Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Sunday Sermonette: What's in a name?

Exodus 3 is one of the most famous passages in the Bible. By famous I mean that people have some images from it in their heads, particularly the burning bush and the declaration "I am who I am" (KJV "I am that I am). I don't mean that very many people have actually read it and thought about it. So let's give it  a good look.

 Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”
When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”
And Moses said, “Here I am.”
God has appeared to people, and spoken to them, in various ways. Often it's unspecified: "God said," or "God told him," and we don't know how this happened. Maybe the person just heard a voice inside his head, or maybe the words came down from the sky. Who knows? But God interacted with Adam and Eve physically, in the guise of a human who visited them and talked to them. God also "appeared" to Abraham on several occasions but we aren't told what he looked like, with the exception of one occasion in which he appeared as a human, along with two angels in the same guise, who also hung out with Lot. God also "appeared" to Isaac a couple of times, and of course Jacob actually beat God in a wrestling match. "Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed. And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved." (Genesis 32:30) God will be seen by various characters later in the book, but this device of the burning bush is unique. The question is why God found it necessary since he's never before been averse to just showing up.
“Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Then he said, “I am the God of your father,[a] the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.
The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey—the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. 10 So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”
Okay, so God apparently hadn't been paying attention. Now he's suddenly noticed what's going on and he proposes to do something about it. Specifically, he's going to get them out of Egypt and let them take land away from other people. But you know, he's God almighty. He doesn't have to resort to these elaborate stratagems.  And of course he set this whole thing up on purpose in the first place.
11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”
12 And God said, “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you[b] will worship God on this mountain.”
13 Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”
14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am.[c] This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’”
This is extremely odd. They know perfectly well the name of the God of their fathers. It's a little bit complicated but he is referred to as Elohim, which is the generic word for God; and as YHWH, which is generally pronounced either as Jehovah or Yahweh by those who pronounce it. Orthodox Jews do not. There are no vowels because Biblical Hebrew doesn't  have any for any words, it isn't something special about this particular name. But orthodox Jews keep up the convention even when they are speaking English, and write G_D. Since they aren't allowed to pronounce God's name, they will substitute "Adonai," "the Lord" when they come across YHWH in a biblical passage. Adonai Eloheinu, a familiar phrase, means "Lord our God." As you will see in the very next verse, this works perfectly well, so it's a mystery why we also need to call him "I am."
15 God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord,[d] 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,
    the name you shall call me
    from generation to generation.
I'm afraid I don't have the Hebrew but I presume this is translating Adonai (the Lord) and Eloim, God. 
16 “Go, assemble the elders of Israel and say to them, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—appeared to me and said: I have watched over you and have seen what has been done to you in Egypt. 17 And I have promised to bring you up out of your misery in Egypt into the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—a land flowing with milk and honey.’
Again, the tendency for redundancy. I suspect this is because it is assumed most consumers will be illiterate and will hear this read or recited.
18 “The elders of Israel will listen to you. Then you and the elders are to go to the king of Egypt and say to him, ‘The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us. Let us take a three-day journey into the wilderness to offer sacrifices to the Lord our God.’ 19 But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless a mighty hand compels him. 20 So I will stretch out my hand and strike the Egyptians with all the wonders that I will perform among them. After that, he will let you go.
Of course, he's God almighty. He could probably get the king's cooperation by less drastic means. We'll have to confront that moral problem shortly.
21 “And I will make the Egyptians favorably disposed toward this people, so that when you leave you will not go empty-handed. 22 Every woman is to ask her neighbor and any woman living in her house for articles of silver and gold and for clothing, which you will put on your sons and daughters. And so you will plunder the Egyptians.”
This is quite weird. The Hebrews are slaves, right?  But the Egyptian women are going to hand over all their finery when asked? If God can make them do that, he can make the king let the Hebrews go, without all the sturm und drang, right? Well, he works in mysterious ways.


  1. Exodus 3:6 Masoretic Text; Samaritan Pentateuch (see Acts 7:32) fathers
  2. Exodus 3:12 The Hebrew is plural.
  3. Exodus 3:14 Or I will be what I will be
  4. Exodus 3:15 The Hebrew for Lord sounds like and may be related to the Hebrew for I am in verse 14.


Don Quixote said...

As literature it's certainly compelling! But more importantly, an entire nation has followed it as a guide for their lives, taking its laws seriously to a fault and defending it with their lives, its scholars writing a much-more lengthy Talmud to interpret its laws.

Fascinating side note: My grandmother told me that there are 365 positive commandments in the Torah (Do this, do that, or, as the KJV says, "Thou shalt ...") and 248 negative commandments (Don't do this, don't do that, "Thou shalt not ..."). She further mentioned that the total, 613, is also the number of seeds in a pomegranate. So I counted the seeds in a pomegranate, twice (easier than reading the Torah and counting the mitzvot). She was right! And the freshly juiced pomegranate was out-of-this-world.

That's some mighty tasty pseudogematria.

Cervantes said...

Well of course many of the commandments are no longer followed, even by the orthodox. On the other hand as you say the Talmud has also added some. For example, the prohibition against mixing meat and dairy in the same meal (or even using the same dishes) is not in the Bible. It's from Talmudic commentary on "You shall not sizzle a kid in its mother's milk." Fortunately people with the wrong skin diseases are no longer cast out into the desert. We'll get to all that in due course.