Written by Pastor Ed
What’s In a Name?
September 3, 2017
Genesis 14: 18-24
Exodus 3: 1-15
“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare asked. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” And yet names are important. They are how we identify each other, become part of who we are, and often carry a certain image in our minds, depending on what associations we make with a certain name. Of course, they can also be confusing. I grew up with two other Ed Kauffmans in my neighbourhood. One was my grandfather who was even on the same mail route and sometimes we got each other’s mail – he once called me and said he received a postcard I could have if I could read it since it was written in Spanish – and the other was a boy my age, and our fathers had the same name as well, which created all kinds of confusion at times.
One of the suggestions I got for a sermon was to explore the names of God found particularly in the Old Testament, and since the primary text for this Sunday was the account of Moses meeting God in the wilderness, it seemed like a good fit to talk a bit about how we refer to God. The account, as we heard, is of Moses, off in the wilderness tending sheep when he encounters God in the burning bush and is told to go back to Egypt and lead his people to the promised land. At first Moses protests and tries to get out of the job, which seems ridiculous, but God assures Moses that God will be with him.
And then Moses asks a most interesting question. “If I come 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 shall I say to them?” (3:13) Now we might think that’s a strange question, after all it was God, right? But let’s remember that there were many names of gods at that time. Every society and culture had a whole host of gods with many names. So, the question was a reasonable one. The people would want to know which of the many gods did Moses think he was representing.
We know, both from scripture as well as from other ancient writings that there were various names for God used throughout the ancient near East. Perhaps the most generic was simply “El.” While El is not used a great deal in the Bible by itself, it is used in combination with other words to describe God. For example, we read the account in Genesis 14 of Abram meeting up with Melchizedek, the king of Salem and a priest of El Elyon, God Most High. This was a title for God used by a tribe who lived in Jerusalem before the Israelites, and probably referred to the highest god in their pantheon of gods. It later was adopted and used by the writers to refer to the God of the Bible as well.
In Exodus 6: 2-3 God tells Moses that God had revealed himself to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai, usually translated God Almighty. “God also spoke to Moses and said to him, ‘I am YHWH. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai, but by my name, YHWH, I did not make myself known to them.’” This is a term also known from sources outside the Bible and probably having connections to other religions as well. It’s not always clear what name actually means, but many scholars think it refers to a mountain, a high point, thus almighty.
This combination of “el” with other words or phrases carries over into names even to today, although we may not be aware of it. Any name that ends in “el” has a reference to God in it. Daniel and Joel are two Biblical names that would be examples.
Perhaps the most widely used form of “El” in the Old Testament is in its plural form of Elohim. In fact, one of the authors of the Old Testament is usually referred to as “E” because he consistently uses Elohim when referring to God. Again this is a more generic term, although it is clear in the Bible that the reference is to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It is used in contrast particularly to Baal, the god of the Canaanites whom the prophets are always warning about and who was always tempting the Israelites. As I said, this is a plural form of “el” but shouldn’t be seen as somehow prefiguring the doctrine of the trinity. Rather it is more like what we might know as the royal “we.”
But now, as Moses asks for some identification so that the people will know which god he’s referring to, God, and it’s interesting to note that God is referred to as Elohim in this passage, the God of your ancestors, now becomes known by a name, I Am (Ehyah) and then in verse 15 YHWH, also referred to as the Tetragammaton or four letters. As Brevard Childs notes in his commentary on this passage, perhaps no other verse has generated as much controversy and discussion as this one. How should it be translated? What does it mean? Is it really an answer or not? I won’t get into all the scholarly arguments.
The phrase in verse 14 is generally translated as on the bulletin cover, “I am who I am.” But it’s not just “there exists a God” but rather “I am here, present, and ready to help.” And it is clearly moving from a more generic god of your ancestors, to a name, which implies a new relationship. It was a name that could be called upon. Names also became a stand in for the person themselves, so that in the Psalms we often read about praise for the name of God. The name, in fact, became so identified with God, and was seen as so holy, that it was, and is, not pronounced.
If you attend a synagogue and listen to a reading on the Torah, you will not hear Yahweh where the tetragammaton appears, but rather Adonai or Lord. And in our English translations the name will generally be rendered as LORD, all capitals or in some translations as Jehovah, a transliteration of the consonants. When you call on the name of God, you are calling on God himself, which makes God both intimate, here and now, as well as transcendent, someone beyond ourselves.
So for Moses, his encounter with YHWH began a transition in how God was experienced and viewed among the descendants of Abraham. With the Exodus and gathering at Mt. Sinai, or Horeb where Moses first met YHWH, the children of Isra-el now had a God with a name which denoted a new relationship as YHWH’s people who were called upon to worship YHWH only. “You will have no other gods before me.” (Ex. 20:3)
Our God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, of Miriam, Leah and Ruth, reveals himself to us not only by name, but also through the person of Jesus and again the name becomes synonymous with the person, so it is “at the name of Jesus every knee will bow.” And the name, Jesus, or Joshua in the Old Testament, means “He who saves.” By giving Moses a name, God distinguished himself from the gods of the cultures around them as well as from the generic gods of nature, like stones and trees. This was a personal God, who was present to help in times of trouble, as the Israelites found themselves in Egypt.
Let me say one other thing about how we talk about God. God is the word we use in English, and when we do we, as Christians, use the word to refer to the God of the Bible; the same God that Jews refer to in Hebrew as Adonai, or those who speak Arabic do as Allah. I have sometimes heard people argue that Allah is a different God, but let’s be clear. If you are an Arabic speaking Christian, you will refer to God as Allah, just as a Spanish speaker will say Dios, or a German speaker will say Gott.
There are still other things that people worship and which become their gods, whether it is an idol or an idea, but the God whom Moses encountered and whom Jesus revealed to us is the one we worship and in whose name we gather as God’s people. A personal God whom we can know by name and who desires to be in relationship with us. “I am Yahweh, your God. You shall have no other elohim before me.”