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Exodus 3:1-15

3:1Now Moses was pasturing the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian; and he led the flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2The angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire from the midst of a bush; and he looked, and behold, the bush was burning with fire, yet the bush was not consumed. 3So Moses said, “I must turn aside now and see this marvelous sight, why the bush is not burned up.”

4When the Lord saw that he turned aside to look, God called to him from the midst of the bush and said, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” 5Then He said, “Do not come near here; remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”

6He said also, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Then Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

7The Lord said, “I have surely seen the affliction of My people who are in Egypt, and have given heed to their cry because of their taskmasters, for I am aware of their sufferings. 8So I have come down to deliver them from the power of the Egyptians, and to bring them up from that land to a good and spacious land, to a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanite and the Hittite and the Amorite and the Perizzite and the Hivite and the Jebusite.

9“Now, behold, the cry of the sons of Israel has come to Me; furthermore, I have seen the oppression with which the Egyptians are oppressing them. 10Therefore, come now, and I will send you to Pharaoh, so that you may bring My people, the sons of Israel, out of Egypt.”

We have some evidence, both within scripture, and from archeological digs, that the Israelites, along with the other semitic people groups who moved into Goshen, have committed apostasy, and syncretism; incorporating the worship of their ancestral God into the worship of other semitic deities, and syncretizing that worship and those gods with the gods of the Egyptians, and the worship practices associated with them. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, though the Israelites might remember, and even still worship Him, is shrouded by centuries of bad theology and forgetfulness.

God says, “I’m the guy”, and the Israelites recognize the epithet, but this is the beginning of a multi-century long, arduous, and fraught process of pulling Israel out of the pagan worship practices and beliefs they have become entrenched in. We know from both the biblical account, and the archeological record that the journey to monotheism was not fully realized until 300-500 years after the time of Moses, and even then, only within a small subset of Israel.

That said, I want you to realize that God’s first point of contact, after centuries of moral backsliding by the Israelites, was an act of mercy and salvation. God prioritizes saving Israel from suffering over and above demanding their loyalty, fixing their bad theology, or correcting their sinful behavior. I note this to make the point that, when we say we want to be more like God, we should take his priorities into consideration.

Now, as to the promise of a spacious land flowing with milk and honey; Canaan was never described that way to the patriarchs, and in fact, the patriarchs lived through multiple famines in the land of Canaan. Milk insinuates lush pasturelands capable of supporting an abundance of livestock above what is strictly needed for meat; and would also mean ample livestock for the production of textiles, and the availability of arable land for farming and viticulture. And as far as ‘honey’ goes, usually in the Old Testament, when the word ‘honey’ is used, it’s referring most commonly to a syrup made from dates called dibs, not bee honey; and it signifies that the land is filled with an abundance of mature date palm orchards, suggesting the presence of mature orchards of other kinds as well.

All in all, the climate of Canaan is apparently in the process of becoming more stable, and less arid than it had been in the time of the patriarchs. And if we understand these events to be taking place at the beginning of the bronze age collapse, then this accurately reflects the changing climate that will result from the massive depopulation and rewilding of much of the Near East during this time period due to the nearly simultaneous implosion of imperial powers in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Anatolia, and the Aegean Sea.

Anthropogenic climate change has massively accelerated since the industrial revolution, making its existence and causation more clearly distinguishable for us now, but for as far back as we have historical records; military expansionism, and extreme class stratification are always accompanied by negative impacts to at least local climates, though the climate disturbance at this time appears to have been global. That said, since we are Christians and have the wisdom of the scriptures telling us from the first chapter on that the moral and physical fibers of the cosmos are interwoven, these are precisely the outcomes we should expect to see when injustice becomes the norm, and the plight of the oppressed goes unheeded. Okay, off my high horse, and back to the story.

11But Moses said to God, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt?”

12And He said, “Certainly I will be with you, and this shall be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain.”

13Then Moses said to God, “Behold, I am going to the sons of Israel, and I will say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you.’ Now they may say to me, ‘What is His name?’ What shall I say to them?”

In other words, “hey, yeah, about that ‘God of your fathers’ thing; they’ve kinda been worshiping like, two dozen gods, and I was raised in the Pharaoh’s house, so I’m not really sure which of those gods they worship is the ‘God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.’ Could I get a name?”

We actually see in later chapters that the Pharaoh is also aware that there is a god identified as the god of the Hebrews, but he doesn’t know which god that is, or recognize YHWH’s name either. So, since Moses was raised in the same house, it would make sense that he’d have a similarly limited understanding.

14God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM”; and He said, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ ” 15God, furthermore, said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is My name forever, and this is My memorial-name to all generations.

God, instead of giving him an actual name, basically says, “Yeah, I never really gave them one; just tell them that I’m the God who exists, and in who’s being all existence is wrapped up. And that I’m the same God who talked to Abe, Isy, and Jack.”

But yeah, in place of a real name, God gives Moses a verb that will serve as His name; specifically it’s the being verb, or ‘copula’ for the English majors among you. God gives it in the first person singular “Ehyah”, but when used in worship, a version of the third person singular is used: YHWH. The meaning is not fully agreed upon, but it most likely refers both to God’s uninterrupted existence; as elaborated by the resurrected Jesus who appears to John in revelation: “the one who is, who was, and who is to come”; but it also likely refers to the dependence of existence upon Him. All that is, all that was, all that will be exists, because of the one who eternally exists; also articulated by John, but at the start of his gospel account rather than Revelation.

Now, some of you may know that, since the time of the second temple period, Jews have not said “YHWH” out loud to the point where the actual pronunciation of the word has been lost. They do this to avoid anything that might be construed as breaking the commandment not to carry YHWH’s name lightly; or as most versions misleadingly translate it ‘do not take the Lord’s name in vain’. Instead, wherever YHWH shows up in their scripture readings, they replace it with the word for ‘Lord’ which is ‘adoniah’. In the masoretic texts, to remind readers to do this, the vowels for adoniah have been inserted into the consonants for YHWH, leading later Christians to misread the word as Jehovah.

I, along with many other Christians, and even a few strains of Judaism, do not observe this tradition of silence for two reasons. First, the commandment not to carry the name lightly isn’t some petty complaint God has about when His name is invoked. The commandment is a recognition that, as God’s covenant partners, His reputation is tied to our actions, our inaction, our words, and our reputation.

We carry God’s name with us when we go out into the world. The commandment is about taking that fact seriously. Now, a small part of that is in how we use and treat the name, so we absolutely should be careful not to misuse it, because if others see that God’s own people have no respect for His sacred name, they won’t either. But the implications go far beyond how and when we say the name, and should impact all of our actions and interactions.

Second, while not saying the name at all might be a good way of hedging your bets against misusing it; God just told Moses that this is the name by which He wants all the generations of His followers to know Him. God wants His people to know Him by name as He knows them by name; and as there are implications to misusing the name, there are also implications to the words we use to refer to God in place of the name.

The word ‘god’ in English is a rough equivalent to the word ‘elohim’ in Hebrew; it just means a spiritual being of higher power. It does not imply permanence, omnipotence, omnipresence, or pre-eminence; all it is is a classification of beings that are not physical, and which have greater power over the physical world than an ordinary human. It’s not inaccurate to call YHWH ‘God’, but it’s also not a fully adequate description. Similarly, the word ‘Lord’ in English, and ‘Adoniah’ in Hebrew are simply terms of deferment a supplicant uses to refer to their superiors or benefactors. The power difference between supplicant and superior could be as small as a singular organizational step up, or it could be vast beyond comparison. So it, again, is not an inaccurate word for YHWH, but is also not fully adequate.

The best word to describe YHWH, is in fact YHWH, and when we speak of Him in a reverent context, such as in the worship service, or in prayer, or the study of scripture, there is nothing inappropriate or sinful about using the Name which HE SAID He wanted to be known by. But more importantly, God picked that name for a reason; He does everything for a reason, and most often the reason has more to do with us than Him. The name, YHWH, teaches us an important reality about God and His nature. It reminds us that He’s not simply a spiritual being that’s more powerful than us, or someone we submit to; but rather that our entire existence, as well as the nature of existence itself is wrapped up in Him. It juxtaposes instances like this one, where He is more present, and more personal than any of the gods carved of stone (or made up of wealth or reputation as the case may be for us) that we’re used to have ever been; against the reality that He is infinitely other than us. This tension of extremes, a god who is both infinite and personal, breaks our categories if we’re honest with ourselves. But then, so does claiming that the infinite, eternal, all-powerful God of the universe was born to a teen-age girl, and lived as a helpless baby who needed her care for everything for the first few years of his life as a human. Or even claiming that He could in some way give up eternity, and live as both fully God and fully man; while also, in ways we don’t fully comprehend, remaining fully present and all-powerful in Heaven watching over the creation. And yet, from the start, this is how God wants to be known, as the one who eternally is, but who meets us in the moment, where we’re at, with the words and the guidance we need to make it through the next few steps ahead of us.


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