God reveals his name (Exodus 3.10-15) [sermon 10-1-2017]

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September 28, 2017 by jmar198013

Manuscript of my sermon for October 1st, 2017. From our ongoing series, “Word and Presence: God among us in the Old Testament.”

The texts that will be read aloud during worship are: Exodus 2.23-25; 3.10-15; and 4.10-17. But the sermon focuses on Exod. 3.10-15, where God reveals the Divine Name, YHWH, to Moses.

An audio link is embedded below for those who’d like to listen.


Names matter to God

Last week, we met Abraham’s grandson Jacob. One of the things we can take from the Jacob story is that names matter in the Bible. Names matter especially to God. Jacob’s name meant the Heel-Grabber. Because when he was born, he came out holding his twin brother Esau’s heel. This basically set the tone for Jacob’s life. In the womb, Jacob wrestled with his brother. And when he grew up, he struggled with his brother, all of his family, and the circumstances of his life. Jacob was born grabbing his brother’s heel. And when he grew up, Jacob became a trickster and a conman—that’s how he survived. He was always pulling your leg, or pulling your legs out from under you. Names were important in the world of the Bible, because your name told people who you were.

Later on in Jacob’s story, God decided it was time for Jacob to get a new name. In Gen. 32.22ff, God confronted Jacob in the middle of the night, as a man who appeared to him and asked: Wanna rassle? Jacob had been wrestling from the womb, so of course he accepted the challenge. He wrestled God all night and God didn’t get the upper hand—even when he hit Jacob with a low blow. As the sun rose, God blessed Jacob with a new name, Israel. Israel means, God-Wrestler. God said he was naming Jacob this because you struggled with God and with men and won.” After getting his new name, Israel asked God what his name was. But God just said: Why do you ask for my name?, and left Jacob there. Jacob already knew God’s name: YHWH. Our Bibles translate it as the Lord, in all caps. 

Between last week’s lesson and this week’s, Jacob’s descendants, the Israelites, have wrestled God and each other into Egypt. There, they’ve become brutally enslaved by the Pharaoh—the emperor of Egypt. What’s worse, the Pharaoh was slaughtering their baby boys. And God hasn’t spoken to them in over 400 years.

But God saved one of those baby boys, Moses. And in today’s story, God speaks again. To Moses through a burning bush out in the Sinai desert. God tells Moses: I’m sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.

Moses knows the people hadn’t heard a peep out of God since they came to Egypt. So he asks God, Who am I supposed to say sent me?

And this is what God told Moses to tell them: “I Am Who I Am. So say to the Israelites, ‘I Am has sent me to you.’”

I’m sure Moses thought to himself: Sure thing, God. That really clears things up quite a bit.

Was YHWH a new name? Yes and no

So God clarified for Moses:

“Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, and Jacob’s God, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever; this is how all generations will remember me.”

The Lord is YHWH in Hebrew. It’s related to the verb that means to be, or in this case, I Am. And God told Moses that’s the name he wanted the Israelites to know him by, and call him by.

Before we explore the name God gave Israel to call him, I want to point out something that’s confusing, but very important. A few chapters after our reading today, God says this to Moses: I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty—or, El Shaddai, but I didn’t reveal myself to them by my name “The Lord”—or YHWH (Exod. 6.3). That’s kind of weird, because Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob called God YHWH, or the Lord, all the time. And God also referred to himself by this name when he spoke to them. For example, in last week’s story, when God appeared to Jacob on top of the stairway to heaven, he said: I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. And Jacob responded by saying: The Lord is definitely in this place, but I didn’t know it (Gen. 28.13, 16). So how could God tell Moses he hadn’t revealed himself as the Lord, or YHWH, before now?

Some biblical scholars think the divine name was just retconned into the older stories. For those of you not hip to the new jive, retcon is short for retroactive continuity. It basically means you go back and correct the older story in light of new information. In other words, some scholars say: The Israelites called God YHWH (or the Lord); so they just called him YHWH even in the stories before he officially revealed the name to Moses.

That’s a possible explanation. But if it’s true, it kind of makes the reveal in our story today underwhelming. There’s a better explanation that makes more sense and causes less problems. It goes like this. We saw before that in the ancient world, a name wasn’t just a name. A name told people who you are. So Jacob’s name meant the heel-grabber. In other words, Jacob is someone who’s sneaky and fights dirty. But then God changed his name to Israel, which means, God-wrestler. So now he can be known in a new way, as someone who clings tightly to God as he struggles through life. The new name reveals something new about Jacob’s character.

Okay, so once you understand that aspect of names in the Ancient Near East, you can hear what God was saying differently. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob knew he was called YHWH, but they didn’t understand the significance of that name. So they called him names like El Shaddai. El Shaddai is often translated, God Almighty, and probably meant something like God of the Mountains; or even, God of the Breasts. Okay, that’s kind of weird. But probably what they meant by that is God was for them a strong place to take refuge. Like the mountains. Or God was a source of safety and comfort, like when a baby nurses at her mother’s breast. We’ll talk a little more about some of the names the ancients called God shortly. But the point God is making is: I let your ancestors call me El Shaddai because they couldn’t know what my name YHWH really means. But now I’m going to show the people who I am by saving them with mighty acts of power. And they will know why I am called YHWH. [1]

Aliases and nicknames: other ways of speaking about God

It’s not like every other name God was called in the Bible; or that people called him before he fully revealed himself as the Lord, or YHWH, was wrong. They just didn’t fully reveal who God is. The other ways people spoke to God or about God were still true; God just wanted them to know him by an even truer name.

In fact, all those other names people called God—the nicknames and aliases God answered to—are all gathered up into the name YHWH, and given deeper meanings.

One of the primary names they called God was El. That’s kind of a generic name for deity, but it meant the source of all life, the father of everyone and everything. Most of the other names they called God were El, plus some other descriptive word. 

In addition to El Shaddai, which we just heard about, the people also called God El Elyon. That name basically means, God Most High. In other words, the God we meet in the Bible is far above anyone or anything else that people could worship or call “a god.” The nations all had their gods, but when Israel called God El Elyon, they were saying, Yes, but our God is bigger, better, and more powerful than all those other gods put together.

Another name they called God was El Olam, which meant, Everlasting God. They didn’t just mean that God goes on forever. They meant that God is everywhere all the time. And that God’s faithful love will never end.

There’s another fascinating name God was called. And it wasn’t even an Israelite who named him this. It was Hagar—Sarah’s Egyptian slave who had Ishmael with Abraham—who named God El Roi.  But it stuck, and God answered to it. One day, Sarah was bullying Hagar, and Hagar got so sad she ran away. But God found her and spoke tenderly to her, and blessed her. So she called God El Roi—or, the God who sees (Gen. 16.13). Because she had seen God, and lived to tell about it. But also because God had seen her, in her hurt and rage and shame, and loved her through it. What a beautiful name for God.

Those names all honored God. They all said something true about God. And God had no problem being known by them, and answering to them.

But God wanted his people to know him as the Lord, or YHWH. He wanted Israel to meet and experience him as I Am. God didn’t mean it as a name to replace all those other names. Throughout the Old Testament, people continued to call God those names, and even came up with some new ones. But in Lord, YHWH, I Am, God gave them a name that would sum up and impart a fuller meaning to every other name they had called him. [2]

YHWH: What’s in a name

So here’s what God is basically saying to Moses from out of that burning bush: I’m sending you to Egypt to help me liberate Israel. And when I have saved them by my mighty acts, they will learn to call me by a new name: the Lord; I Am; YHWH.

Whenever you see LORD in your Bibles, in all caps—that’s the Name. YHWH. The name God wanted Israel to know him by. It’s basically a short form of what God told Moses to tell the people about God: I Am Who I Am. Probably a better way of putting what God was trying to get across is: I will be who I am. In other words: I will be true to myself; I will be faithful to you; I won’t be fickle—I will always be exactly who I am and have always been.

I love how Terence Fretheim has explained the name YHWH:

“I will be God for you.” The force of the name is not simply that God is or that God is present, but that God will be faithfully God for them in the history that is to follow … This means there are stakes in this for God; God has to live up to the name given. [3]

Okay, so it’s encouraging to know that God isn’t arbitrary or capricious, and that God is always faithful. As the old spiritual says: God don’t never change. But that still begs the question: God will be who he is … But what kind of God is he? Who is this God who will always be who he is?

The answer to that question comes from God’s own mouth, in Exod. 34.6-7. God tells Moses exactly who the people can expect God to be:

YHWH! YHWH!

a God who is compassionate and merciful,

        very patient,

        full of great loyalty and faithfulness,

        showing great loyalty to a thousand generations,

        forgiving every kind of sin and rebellion,

        yet by no means clearing the guilty …

Here’s what God is saying: I’m a God whose love never ends; a patient, trustworthy, and forgiving God. But I will not be taken advantage of. Yet, even when I must act in judgment over your sins, I won’t reject you forever. Judgment won’t have the final word. As the psalmist later put it: His anger lasts for only a second, but his favor lasts a lifetime (Ps. 30.5).

So, whenever you see LORD, in all caps, in your Bibles—I hope you remember to read all that into it. Within that name is God’s promise: I am your God; I am here for you; I have always been with you; and always will be here for you. I’m more patient than you can ever imagine. More forgiving than you will ever comprehend. And my love for you knows no end.

All that is in the name, YHWH. The Lord. I Am. A God who is compassionate and merciful, very patient, full of great loyalty and faithfulness. That’s who God is, who God has always been, and who God will always be.

God lives up to his name … all of them

As the biblical story continues, God keeps living up to this name, YHWH. But he fully lives up to and into his name through Jesus Christ. As we read in the first chapter of John’s Gospel:

In the beginning was the Word

    and the Word was with God

    and the Word was God …

The Word became flesh

    and made his home among us.

We have seen his glory,

    glory like that of a father’s only son,

        full of grace and truth …

No one has ever seen God.

    God the only Son,

        who is at the Father’s side,

        has made God known.

Because it’s in Jesus that God fully shows us who he is in the flesh. In Jesus, humans met face-to-face the God whose name, YHWH, promises us that he is compassionate and merciful, very patient, full of great loyalty and faithfulness. As Jesus heals broken bodies and minds and lives, while he heals the broken relationships between people, and the broken relationship between humans and their God. We see Jesus, and we hear God whisper: I will be who I am. This is who I’ve always been, and always will be.

In Jesus, we see dwelling among us the God who loves us ferociously. Enough to suffer with us and because of us. A God who will die before he lets us go.

And so it’s in Jesus that all the names of God are fulfilled. He shows us that El—the God who is the source of all life—has come to redeem what he created. In his loving embrace, people felt the presence of El Shaddai—the God who nurtures and nourishes us, like baby at her mother’s breast. As his hands healed disease, and his voice drove back demons and even death, people experienced El Elyon—the Most High God, more powerful than sin and suffering and death. As he set his eyes on outcasts and sinners and saw them without judging them, people met El Roi—the God who is seen; who sees us; and sees to our needs. And because he rose from the dead, we know he is El Olam—the Everlasting God, who is with us forever. For Jesus himself promised: Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age (Matt. 28.20).

The promise of God’s name, YHWH, is fulfilled in Jesus. Through Jesus, God has spoken. Through Jesus, God is with us.

Amen.


[1] For further discussion, see Nahum Sarna, Exodus, The JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia, New York, Jerusalem: Jewish Publication Society, 1991), 31; Peter Enns, Exodus, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 173-75; Terence Fretheim, “Yahweh,” in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, ed. Willem A. VanGemeren, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 4:1295; idem., Exodus, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Preaching and Teaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1991), 91-92.

[2] This movement of the sermon was informed by Terence Fretheim, “El,” in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, 1:400-01.

[3] New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, 4:1296.

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