Digging in Deeper: Exodus 3:13-15

“Then Moses asked God, ‘If I go to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is his name?” what should I tell them?’ God replied to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: I AM has sent me to you.’ God also said to Moses, ‘Say this to the Israelites: The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is my name forever; this is how I am to be remembered in every generation.'” (CSB – Read the chapter)

This is one of those foundational passages in the Scriptures that serves as the rock on which a great deal of the rest of the ideas they contain rests. Moses asks who it is he should tell the people of Israel has sent him to lead them. In response, God reveals His name to Moses. While this was perhaps the first time Moses had heard it, that may not have been the case for the Israelites. Let’s talk about what’s going on here and what this means for us.

Let’s deal with that last issue there for a minute before we talk about the significance of this passage in the larger context of a biblical theology. Whenever I’ve read this passage in the past, I’ve always come at it from the assumption that this was the first time God had ever revealed His name to humanity. No one really knew God’s name before this moment. That’s what made is such a significant encounter. This was not just Moses’ learning who God was, but the whole of humanity being invited into a relationship with Him.

Thinking more about it, though, as I have been studying through the Exodus narrative, this cannot actually have been the case. He was certainly revealing His name for the first time to Moses, but the Israelites already knew who He was. After all, He was their God. Put yourself in the shoes of one of the tribal leaders of the people of Israel at this momentous juncture. Here comes this old man saying that your God had sent him to lead you out of the land of Egypt and out of the bondage of slavery under which your people had been suffering for at least a couple of generations. When you ask the name of the God who sent him to you, if he were to give you a name you didn’t already know well, would you be willing to entrust your people into his care? Of course not! Unless the name of the God he said had sent him matched the name of the God your people had been worshiping for many generations, you wouldn’t have had any reason in the world to trust him. I mean, yes, he did have the miracles we’ll talk about next week and beyond to back up his case, but if the name wasn’t right, you weren’t following him.

Moses must have understood this too. He knew that he was coming to them essentially as a foreigner. And indeed he was. This is something we forget about all too easily, I think. Moses was basically a foreigner when he was sent by God to lead the people of Israel. This would be a little like a man who was born a U.S. citizen but was raised in Iran, who had killed a police officer during a brief visit to the States but had fled from justice to England, coming back after 40 years to say that God had told him he needed to be our President. Unless he was able to present some awfully compelling evidence, the national response would be a hard pass. Moses may have been born a Hebrew, but he was raised as an Egyptian. He was raised not merely by a foreign people, but by the very foreign people who had enslaved Israel. Then, he had spent the last 40 years in Midian. He had married into a Midianite family. His kids and even possibly grandkids thought of themselves as Midianites. He had family connections that at least would earn him a hearing, but if the people were going to accept him as a representative of their God, he was going to have to demonstrate a knowledge of Him that was as a baseline commensurate with their own.

All of that is to say: this may have been new information to Moses, but it wasn’t to the rest of the Israelites. This name, Yahweh, was the name they had been using for their God for a very long time. For God to tell Moses to refer to Him before Israel as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob suggests this was a name they must have known and had passed on through the generations. Perhaps if Abraham had written his own story instead of Moses doing it, we would have gotten the story of how God had first revealed His name to Abraham instead of Moses’ big introduction to that name. The knowledge of God’s name may have gone back even further than Abraham, though. In Genesis 4:26, after the disturbing tale of the expansion of Cain’s evil family, Moses takes us back to Adam and Eve’s third son, Seth. He notes there that at the time when Seth’s son, Enosh, was born, “at that time people began to call on the name of the LORD.” The all-caps version of LORD there is an indicator that the Hebrew word being used is Yahweh.

Yahweh had always been the name by which the people of God had known Him. Moses was the one who didn’t know that, not the Israelites. Perhaps it was a name that was a secret not shared with outsiders. Moses’ arriving in town having come from where he did and knowing this name could have only happened if God Himself had indeed revealed it to him. This was why the first thing God gives Moses as a proof of the authenticity of his claims was His name.

Okay, but what does this name mean? Well, a full answer to that goes well beyond the scope of this post. Let me make one point now and point you in the direction of Christopher Watkin’s excellent book, A Biblical Critical Theory, for one of the best explorations I’ve seen of this idea anywhere in terms of its practical application to our modern cultural environment. As a fair warning, it’s a really big book (more than 600 pages of text) that you won’t be able to read quickly. But unlike so many scholarly tomes of similar heft, Watkin is a superb and engaging writer who is very approachable for the layman trying to engage with his work. While it would be a significant investment, it would be well worth your time to get a copy and read it. If you happen to live close enough to me that a loan would work, I’d be happy to loan mine when I finally finish it.

In any event, the point worth making here is this: God’s revelation of His name “Yahweh” which is a Hebrew form of the expression, “I am,” points to God as the foundation of all existence and reality. He is the ground from which all other things spring. He alone is a necessary being. Everything else is contingent upon Him. All of reality flows from Him. Because He is, all other things are. This means that any worldview that does not begin from His existence and is not consonant with His revealed character is not a true worldview no matter how fashionable it may seem at a given time.

There have been many competitor worldviews proposed by people over the centuries of human history. Some of them have been packaged incredibly well and made to seem self-evidently true given the times in which they were constructed. But they have all passed away. Currently vogue thinking that does not accord with a Biblical worldview will not last. It will eventually be revealed as the falsehood that it is. We need not fear it. We must ruthlessly oppose such ideas while at the same time love with compassion those who have been deceived and hurt by them.

As for why God chose to reveal Himself like this to Moses in this moment, I think there are two reasons. Number one, this was who He was. Given what He was going to have Moses do on the other side of the actual Exodus from Egypt, He needed to be absolutely clear on who God was. Of a more immediate importance was Moses’ impending confrontation with Egypt. This was not going to be simply a clash of wills between Moses and Pharaoh. This was going to be an epic clash of worldviews. Egypt’s dominance at the time was a powerful indicator in the minds of everyone around of the truthfulness of their claims on the nature of reality. Moses had been raised with those claims. He was going to be going right up against everything he had previously known to be true about the world. He needed to know what was real if he was going to be able to effectively overcome Egypt’s falsehoods about how the world worked and where the real power behind things lied.

The same is true for us today. If we aren’t explicitly clear on what is real and what is not, we are far more likely to be taken in by ideas that are merely popular instead of being true, but which wear an elaborate costume of truthfulness. If we aren’t certain about the nature of reality, then when the world comes against us, sometimes with the power of the state behind it, insisting that other ideas correspond to reality instead of what the Scriptures reveal as right and true, we will find standing against this strong current much more difficult than it will otherwise be. God is real and anything that does not correspond with who He is and what He has revealed in His word is not. Let us live in light of that. It won’t always be easy, but it will always be right.

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