Yesterday, we began in Exodus 3:13-14, which might be my favourite passage in the whole Torah.
Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”
God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’”
I’ve always thought Moses was trying to be sneaky here – using this very rare one-on-one audience with God to try to trick the Almighty into revealing His name. But as I ponder the passage, another possibility occurs to me: Moses wasn’t much of a Hebrew up to this point, so maybe he honestly didn’t know that God hadn’t yet revealed His name to the Israelites.
Moses is born, he grows up as Pharaoh’s adopted son, kills an Egyptian for beating an Israelite, flees the country, marries Zipporah and starts having kids – all in the surprisingly short second chapter of Exodus. There’s no mention of Moses learning anything about the Israelite God, or of him even being remotely interested in religion of any sort.
So once the Burning Bush encounter begins, maybe Moses honestly figures no one will believe he spoke with God if he doesn’t even know the name of that God, so he can at least plug this gaping hole in his story if he mentions God’s name when the time comes:
Moses: I just spoke with God.
Elders of Israel (skeptical): Oh, really? What’s His Name?
Moses: I Am.
Elders (to each other): Hmmm. His story checks out. (To Moses): OK, Moses, what did He say?
This thought is pretty revelatory for me. I grew up on The Torah According to Cecil B. DeMille, which suggests that a conscious and deliberate quest to learn more about himself, and by extension, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, is what drove Moses from Egypt in the first place.
But the notion that Moses may have been more-or-less non-spiritual when God met him in the Burning Bush sheds new light on him (and Him), and it underscores that God can, and often does, use the most unlikely of people to bring about His will.
And thank God for that!
But whether Moses’ question about the the nom-de-Dieu was borne out of craftiness or naïvete, it’s God’s answer that’s most interesting:
I Am Who I Am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I Am has sent me to you.
Talk about your non-answer answers. God’s name is I Am? What can that even mean? If I were Moses, I’d have wanted to ask for more clarity: ‘Does that mean when I talk to you in the second person, I refer to You as You Are? And when I talk about You to someone else in the third person, do I say He Is?’
Even more confusing – and yet also more illuminating – is the suggestion in the footnotes of the New International Version that this could also be translated, ‘I will be what I will be.’
Then, He follows that perplexing revelation in Exodus 3:15 with:
‘Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.
“This is my name forever,
the name you shall call me
from generation to generation.”‘
Er … which is the name we are to call you for generations, Lord?
1. I Am
2. The Lord, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob
It’s not exactly clear which of these two monikers God is referring to, here. It’s almost as though God’s answer to the ‘What’s your Name?’ question is ‘Don’t try to Name Me’. And ironically, humanity proceeded to permanently inscribe that non-name name and its derivatives onto God’s driver’s licence, and then make the names so sacred that they can only be used at certain times by certain people.
And don’t think this is a purely Jewish quirk either, friends. It doesn’t take long to find references to God as The Great I Am or a fistful of other names in Christendom, after all.
I sometimes wonder if, in our passion to obey God’s instructions in Exodus 3:14-15, we missed the point of God’s instructions in Exodus 3:14-15.
Peace be with you.
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