What's in a Name?

· Bible,Ethics

The story of Moses and the burning bush fascinates me. It’s an occasion when Moses seeks clarity and, while some of his questions are answered, he is invited into even more mystery.

Moses is minding his sheep and for some reason takes them to a mountain. There he is met by a bush that ablaze but not being destroyed. His curiosity leads him to come closer until he hears a voice call his name.

“Moses, Moses! Come no closer!” the voice continues. “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5).

Then comes the big revelation.

“I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”

Like we might pull our hand away from a flame to avoid being burned, Moses covers his face. It’s one of the first biblical references to the idea that no one can see the face of God and live. God is so beyond our capacity that seeing God’s face overwhelms us.

Even so, Moses is not subject to God’s ramblings about divine glory. Instead, he hears about the compassion God has for the weak and suffering: “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed,”—and this is important—“I know their sufferings” (verse 7). God has witnessed their suffering. God understands their suffering from the inside out. And now, God is responding to it: “I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.”

God is not a god who erects a wall between divinity and finitude. God chooses to use power to deliver people suffering at the mercy of others.

Let’s remember, though, that it’s not the case that the people of God find themselves enslaved one day and delivered the next. They have been enslaved for generations. Why has it taken so long for God to reveal a compassionate disposition or to act in a compassion way? It’s a question I’m not able to answer. But it’s part of the biblical pattern that reveals God’s character. Rarely do we see God work swiftly—at least by our standards.

Now back to God’s speech, which turns from God’s own compassion to an outline of instructions for Moses. God will release the people from slavery and to a new land. (Well, a land that’s new to them, anyway. It’s already occupied by of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. I can’t help but wonder, How does this “deliverance” differ from modern colonization efforts that have time and again damaged and destroyed indigenous people? God and Moses—or, at least, the authors of the text—don’t give any consideration to this.) God will do this work of deliverance through Moses.

Moses’s first thought is of himself and his own shortfalls. “Who am I to do this?” God’s response is that it’s not about Moses’s power but about God’s: “I will be with you.”

This leaves Moses unsatisfied. Look, the elders are never going to believe me. When I say, ‘The God of our ancestors has told me this,’ they’ll make me into a laughingstock.”

Eventually, God is persuaded to give Moses some supernatural powers that will win the people over. But before asking for that kind of proof, Moses asks a different question, “I’m going to need to tell them your name. But I don’t know it.”

Why this question? I’ve often assumed it simply to be a demonstration of Moses’s pattern of stalling. Moses is known to be a person who feels inadequate to the task. But there may be something else behind what Moses is asking.

What’s in a name?

I am reminded of the second creation story when the first human being names the other creatures (Genesis 2:18‒20). The naming happens while God is attempting to create a partner for the human. So, naming is one way of defining a relationship. If we call a lion a lion, we label the creature and begin to define it. I can teach a toddler about a lion by attaching the word “lion” to the sound “Roar!” The child begins to associate the two, learning about certain characteristics distinctive of lions. Roaring lions and bleating lambs may both be beautiful. We may be drawn to both. But the lion is a predator. And we should take the greatest care not to run into one.

God may not be a predator. But God does hold the power in the relationship with creation. So, at the very least, Moses wants to learn God’s name so he can know what kind of God he is dealing with. And right now, Moses needs to know that this fearsome God is a God he and his people can trust to deliver them.

But God’s hard to get. God doesn’t give Moses the kind of name Moses can easily understand.

“I am who I am.” This is sometimes interpreted as “I will be what I will be.” What does that mean? It’s a matter of scholarly debate.

Here is my guess. God is explaining the relationship between God and the people. Moses should not expect to have control over God. God is too big for that. Moreover, trusting God does not require creation to have control over God. Instead, God wants Moses and the Israelites to trust a God who says, “I am the God your people have always known. I am the God who causes things to be. I am the God who sees what happens to you. And I am delivering you.”

God is still a mystery. But God is the kind of mystery that is moved by unjust suffering and responds in ways and times over which we have no control and cannot anticipate with precision. This may be why I lack understanding about why God plans to dispossess the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites of
their land.

Moses didn’t see the full picture when it comes to God. He did not foresee that a Canaanite woman would change the heart of Jesus, showing him that he came to deliver not only his own people but also outsiders (Matthew 15:21‒28). So, who knows what I am missing today?