What’s in a name?

July 15, 2010

In the interest of time—and in the interest of not being boring—I can’t always say everything I want to say in a 20- to 25-minute sermon. I didn’t even get to my favorite part of Sunday’s scripture, Exodus 3:13-15.

As we discussed on Sunday, Moses only accepts his call to go back to Egypt with great reluctance. One of his objections was that he didn’t know God’s name. The Israelites would want to know, Moses told God. They would ask, “What is the name of this God who sent you to us?” Presumably, anyone sent by God on such an important assignment would be on a first name basis with this God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (It may be hard for us moderns to grasp how important and powerful a person’s name was for people living in the ancient near east.)

And God obliges by revealing his name—to which Moses might have replied, “Um… Thanks for nothing.” Because what God tells Moses is incredibly ambiguous. He says one of the the following things (the Hebrew supports each translation equally):

“I Am Who I Am”

“I Will Be Who I Will Be”;

“I Am That I Am”;

“I Am Who I Will Be”;

“I Will Be Who I Am”; and maybe others for all I know.

The sacred name for God that derives from this is YHWH (“he is” or “he will be”), pronounced “Yahweh,” translated in English Bibles as “LORD” in caps. It is, for many Jews, the unpronounceable name—and they often substitute other Hebrew names for it. In the Septuagint, an ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible with which Jesus and the apostles would have been familiar, it’s rendered as Kyrios, “Lord,” the same title ascribed to Jesus.

I like the elusive quality of this name that God reveals to Moses. While its meaning is ambiguous, it does communicate something: As human beings, we can’t quite get a grasp on who God is. Language can’t contain this wild, untameable God who asks us to give him everything.

By learning God’s name, Moses hoped to learn something about who this God is. And he did.

“I Am Who I Will Be…,” or any of the other possible meanings, implies that God is One who can only be experienced. We can only learn who God is over time. This name therefore challenges us—in our own lives—to be patient with ourselves and God. Waiting to figure things out is a part of the plan.

It also implies risk. For us Christians, following Jesus means we don’t get to control our future. We acknowledge that some sovereign Other is in control. We also follow without the luxury of having all the facts at our disposal. Our knowledge is imperfect and provisional. We don’t have all the answers. As the apostle says, “We see through a glass darkly.”

At the very least, that ought to keep us very humble.

“Who are you, God?” Moses asks. God seemingly responds, “Wait and see. But, in the meantime, follow.”

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