Exodus – God reveals his Name


God, in the story we’re told in Exodus 3:13-15, speaks to Moses from a bush “ablaze with fire, but not being consumed“, and tells him that he is “to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt“. Moses is not exactly ‘up for this’, and begins to think up a variety of reasons why the job should go to someone else. To begin with, he suggests that the Israelites, when told that “the God of your fathers” is heading up this improbable project, will ask him, “What is his name?” This sounds like a long-winded way of Moses asking, “Would you mind telling me your name, please?” According to the story, God gives three slightly different replies.

Firstly, he says to Moses, “I am what I am“. It’s worth getting a flavour of the original Hebrew, which is אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה (‘ehyeh ‘asher ‘ehyeh). There is a slight difficulty here in that Hebrew grammar doesn’t use ‘tenses’ as in English, so that ‘ehyeh might mean, I am, will be, or even was, depending on the context. If we translate this as, “I am who I am“, God might very well be telling Moses that ‘who I am is my own business, but it’s none of yours’. That would fit in with the fact that in worldwide mythology, there’s a recurring theme that knowledge of a god’s name can give some leverage over him. In Egyptian myth, when Isis wants to obtain power over the chief god Ra, she has him potentially fatally bitten by a poisonous serpent, and undertakes to heal him, but only if he tells her his secret name, which he eventually does, to the advantage of herself, her husband Osiris, and son Horus.

Secondly, God tells Moses to share with the Israelites, a ‘slimmed down’ version of the above – to say that ‘ehyeh, I am – has sent me to you“. So, is God’s name ‘I am what I am’, or simply ‘I am’? Well actually neither, because thirdly, God then says to Moses that he must tell the Israelites that יהוה (yhwh) “has sent me to you“, and that “this is my name forever“. You’ll notice that יהוה has no ‘dots and dashes’ in it. Biblical Hebrew was written without vowels. These were supplied by the reader, which isn’t as difficult as it sounds. If I tell you, in connection with what you’re reading, that “ths blg ws wrttn n wdnsdy th twnty thrd f Jn”, you’ll have little difficulty, since the context has given you the necessary clues.

יהוה, however, in line with what was said above about the momentous importance of names, was not pronounced. It was too sacred. When Jewish people, reading their scriptures, come upon יהוה, they substitute “the Lord” or “the Name”. So even when vowel markings were introduced in the middle ages, yhwh continued to have none. The fact of the matter is that no one knows how it was originally pronounced, Yahweh being a best guess. Nor does anyone know what it originally meant. It looks as if it’s derived, like  ‘ehyeh, from the verb to be, but it is not a recognised form of that verb. So its meaning remains a mystery.

Although we’re told God said that yhwh, or Yahweh, is his name forever, I suspect that a great many people have no idea that this is the case. One reason is, that English versions of the Hebrew Bible, when they come on God’s name yhwh, translate it as “LORD”, with capital letters. Why, I ask myself, do they not do what God appears to ask for, which is that he’s called Yahweh? In his 3rd commandment, he says his people must not “take the name of Yahweh your God in vain.” It’s surely because his people were expected to use his name, that he needed to instruct them not to ‘use it in vain’ when they did so.

So why do we seem to studiously avoid giving God the name by which he says he wants “forever” to be known? Perhaps we don’t wish to be reminded that the Judeo-Christian God was originally a tribal god among a multitude of others, with names like Marduk, Mot, Baal and Dagon etc. Yahweh, in his beginning, could well have been, like Baal, a thunder and lightning warrior god of clouds and storms – hence the black, thunderous clouds enveloping Mount Sinai when the Law was given to Moses, and the pillar of cloud by day, and fire by night, that marked their god’s presence with the Hebrew people in their journey through the wilderness.

What makes this important? Since Yahweh’s origin belongs in or before the 2nd millennium BCE, many of things said, done and commanded by this ancient tribal god, must be understood as being no longer applicable, many centuries later, to a very different world. They ought not be quoted as if they were the authoritative last word on everything, with no discussion invited, and no dissent tolerated. It seems to me that any credible up-to-date concept of God must, to a large extent, leave Yahweh behind, as the lowest, if necessary, rung on a long and still rising ladder. All these fascinating old stories about him, however, continue to be endlessly worth reading and, occasionally, can still hit a contemporary target.

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