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The Name of God

Moses was in a rut. For forty years he had been living in the land of Midian, tending the sheep and goats that belonged to Jethro, his father-in-law. Day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, sheep and goats, more goats and more sheep, for forty long, tedious, boring, quiet, uneventful years. It was enough to test anyone's faith.

But the second forty years of Moses' life were nothing like the first forty. Having been raised in the palace of Pharoah, Moses had access to all the power and prestige and wealth and entertainment and education that the greatest monarch on earth could provide. Yet Moses was forced to flee for having taken the life of an Egyptian taskmaster. Thus, out of that tumultuous, sensuous, never-a-dull-moment life in the regal courts of Egypt, came Moses, to settle into the ordinary, routine, never-an-exciting-moment life in Midian. He woke up every day to sheep and goats, the glamour of Egyptian life by now only a faint glimmer in his aging memory.

And then one day it happened. Perhaps Moses was seeking better pasture for the sheep, or more water, or shade from the sun, or perhaps was chasing after that one wayward lamb that strayed from the flock. It isn't important. What is important is that one moment is on ordinary ground, the next on holy ground. One moment he is in the presence of sheep, the next in the presence of Almighty God! Just think of it, from the boredom of bleating sheep to the stunning rumble of the voice of God!

A.        A Confrontationwith Moses - vv. 1-6

Moses was forty years old when he killed the Egyptian and fled to Midian (see Acts 7:23). Another forty years had passed before this incident occurred. What incredible patience! Moses knew that God had important plans for him (Acts 7:25). But God was in no hurry.

We are told that he came to Horeb, which means "desolation" or "waste-land." It was probably a synonym for Sinai. Some believe Horeb refers to the wilderness region and Sinai to the mountain itself. Others believe it is reversed. Still others suggest that Horeb was a mountain range and Sinai a particular peak within it. Although no one knows precisely where it was, the Monastery of St. Catherine, along with the Chapel of the Burning Bush, was built in 527 a.d. on what was believed to be Sinai.

·      Who or what was the angel of the Lord? Some say it was angelic being, a messenger from the court of heaven who represented God, bearing his credentials and speaking on his behalf. But compare v. 2 with vv. 4 and 6. Also see Deut. 33:16; Joshua 5:13-6:2. In all likelihood,, this is the pre-incarnate second person of the Trinity. It is a theophany of God the Son.

·      What was the burning bush? Some argue that Moses merely experienced a vision. Roy Honeycutt argues that "for Moses, the bush burned with the flaming presence of the angel of the Lord. But it may well have been an inner experience, and one standing next to Moses may have seen nothing extraordinary" (328). But nothing in the text suggests it was a vision (contrast with Gen. 15:1). Liberal scholars try to explain it naturalistically, arguing that it was a variety of the gas plant or Fraxinella, the Dictamnus Albus L. It is a plant almost three feet in height with clusters of purple blossoms. The whole bush is covered with tiny oil glands which are so volatile that it can burst into flames if a fire approaches too near. Perhaps, then, Moses accidentally set it ablaze with a torch. Another attempts to explain the flames by suggesting they were the crimson blossoms of mistletoe twigs (Loranthus Acaciae) which grow on various prickly Acacia bushes and Acacia trees throughout the Holy Land. When this bush is in full bloom it becomes a mass of brilliant flaming color and looks as if it is on fire. Others appeal to various kinds of berries or even the angle of the sunlight. Why not just accept the description as given by the Holy Spirit?

·      What did it symbolize? a) Fire is frequently a symbol both for God's purifying power and his destructive wrath, i.e., both grace and severity. b) Some say the lowly bush symbolized the pathetic state of the nation Israel in Egyptian bondage, while the fire pointed to the persecution they endured. Thus, "just as the bush remains unconsumed, so Israel will not be crushed by its tormentors" (Sarna, 41). c) Most see in the fire that is self-sufficient, self-perpetuating, and wholly unaffected by its environment, a symbol of the transcendent, awesome, and unapproachable Divine Presence. Here is a God who is consuming, but never consumed.

Why was he told to remove his sandals? Sproul suggests that "the act of removing the shoes was a symbol of Moses' recognition that he was of the earth - earthy. The feet of man, sometimes called 'feet of clay,' symbolize our creatureliness. It is our feet that link us to the earth" (37-8). Hence, God was saying, in effect, I am the Creator, you are the creature!

When God identified himself in v. 6, he does not say "I am the God of Pharaoh" or "I am the God of the Egyptians" or "I am the God of the Canaanites, Hittites," etc. Although in one sense he is God over all, he is peculiarly and particularly the God of his redeemed people. Sarna explains:

"This self-characterization must have been particularly meaningful to Moses, the Israelite who had been brought up in the Egyptian royal palace, yet who had identified with his people's sufferings, who was now a fugitive in Midian and had married the daughter of the high priest of that land, and who seemingly had lost all contact with his family and his people. The mention of his father and his forebears must have had a stunning effect on Moses, jolting him into renewed consciousness of his Israelite heritage and into the sudden realization of his true and inescapable identity" (42).

Moses understandably hid his face (cf. Isa. 6; Acts 9; Rev. 1).

B.        God's Compassion on his People - vv. 7-9

This God who is an all-consuming fire, this God of power and revelation, in whose presence Moses is thrust to his face on the ground, is also a God of compassion, sensitivity, and is keenly aware of his people's pain. Although "I have come down" may seen like strange language for an omnipresent God, it was common Hebrew idiom for divine intervention in human affairs.

C.        God's Commission to Moses - vv. 10-12

The time of redemption and deliverance has arrived. God is going to act ("I . . .I . . .I"), but he will act through Moses. There were countless ways he could have achieved this deliverance, but he chose to act through people. Moses' response isn't so much an expression of doubt as to his ability as it is an expression of genuine humility. He feels utterly unworthy in view of the magnitude of the task. As Cole write, "self-distrust is good, but only if it leads to trust in God. Otherwise it ends as spiritual paralysis, inability and unwillingness to undertake any course of action" (68).

N.B. Forty years earlier Moses was ready, but God was not. Forty years later God is ready, but Moses is not!

Moses asks: "Who am I?" But who Moses is isn't important. What is important is who is with Moses (cf. Mt. 28:18ff.). We ask, "Who am I that God should want to use me?" The honest answer is, "Not much." But that is how God wants it (see 1 Cor. 1:26-31). If Moses were somebody, he might get the glory when the Israelites are delivered. But because Moses is but an earthen vessel, God is guaranteed to get the glory.

D.        A Confirmation of God's Character -vv. 13-22

After asking "who am I?" in v. 11, Moses now asks of God, "who are you?" in v. 13. What exactly is Moses asking? On one level Moses may want to know upon what authority his calling rests, i.e., how shall he validate that call to the people of Israel? But surely Moses is asking for more than God's identity? This is more than a simple "who are you?" that one might ask of a total stranger. God has already identified himself in 3:6 as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Clearly, then, Moses knew who God was, and so did the Israelites. Some have questioned this, however, and have appealed to Exod. 6:2-3.

Does this mean that God had previously withheld his name YHWH from the patriarchs in favor of using the name God Almighty or El Shaddai? If so, then Moses' question is perfectly appropriate. But this seems unlikely. It isn't that the patriarchs had never heard the name YHWH (Yahweh). Rather, they had never been told the significance or meaning of that name. What God is saying is that in the character of or as El Shaddai he showed himself to the patriarchs, but in the character of or as Yahweh he did not. They had certainly heard the name before. In fact, from Genesis 12 to Exodus 3 the name Yahweh was mentioned more than 100x. What they did not know, however, was the meaning or theological and redemptive significance of Yahweh.

Look more closely at Moses' question in v. 13. He literally asks, "What is his name?" not "Who?" The Hebrew word "who" asks only for the title or designation of the individual. The word "what" asks for information concerning the character and quality of the individual. Moses is asking a question that pertains not so much to how God is designated but to the power and attributes and abilities resident in that name. Moses' point was this:

"God, when I go to the Israelites they will want to know what kind of God you are. They will want to know about your character. They will want to know if you are worthy of their trust and confidence and what you can offer them in their horrible plight. Are you sufficient to do for them what they need to have done?"

This makes sense when we remember that in ancient times a person's name was not simply a designation or label. It did more than simply differentiate one person from another. It was more than a way of identifying people. In ancient times a person didn't merely have a name; a person was his name. One's name pointed to one's character. Name was a reflection or expression of nature. See Exod. 20:7; 33:17-19. See also Pss. 9:10; 18:49; 20:1; 22:22; 68:4; 74:18; 91:14; Prov. 18:10.

Today parents name their children for a variety of reasons: alliteration, in honor of the parent or grandparent, to enhance the individual's popularity, because it sounds fashionable, etc. But in biblical times names were assigned in hope that such would be the destiny or character or calling of the person.

E.g., a) Abram - Abraham (Gen. 17:3-5); b) Jacob - Israel (Gen. 32:28; "Israel" means "he struggles with God"); c) Simon - Peter (Mt. 16:17-18); d) Hosea's children: Jezreel (= God scatters), Lo-Ruhamah (= not loved), LoAmmi (=not my people). To change one's name was an indication of a change in one's character or relationship to God. See also Mt. 1:21; 6:9; 7:22; Acts 4:7.

So what, then, is God's name?

He says, in v. 14, "I am who I am". It has also been translated "I am He who is" or "I will be who I will be" or even "I am the 'is-ing' One." In v. 14b the third person singular of the Hebrew verb "to be" is used: lit., "He is." This "name" in v. 14 is YHWH, or what is known as the Tetragrammaton or "the four-lettered word."

In later years the pious Jew was reluctant to pronounce the name YHWH lest he inadvertently take the Lord's name in vain (Ex. 20:7) and be subject to the death penalty. Every time YHWH appeared in the OT (more than 6,000x), the Jew would read or say "Adonai" or "my Lord". In 1518 a.d., Petrus Galatinus, confessor to Pope Leo X, transliterated the four Hebrew letters with the Latin letters jhvh. He then added the vowels from Adonai (a-o-a), producing the hybrid Jehovah in English.

In most of our English versions, Lord is the translation of the Hebrew Adonai, whereas LORD is the translation of YHWH. See again Isa. 6:1; Ps. 8:1. Therefore, the name in Ex. 3:14, Yahweh, was the most sacred, holy, revered name of God, rarely spoken by the Jewish people.

This makes what Jesus said in John 8:58-59 all the more staggering. There he said, "Before Abraham was born, I am." The Greek phrase translated "I am" is used throughout the LXX (Greek transl. of Hebrew OT) to render the Hebrew Yahweh! Jesus was saying, "I am Yahweh!" No wonder they charged him with blasphemy. Consider all the "I am" statements in John's gospel (6:35,48; 10:7,9,11; 11:25; 8:12).

So, what does Yahweh mean? It does not simply mean "existence" or "to be". Popeye used to sing:

"I'm Popeye the sailor man, I'm Popeye the sailor man, I am what I am and that's all that I am, I'm Popeye the sailor man."

He is simply declaring his existence: "I am what I am, not what you are or what anyone else is; I'm unique; I'm a sailor, nothing more, nothing less, whether you like it or not."

Yahweh, on the other hand, or "I am who/that I am" is a declaration not merely of existence, but of a particular kind of existence; a dynamic, active being. "I am he who is always there, really and truly present, ready to help and to act on your behalf." It is an expression of covenant relationship, devotedness, faithfulness to be and do what must be done. The God who entered into covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (3:6) is the same today as he was then; the same in character, faithful to fulfill what he has promised. Here, then, in Exod. 3:13-14, is the full meaning of God's name revealed for the first time (Exod. 6:2-3).

E.         The Content of God's Name - Exod. 33:19

First, the declaration "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion" is an example of a Hebrew formula called idem per idem (see also Ex. 4:13; 16:23; 1 Sam. 23:13; 2 Sam. 15:20; 2 Kings 8:1). According to Piper,

"by leaving the action unspecified the force of this idiom is to preserve the freedom of the subject to perform the action in whatever way he pleases. By simply repeating the action without adding any stipulations the idem per idem formula makes clear that the way the action is executed is determined by the will of the subject within the limits of prevailing circumstances. Therefore, when God says, 'I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious and I will be merciful to whom I will be merciful,' he is stressing that there are no stipulations outside his own counsel or will which determine the disposal of his mercy and grace" (62).

It is somewhat similar to the force of our declaration: "I'm going to do what I'm going to do." I.e., "I intend to accomplish my will, all else notwithstanding."

Second, Exodus 33:19b, from which this declaration comes, is an interpretation or explanation of the essence of God's nameand glory (or "goodness") referred to in Exodus 33:19a (cf. Ex. 34:6-7). The divine words "I will be gracious/merciful . . ." in Ex. 33:19 are thus

"a manifestation of God's glory (33:18), a 'passing by' of his goodness and a proclamation of his name. Thus God's glory and his name consist fundamentally in his propensity to show mercy and his sovereign freedom in its distribution. Or, to put it more precisely still, it is the glory of God and his essential nature mainly to dispense mercy (but also wrath, Ex. 34:7) on whomever he pleases apart from any constraint originating outside his own will. This is the essence of what it means to be God" (Piper, 100).

Exodus 33:19 is not merely a description of the way God treated Moses or even of how he treats Israel. "Rather it is a solemn declaration of the nature of God, or (which is the same thing), a proclamation of his name and glory" (Piper, 67). To show mercy independently of external constraints or conditions is what it means to be God! Therefore,

"since God's righteousness consists basically in his acting unswervingly for his own glory, and since his glory consists basically in his sovereign freedom in the bestowal and withholding of mercy, there is no unrighteousness with God (Rom. 9:11f.). On the contrary, he must [emphasis mine] pursue his 'electing purpose' apart from man's 'willing and running,' for only in his sovereign, free bestowal of mercy on whomever he wills is God acting out of a full allegiance to his name and esteem for his glory" (Piper, 101).