Thursday of week 15 of Ordinary Time – First Reading


Commentary on Exod 3:11-20

We are still with Moses as he speaks with God at the burning bush.

God has asked Moses to be the leader of his people to rescue them from their life of slavery and hardship in Egypt. And Moses has heard this with some alarm. He feels unsuited to such a huge task. He is wanted by the Pharaoh for the murder of an Egyptian and he had angry words with some of his countrymen, making his acceptance even by his own people not very likely.

But God assures Moses that he will be with him all the way and the confirmation will come when the Hebrews will one day worship their God on Mount Horeb.

However, Moses is still not at ease with the proposed mission. If he tells the people that the God of their fathers has sent him and they ask “What is his name?”, what is he to tell them?

He wants to know what credentials he can bring to justify his being leader and the truth of his message. He asks God to give his name as proof. To know a person’s name was to have a certain power over them; to know the name of a deity was to be sure of a hearing. By being able to give God’s name, Moses would be able to claim a certain authority.

God replies, “I AM who I AM.” And Moses is to say to the people, “I AM sent me to you.” He is to say that it is “the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, has sent me to you.” Further, “‘I AM’”is my name forever”.

In a sense God’s words say everything and they say nothing. The Israelites are being given a name they can use but it does not give them, as with pagan gods, a power over God. That they cannot have.

Later philosophers, of course, were to see in the name the assertion of pure and infinite Being. God simply is and everything else that is comes from him. But it is not likely that the authors of Exodus had reached that level of insight.

The phrase ‘I am who I am’ apparently is the source of the word ‘Yahweh’, the proper personal name of the God of Israel. Out of reverence for this name, the term ‘Adonai’, “my Lord” was later used as a substitute. The word ‘Lord’ in many translations represents this traditional usage. The word ‘Jehovah’ arose from a false reading of this name as it is written in the current Hebrew text.

We do not hesitate to use the word ‘God’ in our speech but we should avoid any disrespectful use of any name of God or any persons of the Trinity, something which is all too common nowadays. Often it betrays ignorance rather than malice. It is an ignorance of the deepest nature of God’s being. It was Thomas Aquinas who said we are only learning to know God when we realise that he cannot be known. And when we use his name blasphemously, it is ourselves we hurt, not him.

The Jerusalem Bible has a lengthy comment on the phrase:

According to the Yahwistic tradition the worship of Yahweh went back to the days before the Flood. According to the Priestly tradition Yahweh revealed himself to the patriarchs under the name El-Shaddai (cf.. Gen 17:1+); Exod 6:2-3. In this passage which belongs to the Elohistic tradition, it is at this time that God reveals the name of Yahweh; by this name he wishes to be invoked in future by the children of Israel. This narrative, a peak of Old Testament revelation, presents two difficulties: the first is philological – the etymology of the name Yahweh; the second is exegetical and theological – the meaning of the narrative as a whole and the significance of the revelation that it conveys.

1. The etymology: attempts have been made to explain the name Yahweh (abridged forms like Yaho, Yah, etc are found in both biblical and non-biblical texts) from various Hebrew roots but there seems little doubt that it is an archaic form of the verb ‘to be’.
2. The interpretation:
a. it may be that Yahweh is used here to imply the impossibility of giving an adequate definition of God. In semitic thought, knowledge of a name gave power over the thing named; to know a god’s name was to be able to call on him and be certain of a hearing. The true God does not make himself man’s slave in this way by revealing a name expressive of his essence; this refusal to reveal is contained in the formula Ehyeh asher ehyeh (‘I am who I am’) which, in the third person, becomes Yahweh, ‘He is’. Understood in this fashion the name does not define God; nevertheless, for Israel it will always call to mind God’s great deliverance of his chosen people and the divine generosity, fidelity and power that prompted it. In Christian thought this interpretation brings out the transcendence of a God for whom man can never find a worthy name.
b. Tradition, however, following the Septuagint, has commonly preferred to take Ehyeh asher ehyeh as meaning ‘I am the One who is’, ‘I am who I am’; the name Yahweh, ‘He is’, would then express not necessarily the absolute nature of God’s essence as a later philosophy and theology were to state it, but least God’s unlimited existence as opposed to the ‘nothingness’ of the gods, cf. Is 42:8+.

Moses is then told the message he is to bring to the Hebrews. The elders of the people, as their representatives, are to be called together. They are to be told that the God of their ancestors has appeared to Moses. He has told Moses of his concern for the people’s sufferings and has decided to lead them out into “the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites – a land flowing with milk and honey”.

God assures Moses that the people will heed his message. Then he and the elders are to approach the Pharaoh. They will convey the following warning: Their God has sent the Hebrews a message. They will ask to be allowed to make a three days’ journey into the desert so that they can offer sacrifice to their God.

But God knows that the Pharaoh will not give his permission for this unless his hand is forced. In that case, God will stretch out his hand and do “wondrous deeds” there, a reference to the Ten Plagues which will eventually force the Pharaoh’s hand. After that he will let them go.

Over the centuries, philosophers and theologians have led us to very deep understanding of the nature of God. We also learn much about God from the revelation that comes to us through Jesus Christ. Much of what Jesus reveals goes far beyond what we might come to know by reason alone.

To know our God ever more deeply and become closer to him and his way of seeing life is really the only thing that matters.

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