“If God had a name, what would it be?
And would you call it to his face,
If you were faced with Him in all His glory?
What would you ask if you had just one question?” Joan Osbourne – ‘One of Us’
“But Moses protested, “If I go to the people of Israel and tell them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ they will ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what should I tell them?” God replied to Moses, “ I am who I am. Say this to the people of Israel: I am has sent me to you.” (Exodus 3:13, 14 NLT, Italics mine)
What’s in a name?
The story starts in the Garden of Eden. Adam undertakes the first human act of science, and names the animals. It is hard to understand the immense significance of naming in Old Testament Hebrew culture. Someone’s name defined them, gave them identity and was almost a prophetic utterance of the path laid out before them. Look at Abraham (Abram) Sarah (Sarai) and even Peter (Simon). The God-given name change signified a new direction for these people. A new (or renewed?) sense of their identity and calling from God. God knew them and therefore he named them. Just as Adam in some sense understood the animals, and gave them names as a part of the scientific process.
So, what in God’s name is God’s name? The name Yahweh (or Jehovah) translated as ‘I am who I am’ was considered so holy that the Jews would not even speak it. ‘Hallowed be thy name’ we pray in the Lord’s prayer in recognition of this. The meaning of “I am who I am puzzled me as a young Christian. Why didn’t God choose an awesome name like ‘Gigantron’ or something?
The first significant thing about this passage in Exodus is that Moses did not name God. Adam understood the animals, and had a degree of dominion over them, but Moses encountered something huge, something other in that burning bush. I love reading the book of Revelation for the crazy imagery used by John to describe what he saw. “I saw what was like a sea of glass mingled with fire” – Rev 15:2. How in the heck can you have a sea of glass mingled with fire? John tries desperately to put into words the heavenly visions he saw. He tries to liken them to things of earth to help us understand. Much of theology is like this, drawing loose comparison to understand the divine with a mundane mind. This brings us to the name God chose to describe himself. To encapsulate his essence into words.
“I am who I am”. You see, there is no image to compare Him to. There is no thing like God which can give comparison. “I am who I am” is a beautiful declaration of the otherness of God. Any comparison to an earthly thing, to a concept which can even fit in our limited psyche would be a travesty of the truth of His being. Commandment number 2 is about prohibiting this travesty. The pagans of old (and new) shaped metal and stone into the form of creatures as a representation of their gods. Our God is too big, and to attempt to fit Him into the shape of some earthly creature is to make Him small. To name God, as Adam named the animals, is an act of science. And how can one scientifically categorise the one on whose shoulders all the laws of science rest? Who can break those laws with the blink of an eye? Whose life is the foundation of existence and whose will sustains all order and balance in the universe? ‘I am who I am’ means that God is so great, and so other, that he can only be defined in terms of himself.
From personal experience I can tell you that God blasts his way out of every box we try to put Him in. And yet, this incredibly other being walked with Adam in the garden. He spoke with Moses in the desert. He railroaded Paul on his way to Damascus and more incomprehensibly than all of this, he became a man. Something so big, so other, became like us in Jesus, to walk with us, talk with us even cry with us.
This is the God we commune with, who calls Himself ‘I am who I am’ and yet walks with the poor, broken and needy.
“You give me your shield of victory, and your right hand sustains me; you stoop down to make me great.”
Psalm 18:35 (Emphasis mine)