It’s not for no reason that preachers, theologians, and other readers of the Bible have been fascinated with the “I am” formula in Exodus 3. Because its form is so distinct yet so open, my own urge as a reader is to do something with it, perhaps even to read the rest of Exodus in light of it, perhaps the rest of the Bible. The importance of the name of YHWH in the Psalms and in Deuteronomy lends it even more weight, and one of the commandments specifically forbids its use for vain purposes (not that the content of vanity is spelled out any more clearly than is the meaning of the name). Famously, the Septuagint, the Alexandrian Greek translation that forms the Scriptures for many of the New Testament writers, renders the name ontos, or “Being.” Systematic theologians have followed that lead, rightly saying that whatever one says about Being and Existence in a Christian system, one must begin with the name and the self-revelation of God as creator and sustainer. Me, I’m partial to more recent speculations that wonder whether the Masoretic vowel markings have rendered present-tense what the Septuagint turned into a gerund. By these readings a better reading might be “I will be what I will be,” indicating the radical freedom of YHWH in YHWH’s dealings with the world and not least with Pharaoh.
As I read this week’s Old Testament Lectionary passage, though, what strikes me is that the “I am that I am” passage, important though it must remain, is only one quarter of the name-disclosure that goes on. YHWH first approaches Moses calling himself the God of Moses’s ancestors, a tribe enslaved in Egypt but even at this early stage in their story with YHWH retaining a strong sense of ethnic memory. Before the odd recursive non-name ever gets spoken, YHWH has recited the course of recent events, insisting that the Hebrews are still “my people” and that their cries have been heard. On the initial approach, the long story of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob is the primary field of contact between YHWH and Moses.
When Moses remains doubtful, YHWH shifts to promises rather than history, saying that, when Moses has confronted the great power of Egypt, they will not remain there but will come to Horeb, beyond the wilderness, far out of the reach of Pharaoh and his armies. In his second self-identification, YHWH has lain claim on the history of the Hebrews and their future, but still Moses is unconvinced. The “I am that I am” (I keep quoting the King James because it’s still familiar to my memory) passage only comes when Moses demands a name by which he can swear, invoke authority, and perhaps even summon. And in response, YHWH gives a most confounding formula, one which is neither the “He reigns” of Moloch nor the “Mightly lord” of Ba’al but a non-name, a name that carries no meaning. By the time Moses hears the voice speak “YHWH,” four letters which meant nothing before YHWH spoke them, the encounter has solidified that this will be no god of the Egyptians, with their correspondences to human realities, nor any god of the Canaanites, with their fairly limited agricultural functions. Instead, this God calls all of the shots, will not be bound by a name or (as Israel later finds out) by any image, and can be known only in connection to a chosen people. In short, this is a divine figure the likes of which is going to shake everything up.
After three thousand years, of course (yes, the line from The Big Lebowski is going through my head too), perhaps we’ve become spoiled: after all, the ineffability of God is the bread and butter of modern God-talk, and nobody gets all that surprised at it. But in that moment, something new was happening in the world (nihil sub sole novum be damned!), and the text of Exodus is not going to let us overlook that.
May our devotion to the God who refuses conventional names bring with it a like commitment to the God who lays claim on all history and promises to sustain the faithful as the world unfolds before us.