Call to Ministry Series: #8 Moses’ Second Objection

Call to Ministry Series: #8 Moses’ Second Objection

July 3, 2012

Exodus 3:13

But Moses said to God, "If I come to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' what shall I say to them?"

What can this God who has called you do for us? The second question comes out in a suppositional form (suppose that I do go to the Israelites), but really focuses on the question, "What is his name?"  This question does not assume that Moses is ignorant about the names of God.  With the patriarchs God's name varied, depending on the context: 'elohim (God), 'el Shaddai (God Almighty), 'el ro'i (God who sees, i.e., who provides), 'el `elyon (God Most High).  Each had significance in its context.  The question asks instead, which name of God will be attached to this action?

A "name" in the ancient Near East carried significant weight for people.  It told them about a person's abilities and character.  In the case of a deity the question becomes, who is this God, really, and what can this God do?  The name reflects the power of the deity.

In addition, Moses might be reflecting on the question of authority that the Israelite asked in Exodus 2:14 before he fled to the wilderness.  Sometimes a question like the Israelite one haunts a person, even for years.  It is clear that what is being asked speaks to what lies concealed behind the name.  Moses and the Israelites will want to know what lies behind the name if they are to follow Moses and the deity who has spoken to him.

God answers with the revelation of the divine personal name.  This personal name for God should be given in speeches to Israel's elders and to Pharaoh (3:14-22).  It is God's memorial name (3:15); it is a name to remember.  Under this name this deity is concerned about the Israelites and promises to bring them out of Egypt to a better place with victory over Pharaoh (3:16-22).

Initially the answer proves enigmatic and more scholarly attention has focused on verse 14 than perhaps any other verse in the Hebrew Bible.  What kind of answer is "I am who I am"?  How do we move from "I am" to Yhwh (probably pronounced Yahweh)?  How does this statement answer Moses' question on behalf of the Israelites?  What does this name reveal for the Israelites?

Some interpreters have explained the problem of "I am who I am" by removing it or by changing the words to make them smoother, either "I am who is" or "he is who he is" or "he will be who he will be."  These proposals carry no manuscript evidence to support them.  They are speculative to address a difficulty.

If we suppose that the Hebrew should stand as it is without a change, we still must explain what is meant.  Some scholars propose a deliberate evasion of the question.  It seems plausible that some sort of wordplay is taking place, but I don't think evasion is intended.  Others offer reading the verbs as future tenses, "I will be who I will be" or "as I will be."  Although the grammar allows this reading, usually context indicates a future usage and the context is ambiguous.  In this case, the context may force us to understand a present tense usage.  The Septuagint translation of this phrase lends support to a present interpretation, "I am the one who is" or "I am he who exists."  Thus the enigmatic expression carries the idea of a God who is presently active, a God who acts and is choosing to do so on behalf of the Israelites.

The Hebrew expression plays with the "to be" verb, but we should not understand the Greek idea of ontology or "being" from the Hebrew use of this verb.  This is not a verse that lapses into metaphysical explanation, saying that this is the God who exists.  Rather, context forces us to see that this God promises to act in deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt

Exodus 6:2-8 supports this reading by describing how this God has worked, is working, and will work in redeeming Israel, all captured in the "name" of the Lord, Yhwh.  Organized around the self-identification formula, "I am Yhwh," the assurance speech from God to Moses after Moses' first salvo at pharaoh fails begins with the formula in verse 2, stamps emphasis on the words that Moses will pass on to the Israelites (v. 6), describes the relationship of Israel and Yhwh (v. 7), and concludes the divine speech (v. 8).  This speech renews Moses' call.

The assurance speech starts by recalling God's past relationship with Israel.  He appeared to the ancestors as 'El Shaddai.  The preposition with 'El Shaddai in Hebrew may be translated in this context as a phrase meaning "in the capacity of" 'El Shaddai, i.e., in the power carried in this name and its epithet.  The meaning of the epithet, Shaddai, remains debated.  It may come from an Akkadian word for "mountain" which is probably why strength is associated with the word, often lending to a translation "God Almighty."  The LXX usually renders the word with pantokrator, literally "all strength or might."  Another interpretation says Shaddai may derive from the word for "breast," a word that may be the origin for the word "mountain" in Akkadian.  If so, the meaning would suggest a god of fertility.  In Genesis 17:1 'El Shaddai occurs when God promises Abram offspring as plentiful as the stars in the heavens (17:2), whereupon the patriarch's name is changed to Abraham.  The idea of fertility certainly supports this context.  Finally, the name may originate from the word for "field," an idea that reflects a fertility concept also.  "In this capacity" God showed himself to Abram.

Verse 3 goes on to add that in the time of the ancient fathers God was not known by the name Yhwh.  The preposition on 'El Shaddai may be read as carrying over to the phrase "my name."  If so, it eases the reading of Genesis, for the name Yhwh occurs many times in the book, but not in the capacity of the name as it will be revealed through the events of the exodus.

As verses 4-8 continue, God notes not only that in the present he has heard the troubles of the Israelites and remembered the covenant with them, but that in the future he "will bring out," "will deliver," "will redeem," "will take," "will be [their] God," "will bring" them to the land and "will give it" to Israel.  These verbs provide content to the name Yhwh, going far beyond the acquaintance of the name in earlier times.  Their experience with Yhwh will expand to new depths in the events.  The name answers their question by saying Yhwh will do all these things for Israel.  He is a deity who will act in their behalf.

Finally, how do we shift from a first person, "I am," to a third person prefix on the name, Yhwh?  Since I think we have wordplay in this context, it is reasonable to simply answer in practical terms.  If we referred to God by a personal name that was first person, "I am," it would lead to confusion.  So in speech, the personal name shifts to the third person, "he is" (This suggestion was given to me in 1978 by Dr. Robert Alden in conversation over coffee.  See the OT theology of Bruce Waltke who consistently uses "I AM" to refer to Yhwh (An OT Theology.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007).  Of course, as a name it simply becomes "Yahweh."  I experienced a similar language difficulty when I taught in a seminary in southern Brazil for three months and met a Canadian missionary that the Brazilians called "Leonardo."  Since he had introduced himself to me as "Ken," I wanted to know the reason for the change.  Leonard was his middle name so he changed it to the Portuguese equivalent.  His name, Ken, his first name, sounded like the Portuguese word for "who" and caused Brazilians frustration when they asked his name.  They thought he kept saying "who" when he gave his name.  They kept asking him what his name was.  It was easier to change than go against an awkwardness in the language.

God gives Moses assurance by revealing a personal name that in itself promises active participation on God's part in delivering Israel from bondage.  And that interpretation is confirmed by the immediate context and by the subsequent events.

Transferable Reflections

God revealed his name and person to Moses.  Although Yhwh was known in the stories of Genesis, the revelation of the name in Exodus will surpass previous experience.  Moses is the individual who first learned the full significance of the name and then witnessed the wonders of what this deity could do, bringing the plagues, parting the Reed Sea, feeding the Israelites in the wilderness, and leading the people to the promised land across a forbidding desert.  Moses met God "face to face."

A profound truth emerges from Moses' call.  Yhwh is a divine person who opens himself to Moses, revealing a personal name and its implications, speaking freely with Moses, interacting in a fair exchange of very real discussion, giving instructions and sending his leader off to do his will.

Moses will ascend to Yhwh's presence on the mountain several times.  His experience sets him apart from other biblical characters.  Even his face would glow for days afterward as it reflected God's glory.  Moses' personal relationship with Yhwh pervades the stories presented through Exodus to Deuteronomy.  What a gift!