Christian theologians insist that God is immanent as well as transcendent, always available, always accessible to even the most innocent among us. One does not have to be a scholar or a theologian to address God. Many Jewish theologians argue that God is only immanent, that is, insofar as what counts in God, insofar as He can be known. God can only be found in the mundane, in the material world, in the conflicts of daily life, in movies and in poems that try to find spirituality within the material world. If, and that is a very big if, if God is transcendent, He can only be approached as an immanent experience. There is no transcendent Being, at the very least, one that can be known, that is other than immanent or in which the immanent is subsumed as simply one characteristic of the divine.
The great Jewish Kabbalist, Rabbi Elijah Benamozegh (Israel and Humanity, 1865: 1995), insisted that Hebraism was the common proto-religion of all of humanity. Judaism is its guardian and witness and, as such, has a duty to provide a light onto the world. God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light. And God said that it was good. That ray of light did not and could not have revealed divine law as something immutable, rational and universal. The law the Israelites offered to the world was not such a transcendent law. (See Christine Hayes, What’s Divine About Divine Law: Early Perspectives, 2015) It was entirely particularistic and revealed its application to all humanity over time. The application was universal, not the character. And so it is with God Himself.
There is a problem, however, even with an immanent God. If God is always present, always accessible, why did God forget His people? Why did they have to suffer so much and shry so loudly? And if God were so open, so accessible, why was Moses’ first reaction on hearing the introduction fear? Why did Moses hide his face? Why did he not want God to see him? (3:6)
There does not seem to be any suggestion at this point that Moses is open to God’s embrace. In fact, Moses is wary. Moses might be in awe of God’s power, of El Shaddai, but Moses would have to look into himself to discover YHWH. God’s voice might come from the burning bush, but Moses had to learn to listen to YHWH whose voice came from his own soul.
God answers simply. He explains His own mission and why He was there – to rescue the Israelites from their oppression and to take them to Canaan. Moses will be the rescuer. For the cry of the Israelites had finally reached Him and He personally witnessed Egyptian oppression. Then God told Moses that He needed him, that God needed Moses. Moses had to go, see Pharaoh and ask, “Let my people go.” And when Pharaoh refuses, God implies, then it shall be your mission to free the people.
Moses protests. Why me? God answers, “Not you alone. I will be with you.” And when you succeed, you and the Israelites will resume your worship of Me. Moses queries, “But how will the Israelites know that I have the backing of God, of their God? Tell me your name.” God responds. In Exodus 3:14, God’s answer in Hebrew is, “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh.” This has been commonly rendered, certainly in the King James translation, as I am that I am. Robert Alter in his translation records the phrase simply as I am, I am. Gunther Plaut in the body of the text skirts the issue and simply transliterates the Hebrew. “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh.” Orally, Ehyeh certainly resonates with the sound of YHWH. It was among the Midianites that Moses experienced YHWH.
Jacob was renamed Israel. But his twin, Esau, became the father of the Edomites who went to live among the Midianites, the descendants of Abraham and his wife, Keturah, and the tribes that developed into the Midianite league of nations. Recall that Joseph was saved by being sold to the Midianites and they, in turn, sold him to the Ishmaelites who took him to Egypt and re-sold him once again. The Midianites haunt the Torah as does the ineffable, YHWH. Moses had to go and live among the Midianites to discover YHWH.
YHWH historically comes from the hills of Edom and the Midianite area to the south in the Arabian Peninsula.
|Song of Moses (Deuteronomy 33:2)||יְ-הוָה מִסִּינַי בָּא וְזָרַח מִשֵּׂעִיר לָמוֹ הוֹפִיעַ מֵהַר פָּארָן וְאָתָה מֵרִבְבֹת קֹדֶשׁ…||YHWH came from Sinai; He shone upon them from Seir; He appeared from Mount Paran, and approached from Ribeboth-kodesh…|
|Song of Deborah (Judges 5:4)||יְ-הוָה בְּצֵאתְךָ מִשֵּׂעִיר בְּצַעְדְּךָ מִשְּׂדֵה אֱדוֹם אֶרֶץ רָעָשָׁה…||YHWH, when You came forth from Seir, advanced from the country of Edom, the earth trembled…|
|Song of Habakkuk (Habakkuk 3:3)||אֱלוֹהַ מִתֵּימָן יָבוֹא וְקָדוֹשׁ מֵהַר פָּארָן סֶלָה…||God is coming from Teman, the Holy One from Mount Paran. Selah….|
YHWH originates from Seir adjacent to the nomad land of Yehwa, yhw(w) () which was within the Midianite league. (See Andrew LeMaire, The Birth of Monotheism: The Rise and Disappearance of Yahwism) A historical grammatical answer concerning God’s self-revelation is also necessary to reinforce the archeological and historical evidence. According to the scholar, Professor Israel Knohl, “Proto-Arabic does not have the root ה.ו.י for the word ’to be’.” However, historical archeology and grammatical analysis are insufficient. One has to empathetically re-enact Moses’ encounter with God. What is stated is not simply a phrase, but a record of an experience. The translation must reflect that experience. And the experience is clearly NOT an answer one would normally offer a philosopher or a theologian. It is a, it is the, spiritual experience par excellence. God is a living personal presence.
Let’s step back a pace before we try metaphorically to stand on the same holy ground as Moses. Why does Moses ask God to tell him his name? For after he expressed doubts about his own unsuitability for the mission, Moses says, “When I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” (3:13)
On one level, this a perfectly natural question. If you are acting as an intermediary and carrying a message to a party, surely they will ask who sent you? Not, in this case, who wants to know, but with whose authority are you here to make such a demand that we take a stand before Pharaoh? Why would the answer not suffice that the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob, the God of your forefathers sent me? Because the Hebrews were slaves, mentally as well as physically, spiritually as well as sociologically. Because their God had forgotten them. Because their God not only had not fulfilled the covenant with his people, but even seemed to have forgotten that He ever made a covenant. Their distress had made them not just sceptics but cynics.
What is surprising is that Moses did not share in the same cynicism. He was not even sceptical that God was talking to him, only sceptical about his suitability for accepting the assignment. Perhaps it was because he was not raised as a slave. In any case, when God explained first that He was the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob who addressed him, Moses hid his face. Presumably he did not duck. He held his palm over his eyes as is still done by parishioners who recite the Shema. Shema Yisrael, YHVH Eloheinu, YHVH Echad. Muslims hold both hands before their face when they pray. Why cover your eyes when insisting that God is one? It is because it is not a time to look outward. There we might see the power of God. But only looking inward will we discover God as YHWH
Why? Was Moses afraid to look at God? (3:6) But how could he look at God if God was not visible? The point of hiding his face behind his hand or hands was not because he did not want to see God. Nor was it simply to focus on looking inward. It was because Moses did not want to be seen by God, seen to be staring and trying to see God. Moses was not in awe of God. He was not afraid of God. He was afraid that he would be so curious about God that he would try to see Him physically. It was an act of self-protection. At the same time, it was another indicator of why Moses thought he personally was unsuitable. He too feared that he wanted to see God in order to have proof when the only real challenge was to listen and to feel God within himself.
But if Moses could not see God, if he knew his fellow Israelites would want to see God if he was to be believed, the least he needed was God’s name. And God as simply the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob would not be sufficient. For that God had forgotten the Israelites, had forgotten His covenant with them and seemed blind to their suffering. God had to be more. What more was He?
One can explain the introduction of the new name through source criticism, that the new name comes from a different literary source. Robert Alter in his The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary does illustrate that this whole section is a combination of Elohist and Yahwist sources. But, as Alter knows, that answer simply begs the question, for the answer can only be left there if one presumes that the redactor was offering a scissors and paste mishmash with no effort to put forth a coherent narrative. If the latter was the case, the question remains. Why the new name at this point in the text?
The name YHWH is used in Genesis 4:26 when Seth, the third brother of Cain and Abel, began to invoke the Lord by name. But this is different in Exodus. This is the first instance of God’s self-revelation. Tell them that this message is from Professor Howard Adelman is very different than saying the message is from Howard. The former uses status to back up one’s authority. In the second, God stands naked as a source. He is a personage in his own right without the need for attributes or a positioning in the hierarchy of authority.
Who is the God that sent me? Moses answers with an enigma. This is a God who is both far more powerful and also far more personal. But most of all, it is a God which cannot be circumscribed by attributes, for God is a God of action. God will be what He does and will not be defined as if He were something that simply is. “I shall be whom I shall be.” Or, “I will be Who I will be,” Or, “I shall be shall be.” I am a promise, not a fixed point let alone the record of My past deeds. I am a God who reveals Himself over time and through history.
“I am” offers a fixed identity, a set of essences for philosophers and theologians. “In God we trust,” means that you trust the future, that you trust that the future belongs to God and that God will reveal himself in that future. I, God, offer you a name that does not define me. And if you believe that the record of my deeds will tell you who I am, think again. I shall be whom I shall be. I will always remain the One who reveals himself in actions. Through deeds. In the future. Only when I finish will you understand my intent, as someone who shall be he who shall be, that is always a coming, a becoming and not a being. This is not simply an evasive answer but a profound one. For based on any record of the past, why would anyone trust God?
God is past. God is presence. God is promise. God is past because he is missing in action. He has disappeared. He has forgotten us. He has not broken any covenant, just misplaced it. God is presence. If you listen, you can hear. But most of all, as the text offers in the Hebrew imperfect of the grammar, the reference is always to the future.
Read the story of the past. Study it. That story is not simply a record of who I was and what I did. It is a story of My presence, the presentation of Myself to the future. And since I forget My promises, if you trust, then you will trust that I will remember and you will trust that you will learn who I am over time. You will trust in revelation. You will not look primarily outward but into your own soul.