Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Name of God

I am absolutely blown away by the Old Testament. Well, I am blown away AGAIN. It seems to happen a lot.

I think that it is interesting that we call God, 'God.' It seems that the term 'God' is so general. In the Hebrew he is referred to as elohim (ĕ·lō·hīm) which is a general word meaning 'god' (sometimes the God of the bible and sometimes referring to plural 'gods'). But in Exodus 3, God gives his fledgling people a name to call him by (the relatively well-known Moses-and-the-burning-bush passage).

I briefly want to give a little background on what happens before Exodus 3. In Exodus 3, an angel of God manifests as a burning bush to call Moses to deliver the Hebrews from oppression in Egypt.

Now, Moses was originally born a Hebrew slave in Egypt. The Hebrews were suffering in their slavery, working themselves to the bone every day under the sun. The reason they are slaves in Egypt, is because the Hebrews were multiplying in great numbers while living in Egypt, and the Egyptians saw this and were afraid of the Hebrews getting too strong. So the Egyptians had put them to work and even resorted to killing newborn Hebrew males so they would cease growing in number (Ex. 1:9-22).

Yet it says that God heard the cries of the Hebrews in their misery and suffering; and he remembered the promises he made to the Hebrews forefathers; Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (a.k.a. Israel) and he remembered the covenant (a very binding and personal contract/promise) he made with them (Ex. 2:23-25).

Now this where Moses comes in, he was born a Hebrew in slavery during the time when Pharaoh was killing off the Hebrew infant boys, and his mother sent him down a river to save his life and his basket came up near the Pharaoh's palace. Here Pharaoh's daughter found the baby Moses and had compassion on lil' Moses.

Long-story short, Moses was allowed to stay in the Egyptian palace and be raised as a member of the Egyptian royal family. Yet one day when he was grown up he went out one day and say an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of Moses own people. Overcome with rage, Moses killed the Egyptian and hid the body. The next day he tried to break up a fight between two Hebrews and in their frustration they snapped at Moses revealing that they knew he had killed an Egyptian. Moses was afraid so he ran away and eventually came to Midian were, after an interesting recourse with some sheep, camels, a well, and rude herders; he fell in with Jethro of Midian, and he even got married to one of Jethro's daughters, Zipporah.

Now that we know what Moses has been through, In Exodus 3 He is out tending Jethro's flocks when he sees the burning bush, now, of course like any man would, he see's something on fire and he goes closer to it than he should. The only thing is that this time it's different. It turns out that the bush is God, "the god of Abraham, of Isaac, and the god of Jacob" (Ex. 3:6). In this theophany (an earthly manifestation of God) God calls to Moses to go to Egypt and vie for the Hebrews by Gods power and deliver the Hebrews from their oppressive captivity.

In the midst of this, Moses asks God:
13 Then Moses said to God, "If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' what shall I say to them?" 14 God said to Moses, "I am who I am." And he said, "Say this to the people of Israel, 'I am has sent me to you.'" 15 God also said to Moses, "Say this to the people of Israel, '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, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations. – Ex. 3:13-15 ESV

What amazes me here is the name God gives himself. In verse 14 God says (transliterated Hebrew) "'eh'yeh 'eṣ'er 'eh'yeh" (ĕh-yĕh ĕṣh-ĕr ĕh-yĕh) which this translates "I am who I am." Based on the Hebrew here, this phrase is better translated "I will be who I will be." Then he says "Tell them the I AM /I WILL BE has sent you" again we have "'eh'yeh," then in verse 15 we see God restating his name he gives the name "The LORD" which isn't actually translated "lord" but the proper name of God given throughout the Old Testament which German scholars translate as "Jehovah" (transliterated: yehwah) but more recent scholarship is revealed to be better translated "Yahweh".

Now I know this is a little tedious and technical, but bear with me. What is interesting is the play on words, God gives the extensive description of "I will be who I will be" first, and then the shortened "I will be," and then "Yahweh" ["the LORD"]. But when you look at the transliterated forms (transliteration is changing from the Hebrew letters to English letters) we have "'eh'yeh 'eṣ'er 'eh'yeh" then "'eh'yeh," and then "yehwah." What we see here is classic Hebrew word-play. I know this sounds weird but read those three phrases aloud and hear the similarities.

The name of god is Yahweh (I have heard it defined as "self-existent" or "self-propagating one") and he will be who he will be.

In our culture I think that we miss a lot of valuable understanding regarding names. "Jesus" means 'Yahweh is salvation;' he is also called "Immanuel" which means 'god is with us.' In the Ancient Near East (the stretch of land between modern-day Egypt and Iran) names defined who one was and was who they were. Now, we view people as human beings (an individual in a body) and this person is named to identify them from other people. This person is defined by what they are and not what they do. Now a name doesn't mean that much.

In the time of Moses you were the sum of what you did, how you functioned and your name is part of who you were. This is called embodiment.

Just an example of the difference in thought: I want to ask you "What is 'kindness.'" Most people would define kindness as courtesy, sharing, etc. A Hebrew would point out a person they knew to be kind as an example "Good Guy Greg is kindness." This person embodied kindness. This person lived kindly.

Who people were in Moses time was what their name was, their history, who they had been in the past; and when Yahweh gets involved, who they will become.

Now it is time to do a little Theology (theology simply means "words about God" [theo – "god," –logy "words"]). What can we learn from Yahweh's name? When we look at "I will be what I will be" it shows:
  1. His ability to do (God has the power to be what he will be)
  2. His ability to decide (God can make the choice to be what he will be)
  3. His self-existence (This is tricky: Because God has the power to be, and decides to be, he himself is)
  4. His holiness (Since he didn't need anyone to make him, there is no other like him)
  5. His sovereignty (Because God has total power, and the ability to decide he makes and he can decide what to do and what should be)
Simply put, it is that Yahweh is powerful and can do what he wants.
Yet there is something more. The entire reason for Yahweh going to Moses is because he saw the Hebrews, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob suffering. He is sending Moses because he remembered his promises.

Actually, we must first realize that Yahweh giving the "I will be" phrase to Moses is not the first time Yahweh gives his 'name.' In fact, he does several times before. He gives them the name "I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob."

Do you remember what we learned before?

A name was the summation of who somebody was, is, and will be. So in this sense Yahweh is showing himself to be the "I will be" that he names himself to be.

Do you remember what I said before about embodiment? What Moses, an Iron Age Hebrew man, would be thinking of was the rich oral history of the Hebrews of all who Yahweh was to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He would remember all of the promises, the hurts, the triumph, and the amazing stories. Namely, he would remember God's promises to make a people out of Abraham. So when we are given the name "Yahweh," by Yahweh, he is reminding Moses (and Israel by extension) that he "will be" what he promised to be to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

So now, Yahweh is speaking to Moses to tell him to go to Egypt.

Moses is very much afraid of this. He is full of excuses, he is poor of speech, and after-all Moses ran away from Egypt after he murdered a man. In the very midst of this, Moses' fear and the daunting task ahead, Yahweh gives his name. "I will be who I will be," in this we can see the subtle promise; I will be who I have been to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

I can hear it as Moses would have heard it, "I will be who I will be, I will be all that I have promised to your forefathers. After all, Moses, I have heard the cries of my people and I remembered my promises to them. And to you Moses I will be who you, my people, will need me to be. I will be for you, Moses, who you need me to be as you go before Pharaoh."
The great thing is that Yahweh proves this. He fulfills his promise to Moses by coming with sign of power before Pharaoh and his magicians (Ex. 7:1-13). He shows himself to be powerful before the Hebrews and and the Egyptians with the Seven Signs and Wonders (Ex. 7:14-12:42). Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob by rescuing the Hebrews out of Egypt and making them a people and gives them the Law to be the people they need to be (Ex. Chapters 19-24).

Yahweh also proves himself to be the great "I will be" to Abraham and us. In Genesis 12 Yahweh and Abraham make a promise (a covenant,) Yahweh promises to make Abraham a blessing to all peoples. He shows this in Jesus Christ, because we know that through Abraham and his faith in Yahweh and Yahweh's promise we can now be saved (Romans chapter 4). After all, for [Yahweh] so loved the world that he gave his only son that those who believe in him will not perish but have everlasting life (John 3:16).

Now as believers in Christ we can take comfort in knowing that Yahweh "will be who he will be" for us. He was able to be our salvation on the cross; he is able to help us in life now. He will certainly save us from death in the future.

He will be who we need him to be. It may not look like what we want his help to look like. After all, Yahweh gave his name to Moses when he did not want to go before Pharaoh. Yet Yahweh was more than enough for what Moses needed Yahweh to be.