3RD SUNDAY IN LENT — 7 March 2010
St. Mark’s, Maquoketa — 10:00 a.m.
Exodus 3:1-15 | Psalm 63:1-8 | 1 Cor. 10:1-13 | Luke 13:1-9
God said to Moses, "I am who I am."
“What’s in a name?” So wonders Shakespeare’s Juliet, whose beloved Romeo bears the name of the Montague family hated by her own Capulets. “O, be some other name! What’s in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Alas, it was but wishful thinking, for there is more in a name than Juliet thought, and therein lay their tragedy.
For the Hebrew people of the Old Testament, there was a lot in a name. Your name somehow touched the essence of your identity, it expressed who you really were. Thus, if other people knew your name, they knew you; they had something of a claim on you; in a sense they had power over you, in knowing your name.
This same idea is found in other cultures as well: for instance, some Native American cultures, in which you have a public “nickname” by which you are known by other people, and then your own real name — often discerned in the course of a vision quest — which you never disclose to anyone else, lest it give them power over you. In a more positive mode, to be known by name opens the possibility of fellowship, of welcome, personal relationship, as for instance in the famous tavern of the old television series Cheers, “where everybody knows your name.” (But I digress.)
Young Moses has escaped from Egypt after assassinating an abusive slavemaster, and he has fallen in with the desert Midianite sheepherder Jethro. He has married Jethro’s daughter, and now, like a good son-in-law, Moses is out taking care of the sheep. And God speaks to Moses out of a burning bush. Which right in itself is a pretty remarkable thing!
Even more remarkable is what God has to say to Moses; God wants Moses to go back to Egypt (where Moses has a price on his head) and lead the Israelites out from under Pharaoh’s slavery. Just like that.
And perhaps most remarkable of all is what God says when Moses very naturally asks, “Ah . . . who are you? Just what kind of a God am I dealing with here? What is your name?” God responds, “I AM WHO I AM.”
Now, what’s in that name?
This is one of the things that Old Testament scholars have a good time with, trying to figure out what the Hebrew words which God gives us as the divine name (and which we see translated here as “I Am Who I Am”) really mean. It’s not completely clear. In Hebrew there is a play here on the verb häyâ, “to be,” and its relation to the usual divine name in the Hebrew Scriptures, spelled “YHWH” (or, as it was not-very-accurately rendered into English some centuries back, “Jehovah”). Later on among the Jews, respect for the divine name, God’s proper name, grew so great that they refused to say it out loud at all, lest sinful mouths pollute the sacredness of The Name. (I personally prefer to respect this tradition, though some Christians and some Christian bible translations do not.) Instead, when the Jews encounter the Sacred Name YHWH in the Hebrew text of the Bible, they substituted the word Adonai, “the Lord,” or sometimes the usual word for “God,” Elohim. You will recall seeing in your Bible perhaps — and this was the case with the King James Version, as well as the Revised Standard and New Revised Standard Versions and other many other modern translations, and also with the Psalms in the Book of Common Prayer — instances of “the LORD” printed in small capital letters. The small caps are to alert us that the original Hebrew text does not actually read Adonai (the title “Lord”), but in fact reads YHWH — a name too sacred to be pronounced aloud in Jewish practice.
And the underlying meaning of the Divine Name, “I Am Who I Am”? Interpretations of the Name may tell us as much about ourselves as they do about the text. The early Fathers of the Church, and the medieval scholastics, suckled as they were on Greek metaphysics, saw in the Divine Name the expression of God’s Being, the one who is Being Itself — not just one being among other beings, not a being in the way you or I or a rabbit or a rock is a being, not even as the Supreme such Being, but “Being Itself,” “The Ground of All Being,” The One Who Is.
But most directly and literally, I think, “I am who I am” points best into the mystery of God, which is what God is trying to get across to Moses at the burning bush. Because in telling Moses the divine name, God is really not telling Moses very much at all. It is as if God were saying, “Do not attempt to name me — especially if you think that to name me is to tame me. My name is not something you can invoke with impunity for purposes of your own, and certainly not a formula you can conjure with. I Am Who I Am. My identity will always, ultimately, be opaque to you, for I infinitely exceed your ability to conceptualize me. I Am Who I Am.
“But there is another side, too [God says]: for you can trust that I Am Who I Am, and not another. I Am Eternally Who I Am; I am always consistent with myself; I do not waver; I am never fickle; my loving-kindness is steadfast and faithful; I keep my promises, and I do not change my mind, for I Am Who I Am.”
What’s in a name? In the case of God, everything, and nothing. At the burning bush, God reveals a name which points to God but does not really disclose God, except as the one who is beyond our naming.
But in the fullness of time God does bring the divine self within our naming, enabling us, not to comprehend God fully (finite creatures cannot do that), but to know God truly. God brings the divine self within our naming — not in a burning bush, but in a stable, and in a workshop and a fishing boat, and in the streets and on the hillsides, and on the Cross.