a fit of egalitarianism asked my 4 year old brother to name me. I love my brother, but he got it dead wrong. Later, after Jesus had found me, I began using Michael and changed it legally right before my marriage to my late wife. It has always fit better.

    So, in this case Shaekspeare was wrong, if you called a rose “skunkweed” it would not smell as sweet.

  7. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Byron, a woman gives substance to the word and allows brings forth the child, a sublime act that men cannot do, but it is not the same as naming.
    That is traditionally and primarily a male function. Reflective of God speaking things into existence.

  8. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    You misunderstand me. Reading his work can me one feel like an untutored adolescent – such is his vocabulary.

  9. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I would not have described it as “naming.” But, I’ll ponder it.

  10. David Robles Avatar
    David Robles

    Dear Fr Stephen,
    How wonderful! How inspiring to read these words! In the light of Chanuka, your words fill me with joy and awe.
    I didn’t want to stop reading. There has to be more. Please continue the development of this theme. I will be reading this article over and over, especially on the night when the Light comes into the world.
    Christ is born!
    Thank you

  11. Basem Avatar

    “ The humble man approaches wild animals, and the moment they catch sight of him their ferocity is tamed. They come up and cling to him as their Master, wagging their tails and licking his hands and feet. They scent as coming from him the same fragrance that came from Adam before the transgression, the time when they were gathered together before him and he gave them names in Paradise. This scent was taken away from us, but Christ has renewed it and given it back to us at his coming. It is this which has sweetened the fragrance of humanity”.
    – St Isaac the Syrian

  12. Ook Avatar

    Reading about “borrowed language and the development of metaphor” brought to mind the introductory essay of Barfield’s *History in English Words*, in which Auden says “A poet…is someone who tries to give an experience its Proper Name, and it is a characteristic of Proper Names that they cannot be translated, only transliterated”, followed by reflections on how “understanding what another human being says to us is always a matter of translation”, and that “we can only cope by recognizing that language is by nature magical and therefore highly dangerous.”

  13. Annette Avatar

    Father, I discovered your wonderful blog because of David Bentley Hart–his work “The Beauty of the Infinite” introduced me to the Orthodox faith and googling to find out more turned up Ancient Faith Ministries. So I am very indebted to him. Your topics have an uncanny way of addressing whatever issues are puzzling my mind every week and this week is no different. I just discovered what is now a favorite quote prior to the posting of this blog. It is from a pioneer of radio technology, Edwin Howard Armstrong. Although he is talking about lawyers (years of patent battles led to his suicide), I think it applies even more poignantly to fallen people, as you describe here: “They substitute words for realities and then argue about the words.” May the name of Jesus be our reality this season, and not just a name-word. God bless!

  14. Makedonka Avatar

    In Macedonian we say трепери, треперење, трепетлив

  15. Makedonka Avatar

    That is, transliterated: treperi, treperenje, trepetliv and the meaning is shake, shaking, shaky. Also I thought of my granny who used to say, А така речи! which would translate as SAY it like this! when she was giving us instructions of how to do some household task. See, she didn’t say, А така прави (DO it like this). She was in fact showing us how to do something but used the verb say, not the verb do. Thank you father for this article. We really seem to be moving away from God, which is so sad.

  16. Isaac Avatar

    Father Stephen, what is the proper attitude toward creation and nature given that it (like us) is fallen? How do we maintain the goodness and purpose of the created order given that it is filled with death, corruption, decay, and violence?

  17. Ziton Avatar

    Fr Stephen, I hope that this comment is not inappropriate here. But as I was reading your piece, it got me thinking about the Buddhist ideas around “Right Speech” – which is a key but sometimes underrated element of their 8 fold path. While I doubt they go in for ‘sub-creation’ style naming it can include a profound respect for the power of language, and reflections on how it interacts with the mind and reality.

    This passage lifted from Bhikku Bodhi’s (a senior and highly respected Theravadin scholar-monk) short piece on Right Speech perhaps best illustrates:

    “It is said that in the course of his long training for enlightenment over many lives, a bodhisatta can break all the moral precepts except the pledge to speak the truth. The reason for this is very profound, and reveals that the commitment to truth has a significance transcending the domain of ethics and even mental purification, taking us to the domains of knowledge and being. Truthful speech provides, in the sphere of interpersonal communication, a parallel to wisdom in the sphere of private understanding. The two are respectively the outward and inward modalities of the same commitment to what is real. Wisdom consists in the realization of truth, and truth (sacca) is not just a verbal proposition but the nature of things as they are. To realize truth our whole being has to be brought into accord with actuality, with things as they are, which requires that in communications with others we respect things as they are by speaking the truth. Truthful speech establishes a correspondence between our own inner being and the real nature of phenomena, allowing wisdom to rise up and fathom their real nature. Thus, much more than an ethical principle, devotion to truthful speech is a matter of taking our stand on reality rather than illusion, on the truth grasped by wisdom rather than the fantasies woven by desire. ”

    The analysis seemed to me to have several resonances with your piece, and a useful further teasing out of why making efforts at correct naming (coming from an underlying commitment to truthfulness) is inherently important. In any event, it underlined for me the power of naming. Do you see any value in this, or is there anything wrong or dangerous here?

  18. James B ELLISON Avatar
    James B ELLISON

    I immediately thought of the book by Elder Thaddeus “Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives” and the mystery that we think in words, with words. That those words, even when they remain thoughts and are not sent out with breath, have some power. When they are given (forgive me) incarnation ….. existence …… they go out into the world with strength. …. We do not know how to pray as we ought unless the pneuma the divine breath guide us. ….But when our words are so guided, (not idle) the heart hears the truth. Blessed Nativity.

  19. Thom Avatar

    My cat of 15 years “Otis” died earlier this year. I think he loved me best when I called out his name “Ohhh-Teee”.

  20. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Creation is not fallen (this is very important to understand!). It has been “subjected to futility” in St. Paul’s words in Romans 8. Creation is not sinful. Indeed, animals act according to their nature – pretty much invariably – unless taught otherwise. They are “wild” – lacking the leadership and guidance that we should have been giving – but they should not be thought of as sinful.

    St. Paul again in Romans 8, speaks of creation as being in bondage, groaning for the liberty that is to come. So, we bear that in mind and bring compassion and care to creation. Speak gently to it.

    When we come to understand this, we will also understand ourselves better as well. “Fallen” is not a word used in the Scriptures (much less many of the things it has acquired over time). We have been held captive by death. Our problem is a death problem – everything we think of as “sin” is, in fact, a result of the death that is at work in us.

  21. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I love Barfield’s work.

  22. Basem Avatar

    Ziton: this is a profound piece indeed of an enlightened man. It is identical to the patristic understanding of the necessity of truth in an ontological (being) sense rather than moral sense! Fr Stephen wrote about such notion previously.

  23. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Dearest Father…thank you so much for writing on this topic. I read the post multiple times last night and thought, well, maybe in the morning when my mind is refreshed I’ll begin to ‘get this’. I had trouble distinguishing between metaphor and abstraction. I thought metaphor was an abstraction. I went back and forth between reading definitions and your post. Bits and pieces surely did make sense, like the depth of the meaning of names. I tie that in with your posts on the ‘face’ and ‘person’…it is who we are, and at the same time, ‘becoming’. Of course, our Lord Jesus gives the ‘face’, as in the ‘name’, their meaning, their actual ‘being’…existence. It is all about Christ. He’s the identifying mark…the Logos, and everything else, logoi.
    2Cor 4:6 “For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” How much clearer can it be said about the reflection of His face, and His distinguishing ‘name’, Jesus, which reveals all Truth?! And He took on our flesh that we can partake – as you say Father – slowly. This thoughts never fail to ‘knock me over’. They are just too wonderful. Indeed, ‘intrepid’!

    My thanks also go out to Ook and Makedonka. Ook, for your mention of Barfield. I read the book you refer to. Thanks to Father, it was his reference to Barfield’s work that led me to look deeper into ‘words’. But such things with such depth, for me, takes a great while to sink in. I think the struggle must be because of the “break/disjunction” in ‘seeing’ in terms of metaphor, due to the English favoring of abstraction. That’s how I understand it so far. It is hard for me to look at this when at the same time I am ‘in it’, if you know what I mean. But I pursue, because these teachings uncover so much. There is so much depth to our souls, distracted by vain and “idle talk”. It is so true that it is very damaging. It takes away from ‘life’….the very reason we must be careful not to ‘call people out-of-name’.
    Makedonka, your description of how your grandmother instructed you by saying “SAY it like this”, just blew me away! Now I can’t think of a better practical example to tie into the message of this post. I really did need to ‘sleep on it’ and with a clear mind return to this post in the morning…only to find these most helpful comments!

    Father, I thirst for more! God help me be patient (even a touch of humility would go a long way!) and continue these blessed readings. They certainly reveal so much of what it means to “be” Orthodox. I mean, the way we approach the revelation of Christ – who He is – and who we are ‘in Him’. And lately for me, why we ‘do what we do’ in the rituals of the Divine Liturgy. I am not able to explain that aspect…I just don’t have the words…except to say, these teaching all tie in. These rituals are far more than just symbolic.

    I best stop now. Thank you so very much Father.
    Blessed Nativity to you, and to all.

  24. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Thom…sorry for the loss of Otis. Oh I know what you mean…these animals most definitely do know their name, when spoken by their “lord”. That’s the headship Father mentioned. I have many ‘pet names’ for my animals and they respond to them all! Man, that bond is strong! I thank God for these animals. I know He ‘sends’ them to us. There’s a story behind each one of them, how they came to live with us. And yes, as Father says, they look to, and respond best when we speak gently. There’s such a thing as speaking firmly, yet gently, too. You can’t be a ‘pushover’! They need, and thrive on direction…and love. Pretty much like us!

  25. Byron Avatar

    woman gives substance to the word and allows brings forth the child, a sublime act that men cannot do, but it is not the same as naming.

    Michael, I was considering it as an experiential aspect of the synergy of creation with God. “Giving substance” might be a good way to describe it (I’m pretty sure I didn’t state my question very well). I was thinking of a role the woman performs within the creative act.

    Another way to think of it is that, as men and women are of one flesh (Eve being taken out of Adam and returning to him), coupled with the man’s naming, this a way the full Adam takes part in the creation of life. Again, just pondering things out loud here….

  26. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Metaphor can, indeed, be an abstraction, something that takes us further from the truth. However, it can also be a means and a revelation of the truth. For example, the metaphor of a “two-storey” or “one-storey” universe. It helps us see more clearly the actual nature of things. The more a metaphor corresponds to the thing itself, the better it works as “name.”

    On the other hand, the one-storey/two-storey image could be expressed in words of abstraction – say, “unitary versus bifurcated,” and only serve to obscure things all the more. One of my efforts in writing is to bring things to an expression that is more like to enlighten than to hide.

    The good news, of course, is that we are speaking of things that actually are – and their reality will ultimately speak for itself. What happens is that the words/sentences/images we hear, sometimes help us see and understand something we already knew but didn’t know we knew.

    Those are the sweetest moments.

  27. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    “What happens is that the words/sentences/images we hear, sometimes help us see and understand something we already knew but didn’t know we knew.”
    Yes, exactly Father! Oh surely the sweetest moments! You want to capture them and hold on dearly!
    Thanks for bringing out the fact that metaphor can also be an abstraction. It helps to know my confusion was not unfounded! You give a very good example of obscurity – “unitary versus bifurcated” – that could certainly cloud the vision of ‘one vs two storey’.

    I will remember these things. The more I hear, the better. And btw Father, I picked up again Saving the Appearances”! The slogging is letting up just a bit! Taking it slow, though.
    Thanks again!

  28. Robert Avatar

    Abstraction need not be bad. Without it mathematicians would not be able to see many things are in essense the same. Nevertheless, in language, abstraction often ends up being simply vague. Thank you for blog, Father. I learn with every reading.

  29. Isaac Avatar

    Fr Stephen, thank you for your response. You say nature is not fallen, but what of natural evils such as hurricanes, earthquakes/tsunamis, that sort of thing? It seems a consistent thing in the Orthodox faith that these natural evils are the result of man’s sin (regardless of how it occurred within history) — that man’s sin has affected nature to even this degree.

    Is that not fallen? How does one view nature as good when nature kills so many people? And how is that not fallen?

    I admit I still do not understand, though I desire to.

    Thank you, and blessed Nativity feast.

  30. Dino Avatar

    Father, Isaac,
    This is not an answer but some thoughts that are loosely related to your comments.
    I think it can be quite confusing to parse the issue of nature being ‘subjected to futility’. Especially since there’s the nature outside of us and the nature inside of us, there’s the nature as absolute principle and nature as the experiential ‘second nature’ of one’s visceral impulses.
    Two ‘rival’ notions on man’s nature: i.e.: of our nature being created for ‘Theosis’ (i.e.: of a nature whose eternal-principle remains incorrupt), as well as of it being “deeply corrupted”, are also to be found in our tradition. This makes things additionally complicated.
    To demonstrate this complexity one can look at St Gregory of Nyssa’s careful distinctions (writing to St Macrina) between Man’s “οὐσία” (ousia) – as the ‘essence’ (an animating power that’s impassible) –, and his “φύσις” (physis) – as Man’s ‘nature’ (understood here more as something empirically interconnected with impulsive, bodily existence).
    There are overtones of ‘lower’ and ‘higher’ levels of the creaturely nature of man here.
    This includes both ‘conflict’, as well as the transcending and rehabilitative power of the ‘higher’ upon the ‘lower’. This last aspect reveals a benign ‘continuity’ (rather than a platonistic conflict) between the creaturely life, and God’s own life.
    Now, regarding nature around us (the earth, sea etc), it is easier to understand this as having been made ‘subject to futility’ due to the fall (man’s failure to transcend the creaturliness around him through his own theosis – according to his original calling). We can also grasp how nature around us can be transfigured and released from futility, … well, around a person who actualizes his eternal-principle and becomes Christ-like.

  31. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dino’s comment is worth thinking about.

    But, I’m simply making the distinction about the word “fallen.” I do not mean to say that death and decay are not dominating principles in creation – indeed, it’s been made subject to those things. I’m saying that this death and decay are not the fault of creation – nor are they “natural” to it. They are not supposed to be there.

  32. CR Avatar

    Many of the topics of this blog – including this one (and the comments) – have a way of “animating” my soul (not sure this is the right way of describing it – which of course fits perfectly with this post!) .

    Thank you all for this. May all the glory be to God.

  33. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Father Stephen,
    Thank you for your response to Isaac and to Dino. My confessor taught me to refer to St John of Damascus’ work, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, for an understanding of essence/nature meaning, which corresponds to your description that nature is itself not ‘fallen’ but subject to ‘futility’. Also the writings/talks of others, including Abbot Sergius, Abbot Tryphon, and Fr Thomas Hopko of blessed memory, among others, corroborate that your description represents Orthodox thought.

    Much of our misunderstandings and misinterpretations stem from the influence of modernity. And such influences are usually invisible to us, causing our readings to be easily skewed toward the perception of a bifurcation of our created reality.

    Another thought I’ll mention is how Orthodox theology has not been systematized and seems to even resist systematic treatment. Theological writings written by westerners in particular, even while ‘Orthodox in their faith’ seem to succumb to western theological treatments, that is, analytical approaches resembling non-Orthodox western theological approaches. I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t value scholarly work. But the tradition out of which it emerged can obfuscate Orthodox ‘tenor’, regarding interpretation and translation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to blog via email

Support the work

Your generous support for Glory to God for All Things will help maintain and expand the work of Fr. Stephen. This ministry continues to grow and your help is important. Thank you for your prayers and encouragement!

Latest Comments

  1. Evidently, thinking and living are integral for you, Father Stephen. I think that’s why the comments in your blog are…

  2. You mentioned the pietist movement and its personal experiences. Is this the root of the concerned questions/veiled criticisms I get…

  3. Fr. Stephen, thank you for the clarification. I hope you go on to “fill in the blanks” with more posts.…

  4. Ah, Father! Your words bring back memories as I came to The Church from a Christian organization from one for…

Read my books

Everywhere Present by Stephen Freeman

Listen to my podcast