History, Prophecy, Mystery, Name: A Reflection on the Lectionary Readings for 28 August 2011

Revised Common Lectionary Page for 28 August 2011 (Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year A)

Exodus 3:1-15 and Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45b  • Jeremiah 15:15-21 and Psalm 26:1-8  • Romans 12:9-21  • Matthew 16:21-28

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.

4 comments
Nathan Gilmour
Nathan Gilmour

Thanks, John. Like many writers I know, I write in the hopes that a reader or two might benefit, and it's good to know when readers do.

John
John

Nathan, I most certainly agree. The plurality of the scriptures and the different ways of how it speaks of the one God, yet, together, always bringing us face to face with the one God is of eternal providence. For me, the mind of God being in the hands of human beings (Biblical translators)is a mystery and a challenge. The challenge being trying to grasp how much creativity we are allowed with the words, or names, without creating idols. Thanks for responding. I always enjoy your post. They feed and challenge.

Nathan Gilmour
Nathan Gilmour

John, I'm not sure what you mean by "acceptable," so if I'm not answering your question, let me know, and I'll take another run. As I've said on the podcast, I'm one of those people who sees the Bible not as a unified narrative voice but as an inherently plural text that points, sometimes in ways that genuinely differ, to a God who at once reveals God's self and declares God's self ineffable. And as I said then, now I write that, as someone who believes that all Scripture is God-breathed, I think that such plurality is itself precisely what God had in mind, not some accident of history. I say all that to note that, in some of the strains of Biblical text, the Canaanite loan-word El gets used to signify "God," and it gets compounded with elyon and shaddai to form what seem to be traditional divine epithets. Likewise, YHWH gets compounded with tzadaq and other words to form the same sorts of names. Yet in other strains (like Exodus 3), the text goes out of its way to avoid the implication that the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob can be named by anything less than a very long phrase. If I were to preach this text, I'd focus on the wary-of-naming strains of Biblical theology; if I were preaching one of the Psalms that uses something like a traditional Levantine God-name to name the same God, I'd focus far less on the reticence-to-name. Incidentally, this is why I think of the sermon, not the commentary or the theological treatise, as the best primary point of contact with the Scriptures, and I tend to trust Bible scholars (like Brueggemann) who seem to grasp that primacy of the proclaimed word more than I do people who start out with a premise something like, "Whatever this text means, it couldn't mean what it says, because a more important text three books over apparently disagrees, so we'll make this one an 'anthropomorphism' or some other concession to human weakness." I don't deny the inherent validity of Bible-harmonies as intellectual projects, but I do think that theologies that celebrate rather than suppress the surface complexity and plurality of the Bible leave congregations more comfortable with the strangeness of Scripture.

John
John

Nathan, I remember as a child hearing preachers who used the old American Standard Version refering to God as Jehovah in preaching, and even in conversation. Later in college as late as the 70's I had profs who still used the ASV. However, they never used the name Jehovah unless reading from the text. "Halleluiah, Praise Jehovah" is a hymn I remember well, and enjoyed. Just a quick question; no biggie. Why would the name Yahwe be less acceptable than Jehovah? Not that anyone today still uses it. Nor, am I saying that you necessarily think we could not. I realize that the Jehovah Witnesses have pretty much stigmatized the name. But if the scriptures, ancient and recent, recent enough, used names for God, would we be guilty of putting boundaries around God to use them? I hope you don't mind this space being used for such a simple question. But, it is one that has rolled around in my head a few times.