My last post looked at a couple of the main ideas of Exodus 3, the story of Moses’s “first encounter” with God. I explained there that just as first times are important to us in the 21st century, we need to think about the first time each Bible character meets God. The Bible authors knew that we human beings naturally remember and ponder the first time each of us felt a special moment with God. So they were careful about how they described the first time each character encounters God. And since the relationship between God and Moses is the most important God-human relationship in the Bible, the “first time” passage of Exodus 3 deserves special attention.
God communicates four big ideas to Moses in Exodus 3–4. I wrote about two of them last time, found in Exodus 3:6–10. First, God claims to be the god that Moses and the Israelites have always known, and God addresses the immediate needs of the Israelites. This matches the experience that many of us have today: people who pray to receive Christ for the first time often report that they sense now that they had experienced God in a different way in the past, perhaps in a way that they did not fully understand. Second, people often come to Christ at a time of great need: God helps us in our time of trouble, then builds a relationship afterwards.
After establishing the above principles, God takes on two other matters that reverberate through Exodus and through the entire Bible. In this post I will address God’s name, then next week I will write about how God goes about choosing Moses.
In Exodus 3:12 God tells Moses that he has been chosen to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. This sets up the famous back-and-forth between God and Moses, in which Moses tries to get God to send someone else. But Moses begins with a strange-sounding question, “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?” For most modern readers this is not much of an objection, unless Moses is trying to show that he doesn’t know much! But the question “what is God’s name?” and its answer shapes much of the rest of the Old Testament.
“What is God’s name?” does not seem important today. We do not worry much about God’s name because we are used to talking and thinking in terms of monotheism, the idea that there is just one god in the universe. Most people in the USA believe in either one god or none at all. Polytheism, the belief in the existence of many gods, is unpopular, and has been unpopular for hundreds of years.
The world of the ancient Israelites, however, was polytheistic. As far as we can tell, everyone believed that the universe contained many gods. In fact, many Christians are surprised to learn that much of the Old Testament actually accepts the idea that our God is not the only god out there. Even though one of the core principles of both Judaism and Christianity is that there is only one god, the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible) does not teach monotheism! Instead, these books teach henotheism, the idea that while there may be multiple gods in the universe, the Israelites are expected to worship one god only.
When we realize that Moses and the Israelites believed that there are many gods in the universe, Exodus 3:13 and 14 become much more relevant. If the universe contains many gods, then names enable us to distinguish one god from another.
Gods, however, are not required to share their names – just as in our world, we human beings are not required to tell everyone our names. Humans can choose to be impersonal; most of us do not walk around with name tags! We share names only when we want to develop a relationship with someone. Sharing names is an intimate act: revealing our name enables people to recognize us, and distinguish us from the crowd.
Gods also can decide whether or not share their names. So the original readers of the Old Testament understood that God’s willingness to reveal his name is an indication that he wants a special relationship with Moses, and with the Israelites.
So at Moses’s request, God talks about his name, which happens to be related to the Hebrew word meaning “to be.” Exodus 3:14, containing the famous phrase, “I am who I am,” does not actually contain the name of God, but explains its meaning: God is the god who exists continually. (In John 8:58 Jesus is probably alluding to this verse when he says “I am who I am.”) Other gods in the ancient world had a back story about how they came to exist; the god of the Israelites has no backstory, because he has always existed.
God first shares his name in verse 15, a word which English Bibles translate as “the Lord.” The Hebrew pronunciation for this word is probably “Yahweh.” (Some older books and translations give God’s name as “Jehovah,” but this is wrong. Several hundred years ago Bible scholars decided on “Jehovah” because they misunderstood the correct away to pronounce the Hebrew word for God’s name.) Following the decision of the King James Version translators, almost all English versions translate “Yahweh as “The Lord,” capitalizing the word “Lord” to clearly label this word as the “divine name” (see examples in Exodus 3:2, 4).
Translating “Yahweh” as “the Lord” is unfortunate because for most readers “the Lord” sounds impersonal. (Part of the problem is that the terms used for God in the New Testament, theos (God) and kurios (Lord) are truly impersonal.) This is not what the Old Testament authors intended! The most popular way to talk about God in the Old Testament is by using his name, Yahweh. So if we can understand that “the Lord” is actually a translation of God’s name, then we can see that in the Old Testament God is developing intimacy with His people.
In revealing his name God assures his people that he really will be with them as they struggle to emerge from slavery. We see this most strikingly in verse 16, in which God asserts that he has been watching the Israelites all along. By telling them that he is Yahweh, God helps the Israelites to gain confidence that he really is on their side, and that he really is their god.
The use of names to promote special intimacy between God and his people is something that we see throughout the Bible. I’ll just reference a couple of important passages here. Exodus 15, which celebrates God’s victory over Egypt, stresses the name Yahweh. Deuteronomy 12 stresses the centralized location bearing the name Yahweh, as a foreshadowing of the temple in Jerusalem. Isaiah 43 has a lot to say about God’s connection to people who know him by name. And while the New Testament does not use the Old Testament name “Yahweh,” we still see intimacy on the basis of names is the idea behind verses like Revelation 2:17 and 3:12. Those who “conquer” will be rewarded with a special “name” intimacy with God.
It is not enough that God saves us from sin and helps us deal with issues in our lives. This was not all that God wanted to do in Exodus, and it is not the total of what God is aiming for his people today. God wants a close relationship with his people. And to accomplish this, he tells us things that make him unique beginning with his name, Yahweh. As we seek to build our own relationships with God, let’s become attuned to the uniqueness of our God, the god who always exists.