Readings for this Sunday can be found at this link: http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=157. The text for preaching this week will be the reading from Exodus 3:1-15, which tells of the encounter of Moses with God in the desert of Midian.
As one commentary rightly points out, this is one of the “Top Ten” biblical stories known by most people who have some Christian or Jewish background. For many there is even a reinforcing visual memory from the night-time scene in Cecil B. de Mille’s classic The Ten Commandments (if you want to see it, try this link from movieclips.com:http://cli.ps/ZMLYH). And for our younger generations, they now have their own visual cue from Dreamwork Studio’s Prince of Egypt. (YouTube clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6VTH5SWDFq4).
Often familiarity with a story dulls our attention to its oddness. The writers of the book of Exodus were trying to convey something of the awesome mystery of the way God chooses to come alongside humanity in intimate encounters like this one, while still trying to honour the ‘otherness’ or mystery of God.
God comes close yet still remains mysterious. This is perhaps how many of us experience God; we may have a moment we can recall, of sensing the closeness and realness of God. For some this can be in a moment of awe at creation’s splendour, for others it is in the sense of a personal disaster averted, or the life-giving touch of another human with a sense of divine love or power that’s so radically different than everyday interaction. In this way it’s likely that many of us can relate to this particular story – we know God comes close, but still remains mysterious.
Another way this story seeks to convey God’s otherness is in the way God answers Moses’ very useful question in verse 13: “If they ask me what your name is, what shall I tell them?” The NRSV uses upper case letters to signify that God’s answer is a name. “I AM WHO I AM.” If this looks more like a sentence than I name, you’re right. God’s Name is essentially a verb. (The qal imperfect first personal singular form of hayah, for those that want to know!)
It’s wise at this point to turn to Jewish scholars to get a handle on what this might mean, but there answers may prove less than satisfactory if you want to reduce God’s name to something logically or scientifically comprehensible. As one such scholar sums up three thousand years of scholarship: ” The name of God is by its very construction beyond all attributes of language, and beyond all possibilty of defnition; it connotes simply that God is the source of all verbs, all actions, all being.”
An ancient Rabbinic commentary on this verse of Scripture writes:
“The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to those, You want to know my name? I am called according to my actions.” (Exodus Rabbah 3:6).
Within Jewish, and some parts of Christian tradition, this utter mystery of the God who is called by a Verb – “I am who I am” (or “I will be who I will be”) was conveyed in print and spoken words in a distinctive way; God’s Name (see above) was no longer spoken aloud, and in some Hebrew Bibles was not even written out in full, or contained a deliberate error, so that people would not read it aloud by mistake. If a reader saw these four Hebrew consonants, they would say instead “Adonai” = the Lord. Or would simply say “HaShem” = the Name.
When Christian scholars in the Sixteenth century learned Hebrew, they tried to create a way of saying “The Name” that fit with the four consonants, first needing to identify letters in our own alphabet that matched the Hebrew: JHVH or YHWH. If you add vowel sounds, the result that some came up with was JeHoVah – we still sing this word in the famous hymn “Guide me O thou Great Jehovah”, or “YaHWeh” – the pronunciation you’ll find in the Roman Catholic New Jerusalem Bible, and in many contemporary sacred songs written in the 1970s and 1980s.
In contemporary Jewish tradition you will still see the reverence with which the Name of God is treated, portrayed in written texts, as “G-d” (not writing out the name in full), or in written and spoken English as simply “The Name” – e.g. some of the wonderful sacred poetry written by Leonard Cohen in Book of Mercy.