How are we to understand the enigmatic name of God that God reveals to Moses?
At the burning bush on Mount Sinai, God calls Moses to become God’s agent in working the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. As I noted in my last post, Moses resists this call with all his might. He wants to convince God that God has chosen the wrong man.
Moses’ second objection and God’s response has been one of the most commented-upon passages in all of Scripture. Moses says to God that when he comes to the Israelites and tells them God has sent him, they will want to know the name of the god who sent him. All Moses knows at this point is that he is the God of our ancestors, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Apparently Moses thinks this will be too vague of a response. He wants a more proper name. After all, the Egyptian gods have proper names: Osiris, Isis, Horus, Seth, Bes, etc. So what is the proper name of Israel’s God?
Just what is going on in this objection is hard to say. Scholars disagree in their interpretation. Is Moses’ concern one of a prudent man, who is anticipating problems ahead? Is it an objection coming from doubt on Moses’ part?
Is it an effort by Moses to get some theological knowledge that really is superfluous to his mission? (When he gets to Egypt, no Israelite ever raises the question of God’s name.) Or does it involve a false assumption about the God that Moses is confronting? Moses may be thinking God is just another god on the same level as the other Egyptian gods, so God must have a proper name to take his place in the divine assembly.
Whatever the source of Moses’ objection, God does not put him down for raising it. Instead God responds by giving Moses what he asks. But the answer eludes full intellectual comprehension.
…we cannot fully understand God in the present; our full understanding of God is one that awaits his full revelation in the future, a revelation that will be disclosed in his future acts.
The Enigmatic Name of God
God responds to Moses by saying: I am who I am. At least that is how the New Revised Standard Version translates the enigmatic Hebrew phrase: ’ehyeh ’asher ’ehyeh. Other valid translations are: I will be what (who) I will be; I will cause to be what I will cause to be; or I will be who I am, or I am who I will be.
As we see, there are multiple meanings built into God’s response. But there is a distinct suggestion that we cannot fully understand God in the present; our full understanding of God is one that awaits his full revelation in the future, a revelation that will be disclosed in his future acts.
The renowned commentator on the Book of Exodus Brevard Childs says of God’s response: The formula is paradoxically both an answer and a refusal of an answer.* And for all of us who prize unambiguous clarity, God’s answer can be baffling and maddening.
God then condenses this strange phrase into two words: I AM. Moses is to tell the Israelites: I AM has sent me to you. Even in this shortened form, the enigmatic quality of God’s name remains.**
God then goes on to reveal his proper name which the Israelites are to use in all their worship. God’s name is YHWH (Exodus 3:15). When the Israelites speak of or to their proper God, they are to use this name. For this is the name of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of their ancestors.
This name, too, is an enigma. Ancient Hebrew texts wrote only in consonants. The scribes omitted the vowels, which a reader added to the text when he read it aloud. So we do not know the proper vowels that would be added to this name when spoken aloud. The name ultimately came to be regarded as so sacred that no one said it, except the high priest who pronounced it once a year during the Day of Atonement festival.
When the priesthood died out after the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D., all certain knowledge of the pronunciation was lost. Scholars today speculate it was pronounced Yahweh. You find that usage common in many modern English translations. But that pronunciation is speculative.
What Jews have customarily done when they encounter the letters YHWH in the Hebrew text is they substitute in pronunciation the Hebrew word Adonai. When the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek in the two centuries before Jesus, the translators translated Adonai as Kyrios (which means Lord). English translators have followed the same practice, always translating YHWH as LORD (usually spelled in capitals).
Reflections on the Name
Let me say a few things about this revelation of the name of God as it relates to our life as believers today.
First of all, the name of God is not one that humans give to God, as the Egyptians gave names to their gods. It is a name that comes from God himself. God reveals his name to us. Adam is given the right to give names to all the animals in paradise (Genesis 2:20). But Adam is not given the right to name God. God will name himself.
The giving of names usually implies some implicit hierarchy. Parents name their babies, not the other way around. Moses and the Israelites will never be in a position of superiority to compel God to act because they have given God his name. Manipulation will never be appropriate in Israel’s relationship to God. It is why magic is so incompatible with Biblical religion.
As I look at Biblical religion, I see an understanding of God as a presence that is always present in everything, but is not everything. This presence is never an impersonal It, but a presence who manifests personal qualities.
Yet at the same time, God’s revealing God’s name opens up the possibility of relationship. God invites relationship by giving the Israelites a name by which they can call upon him, address him, and lament to him. I like the way Thomas E. Fretheim, another commentator on Exodus, puts this. He says:
Naming makes true encounter and communication possible. Naming entails availability. By giving the name, God becomes accessible to people. God and people can now meet one another and there can be address on the part of both parties. Yet, because name is not person, there remains an otherness, even a mystery about the one who is named.***
A Name that Invites Relationship
Our relationship to God then is not with an indistinct, diaphanous being whom we are never quite sure is there or not, nor with a God who is so diffuse that God is in everything but never distinguishable (as in pantheism), but with a distinct presence whom we can address by name.
I use the word presence deliberately. As I look at Biblical religion, I see an understanding of God as a presence that is always present in everything, but is not everything. This presence is never an impersonal It, but a presence who manifests personal qualities. God is one who makes, who speaks, who calls, who questions, who rebukes, who promises, who intervenes, who heals, who rescues, who acts, who loves. Yet God is a presence who remains beyond our control and manipulation.
That is why I am always drawn so strongly to the thought of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber who describes our relationship to God not as an I-It relationship, but as an I-Thou one. We relate to God always as a You, not as an It.****
About ten years ago a group of friends and I spent an evening watching a new film that has been recently released. It was titled O My God.
In it filmmaker Peter Rodger travels to 23 different countries to interview a diversity of people. They include children, religious leaders, celebrities, a British princess, fanatics, and the average man on the street. He asks them all the same question, “What is God?”
His purpose, he says, is to explore whether it matters what we believe. “What is this entity that goes by the name of God,” he asks, “that seems to bring about so much friction, hurt, and pain?” So he decides to travel around the world and to ask people what they think.
Now if you are trying to understand the mysterious power that religion plays in people’s lives, I think that is the wrong question to ask. It implies that religion is primarily an intellectual exercise. It deals with the intellectual entity, as Rodger calls it, that we call God.
I submit, however, that this is the wrong question to ask if you are trying to understand the power of religious faith as it comes to us in the Bible. There we might more properly say the question we encounter is not “What is God?” but “Who is God?”
This is in the end the question, I suggest, that Moses is asking when he asks God’s name. The answer God gives is a name that invites relationship and a relationship that orients us into the future. Moses and Israel will come to know God ever more fully as they journey with God into their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. It is an invitation to faith.
Likewise for us, too, we will only fully know who God is, as we walk into the future in relationship with this God who will be fully revealed only when the Final Day arrives. On that day, as devout Jews believe, we will all be able finally to pronounce the proper name of God aloud.
* Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1974. Page 76.
** Following the lead of Albert Einstein, modern cosmologists consider time as well as space to be malleable parts of the universe. Neither is absolute. As creator of the universe (as Christians believe), God is then independent from both time and space. God lives in an eternal Now, with no past or future. That’s why I find it fascinating that the Exodus revelation reveals God as the I AM. Exodus and modern cosmology seem to be traveling down the same road.
*** Thomas E. Fretheim, Interpretation: Exodus. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991. Page 65.
**** Buber’s thought is presented in a classic theological/philosophical work that is titled in English translation as I and Thou. It was first published in German under the title Ich und Du. The word Du in German is the singular form of You, but it is usually reserved for use in relationships that have some sense of intimacy, such as the relationship between husband and wife or parent and child. In Elizabethan English the word Thou had the same association. It is not then pure archaism when the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer both use the word Thou in addressing God. The translators are trying to capture something of the subtle spirit of Biblical religion.