Exodus 3 – What’s in a Name?

This week we’re looking at some highlights from the story of the Exodus, focussing on the Passover feast, as a way of setting the scene for our Easter series in Matthew the following week. We pick up the story in Exodus chapter 3.

What’s in a Name?

What’s in a name? Is it just a label to distinguish us from the person next to us, or does it have a deeper significance, a deeper meaning about who we are?

I don’t think people these days place too much significance on the meaning of the names they give to their children – more on how it sounds with the surname. At least I think that’s how my parents approached the task of choosing names. Because mine means “honouring to God,” whereas my sister’s means “prophetess of doom ignored by men.” Either that or they were just mean.

In Hebrew culture, however, names were far more than mere labels. They said something about the person. Or sometimes about God’s dealings with them in their lives. For example, Abram means “exalted father” – but after God’s promise to give him many descendents, his name was changed to Abraham, meaning “father of a great number.” Similarly, Jacob means “he grasps the heel,” describing both his birth (grasping the heel of his twin) and his grasping character; after his wrestle with God, he is renamed Israel, meaning “prevails with God.”

And when Mary is told to call her son “Jesus” (or “Yeshua” in Hebrew) it’s not just a nice baby name; it means “saviour.”

So when God reveals his name to the nation of Israel in Exodus chapter 3, it’s a very significant event. It tells us that God is about to reveal more than just a label, but something about who he is. Read the story now:

Exodus 3:1-13

 1 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. 2 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. 3 So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.” 4 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.” 5 “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” 6 Then he said, “I am the God of your father, 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. 7 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. 8 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. 9 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.” 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 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?”

And there’s the question. What is his name?

In wanting to know the name of God, Moses  wanted more than a label. Moses wanted to know who he was. Before this point, Moses and the people of Israel only had a vague idea of God’s character. They knew many of the stories of creation and God’s dealings with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob passed on through word of mouth. (Genesis wasn’t written down yet!) But not everyone had access to all that was known about God. And even so, if all you had was Genesis (the story so far), you wouldn’t know everything about God’s character that we know now.

In asking for a name, Moses was really asking: what are you like? What’s your character? And – given what God was about to do for them – can we trust you?

Let’s look at God’s answer to Moses’ question:

14- God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.'” 15 God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘Yahweh, 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 am who I am” – a helpful answer, isn’t it? Like when you look up, say, anxiety in the dictionary, only to find that it means “the state of being anxious.” Sounds like dodging the question, doesn’t it? Maybe God doesn’t want to reveal who he is?

But I think the rest of Exodus answers this, foreshadowed in the next two verses:

16 “Go, assemble the elders of Israel and say to them, ‘Yahweh, 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.’

God is saying that if Moses and Israelites want to understand who he is, they have to “watch this space” – that God will gradually reveal who he is through his actions towards them. Actions reveal character, and God’s gracious actions in salvation are about to reveal his character to them. For example:

Exodus 6:7  I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the Yahweh your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians.

Time and time again, God refers to himself as Yahweh* your God, who brought you out of Egypt. A key part of God’s “name,” – his character-  is that he is a God who saves.

Later, after he has in fact taken them out of Egypt, he reveals himself more directly:

Exodus 34:6 And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “Yahweh, Yahweh, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness…

So when God says “I am who I am” (or possibly, “I am going on being who I am going on being”)  he means that his actions in the world reveal who he is. He has given us permission, to learn about him through how he acts toward us.

How does a child get to know its parents? Does it jump out of the womb and say “tell me what you’re like?” No – by the time it’s old enough to ask that question, it already knows by the history of its parents’ actions toward it. Character is learnt through relationship – which is essentially what God is telling Moses.

To think about

How can we know God? The answer is here in Exodus – through his actions. Through his dealings with humans in history as recorded in the Bible, climaxing in Christ – the story of what theologians call “salvation-history.”  And we also know God through his personal dealings in our own lives – our own personal “salvation-history.” That’s how we know who God is.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at some of the events in Exodus that reveal who God is. But for now, spend some time compiling a list of things God has done in your life that has revealed his character. And spend some time in prayer thanking him for it.

*What’s with the Yahweh thing? (Warning: nerd time)

In this chapter, God for the first time revealed his name as Yahweh. It sounds a lot like the Hebrew word for “I am.” In the bible passages above, I included the word Yahweh, but most English bibles represent the divine name as the LORD in all capitals. So whenever you read LORD, it’s this name Yahweh in Hebrew. That’s to distinguish it from the Lord (with only an initial capital) which translates the Hebrew word adonay, meaning “master” or “sir” – another way of addressing God.

In fact In fact, in later Judaism, it became unthinkable to utter the divine name Yahweh, because it was so holy. Instead, although they read Yahweh, they pronounced it adonay.

This also explains where the word Jehovah comes from. It was invented by bible translators somewhere around the fifteenth century. You see, in ancient Hebrew there are no vowels written down, only the consonants. Vowels are added when you speak it. (So you’ll often see Yahweh written as YHWH.) And in the absence of tape recorders, we don’t really know what vowels were used in the pronunciation of the consonants YHWH, since after a while no-one dared pronounce it! So German translators took the vowels of the word adonay and put them in the consonants of YHWH, to form YaHoWaH. And since in German the letter J is pronounced like Y, and W like V, so we get JaHoWaH. Or Jehovah, once the English got their hands on it.

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