I have been working on a new book project for a while, God Is: Portraits of the King. It consists of short expositions of Scripture portraying the character of Yahweh, our God. This and related posts are chapters from this book.
During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew. – Exodus 2:23-25
In Genesis 15, God told Abram that his descendants would be in “a land that is not theirs” and afflicted there for 400 years (Gen 15:13). But God would not abandon them there; instead, he would redeem them, use them to judge the sinful Canaanites, and give them the land of Canaan for an inheritance. At the end of Genesis, we find Israel in this foreign land, though they have thus far experienced great blessing in Egypt. However, there arose a king who “did not know Joseph” (Exod 1:8). He enslaved and afflicted Israel for many years. But God did not forget Israel, his people. No, he “heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant” (Gen 2:23). That God at this time “remembered his covenant” does not mean that he had thus far forgotten it. Instead, it means that God is now turning to enact what he long ago promised; he has called to mind and set himself to fulfil his decree of long ago. He will work redemption through a young Israelite named Moses. There is an event earlier in Moses’s life that draws our attention.
Moses finds himself exiled in the land of Midian for murdering an Egyptian. He had acted to defend a fellow Israelite but was not supported in return; now he was on the run lest the Egyptians kill him. He took up the life of a shepherd, married, and started a family in Midian. One day “he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb.” At Horeb Moses’ eye is caught by a strange sight, a flame “out of the midst of a bush.” This bush was “burning, yet it was not consumed” (Exod 3:2). Intrigued by the strange appearance, Moses draws near and hears the voice of God calling him. God’s presence has already made the place “holy ground,” sacred and set apart for God’s purposes. Moses, taking off his sandals, approaches the God of his ancestors who speaks from the bush. This God, Yahweh, tells Moses that he will finally fulfil his promises and use Moses to do so. After Moses is reassured to some extent, he then asks God what his name is. Moses wants to know what to tell the people when they ask him who sent him.
In response, God tells him “I Am Who I Am” (אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה; Exod 3:14, my translation, as are all in this paragraph). God then repeats just part of this, Moses is to say, “I AM has sent me” (Exod 3:14; אֶהְיֶה שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם). Then, in verse 15, this is repeated once more; Moses is to say “YHWH, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me” (יהוה … שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם) Though it is not evident in English, “Yahweh” is the 3rd person form of the same word as “I Am,” meaning something along the lines of “He is.” God declares himself to be ‘ehweh, I Am, and his people are to call him Yahweh, He Is. Reading this, we naturally want to know why this name? What is significant about “Yahweh,” shorthand for the full verbal phrase, “I am who I am”?
In one sense, this is a none answer. In a world where names of all sorts reveal something about the person named, “Yahweh” breaks all conventions. God does not direct us to any other reference point than himself for understanding. For example, “Moses” refers to event of Pharoah’s daughter “drawing him out” of the water (Exod 2:10), or “human” to the specific relationship one thing has to others. However, God’s name points back to himself: “I am not what others say about me, nor am I explained by anything else,” says God, “but I am exactly and only what I am.” In the mouth of a silent deity or an idol, in the mouth of a being that did not regularly commune with humans or make himself known, such an answer would be devastating. In such a case, the name “Yahweh” would cut off all avenues of knowledge: such a god would be perfectly unknown to us. However, Yahweh is not a silent deity; because God has revealed himself, the name “I am who I am” is an assertion of God’s simultaneous sovereignty and his accessibility, his transcendence and immanence.
On the one hand, “I Am Who I Am” means that God is not what anyone else says he is. He is not defined by nor with reference to anything else. He is absolute and independent; he explains himself and receives no explanation from anything else. On the other hand, God is made known by his self-revelation. “I Am” is “the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (3:15). Yahweh is the God who created all things, who judged the world but saved Noah and his family, who called forth Abraham and promised to save the world through him, who pledged to die for the sinfulness of his creatures; He is the God who has fulfilled his promises. This God is not unknown but has stooped down, walked with his creatures, and made himself repeatedly known. In the mouth of this God, “I Am Who I Am” is not a statement of inaccessibility but an important guard of God’s perfect self-revelation. God is knowable, has made himself known, but he is not to be reduced to what people can think up. He cannot be reduced to the imagination of his creatures. He is only what he has revealed himself to be, yet he has made himself abundantly known. If Israel looks to their history and God’s present actions, they will know who God says He is, and this God is exactly and only who he says he is.
When the full statement, “I Am Who I Am,” is summarized as Yahweh, “He Is,” it also provides an ever-ready reminder of God’s reality over-against the idols of the nations. The other gods are not who they say they are, they are either powerful but not divine beings or nothing at all. However, this God is; he exists, they do not; he is God, they are not.