What's in a Name (part IV): Elohim to YAHWEH
Setting the Context
Today’s passage is somewhat of a mystery for us. Countess volumes of books have been written about this event at the burning bush. There are some tough questions we need to ask in order for this encounter between God and Moses to come alive and make sense. We need to get to the bottom of what this discussion between God and Moses is all about in order for this passage to show a clear meaning for how it applies to us today as well.
Here are the questions that stand before us for this morning. Why does Moses need to know God’s name? What is God’s name? What does that name mean? That’s the way we’re going to proceed this morning is to work around those three questions. So here we go.
Why does Moses need to know God’s name?
Before we get into the details of what this name of God is all about it will be extremely helpful for us to set up the context by reminding ourselves why Moses needs to know this. We should not forget that Moses is not the leader of Israel yet here. Moses was raised in the palace of the Pharaoh. Moses probably knew the gods and religious forms of the Egyptians, but it was not very likely at all that Moses knew the religion of the Hebrews with any kind of great detail. It is completely speculative if he would have remembered anything from the first year of his life that he lived with his biological mother among the Jewish people. It seems more likely that anything Moses knew about the God of the Israelites he learned by association later. For all practical purposes we cannot forget that Moses grew up as an Egyptian.
We also have to remember in the story that the whole reason Moses is away from Egypt now is because he is a fugitive—wanted for murder. Moses left because nobody wanted him around. The Jewish people did not want him; the Egyptians were trying to kill him. And now this God shows up in a burning bush and Moses needs to ask, “Who are you again?”
You see what is underneath the need for Moses to know the name of God. His objection to doing what God asks him to do is totally about credibility. Moses thinks he has none. Moses thinks to himself, “There’s not a single reason in the world why anybody back in Egypt is going to listen to me or believe me.” Moses is asking, “Who are you that people are going to listen, because they sure aren’t going to listen to me?” Moses understands that his name does not carry any weight; his name holds no credibility. So he asks God what his name is as a way of finding credibility. Does this God have the authority to take on the powers of Egypt? Who is this God that he can make a challenge like this?
Remember what we have said about names in this series of sermons. Remember that names are more than what people call you. Names hold meaning. In fact the Hebrew word for name can also mean reputation or character or remembrance. When we read in our English Bibles that Moses asks God, “What is your name?” We could also translate the question to read, “What is your reputation? What is your character?” Moses has no experience with the God of the Hebrews up to this point in the story. He knows very little about the Hebrew God. He wants to know of God’s authority and character.
Why Do We Need to Know God’s Name?
In short, Moses knows that he is completely inadequate for the task. He knows that this assignment from God is not something that he can deliver on his own. And how often is that the case for us as well? How often do we find ourselves in situations where we wonder how we can ever do the right thing and still come out okay? Or how often don’t we find ourselves facing enormous hurdles between us and the path God has set before us. And in those moments how many times have we looked at those obstacles and said—like Moses—no thanks, God. Find somebody else, God. Don’t send me to do this, God. This is more than I can handle, God. And we turn away because we don’t think we have the strength to face the challenge. We doubt God’s ability to take care of us when we cannot. We forget God’s name. We forget God’s reputation. We forget God’s character. We need to know and remember God’s name too.
What Is the Name?
So what is this name? What is it about God’s name that is so full of character and hope that it convinces Moses to follow God’s command? Let’s work together through a little bit of explanation about God’s name itself. We should start by noting that the Bible has a generic name for God. That’s the Hebrew word Elohim. Elohim means god in a general sense. When the Bible talks about the other gods of the Egyptians and the gods of the Canaanites it uses the word Elohim to talk about those gods. And the God of the Bible is referred to by that generic name as well—but often with additions. For example God almighty is El Shaddai. And God Most High is El Elyon. You see, Elohim was simply a way to name any supernatural spiritual power. It was not a personal name. And this was a name the Israelites used to refer to God—but not in a personal way.
So here in our passage for today God reveals his personal name to Moses. Now the next thing we should note about this name is that—while it is new to Moses and to us the readers—it is not a new name to the Israelites. God is not revealing a name for himself that has never been revealed before to anyone before Moses hears it at the burning bush. Because the whole reason Moses asks God for his name is so that he can convince the elders of Israel that it is in fact the one true God of the Hebrews that sent him to them. So the elders of Israel must already know the personal name of God. And besides that, God reveals his personal name in the same sentence as saying that he is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Hebrew construction of this passage strongly suggests that the patriarchs knew the personal name of God as well. So now Moses—and us too—know that personal name of God.
The name is Yahweh. Our English Bibles translate it as “I AM” which is the best possible guess because there simply is no English word that captures all the Yahweh means. If you remember an old King James Bible, the King James translators expressed Yahweh—the name of God—as Jehovah. In our NIV Bible translations we can always tell where the original Hebrew refers to God as Yahweh because our Bibles translate it as LORD in all capital letters. You see that there in verse 15 where God says, “the LORD, the God of your fathers…” and so on.
What does this name mean? Why would God reveal himself as Yahweh—I AM? Well, Yahweh expresses being. More than that Yahweh expresses an actively present being. Yahweh is not just a God who is there; Yahweh is actively there. And he continues to be there. Now work hard with me here. I’m going to take you back to middle school grammar for a minute. As a part of speech, Yahweh is a verb. You remember that verbs are words that express action. And Yahweh is a form of the verb “to be.” Keep working with me here. In English we express verbs in past tense, present tense, and future tense. We say yesterday the boy ran to the store—past tense. Today look at the boy run to the store—present tense. Tomorrow the boy will run to the store—future tense. Then we have this tense in English that expresses ongoing action, or continuing action that will keep going. That’s called an imperfect verb. We usually express that in English by putting an “ing” on the end of a verb. Like this: the boy is running to the store. The action is ongoing. It’s still happening. It’s this imperfect verb that is closest to expressing what Yahweh means. it’s “I AM” but with an “ing” on it. We don’t have an English word for that. To say God’s name is “I AM-ing” does not make sense. But that’s what it is; that’s what Yahweh means. Yahweh is a name of being that is continual. Yahweh is a name of being that is ongoing. Yahweh is a name of being that is active. This is God’s name.
What Does the Name Mean?
Alright, enough of the grammar lesson. You can relax again. Let’s talk about what the name means. You see, this is a name for God that blows apart any kind of box we try to put in place around God. This is a name for God that shatters any limitations we put upon our God. this is a name for God that communicates his complete sovereignty—his absolute control—over all of human history.
So Moses could have asked God, were you there when I was forced to flee Egypt and leave my home behind? And God would not say, “I was;” he would say, “I am.” Even now God holds all that has happened in his hand as part of his providential plan. Or Moses could say to God, will you be there when I go back to Egypt and confront the Pharaoh? And God would not say, “I will;” he would say, “I am.” He’s already there. God already has everything under control.
Our world is bound by time. You and I cannot go back into the past and change anything that has happened. You and I live with regrets over things that we have done poorly, or regrets over things that we failed to do. We cannot change what has happened because it is behind us now; it’s in the past. But that’s not God. God is bigger than that. Our God is not bound or limited by time. He created it. He is not the God of “I was;” he is the God of “I am.” You and I also live as those who do not know what tomorrow will bring. How often don’t we spend time needlessly worrying about what the future will bring? How much of our energy and resources do we waste trying to manipulate events that are beyond our control? There are so many people who live in fear because they do not know what tomorrow holds. But that’s not our God. God is bigger than that. He is not the God of, “I will be;” he is the God of “I am.” God is already there. God already has tomorrow under control.
In the old Hebrew Bible the name Yahweh had no vowels. It was just the four consonant letters YHWH. There is an old Jewish folktale that talks about this. The old story goes that the name of God was something that you could not pronounce, because how you pronounce a word that is spelled YHWH. It just comes out as a sort of breath. And so the story goes that to breathe is to speak the name of God. Every breath we take in and let go speaks the name of God. And in this sense, to live is to speak the name of God, and any person who does not speak the name of God does not live. When a baby is born, what’s the first thing that baby does? speaks the name of God. And when we die; we stop breathing. To die is to stop speaking the name of God. And every second, every moment of all the years that we have, both night and day, throughout our entire lives we never stop speaking the name of God. Because to say his name is to have life.
Please understand, that story does not come from the Bible. It’s a folktale. And sure enough we have to admit there are plenty of theological errors in a story like that. So don’t take it too seriously. But it does illustrate nicely what we have been talking about this morning. God’s name assures us of his continual, ongoing, active presence.
When God’s son, Jesus, came to live on the earth as one of us, it was an expression of God’s name. When the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost and God’s spirit filled all those who believed and followed the way of Christ, it was an expression of God’s name. And we still find expressions of God’s name yet today.
Embracing the Name of God
What should we come away with, then, this morning? We have talked about things having to do with God that are beyond our ability to comprehend. Maybe you are sitting there thinking that this is all a bit overwhelming. Maybe you don’t understand how it is that God can be in all places at once and in all time at once. Maybe it’s confused you here and you don’t get it. Good. It’s not my intention to explain to you the metaphysics of God. It’s not my intention that you walk out of here this morning understanding these deep complex mysteries.
But what should this leave us with then? We should be left with a sense of awe. Whenever we see the name of God; whenever we are reminded of God’s name, you and I should immediately be overwhelmed with a majesty, a greatness, an awesomeness in our God that can only lead us to worship and adore him. The name of God ought to remind each of us God is God, and we are not. God’s name should always remind us that any attempt we make to confine who God is or to put limits on God’s abilities fall far short. Whenever we hear the name of God we should remember that he is the his continual, ongoing, active presence is forever faithful to be with us.