When I was born, my parents decided to call me: Michael Samuel Sterns. Sterns is my familyname, so there was not much freedom in that. However, they had the opportunity to chooseany combination of first and middle names. I could have been Michael Stephen, Richard Seymour, Andrew Gustavo, etc…I really don’t know where I got any of those names, but I digress. I didn’t choose my name. It was given to me by my parents.
Michael: “Who is like God?”
Samuel: “God hears”
I’m not sure what name I would choose if I were to have another name. I really like my name.
I remember a tape that my parents would play for me as I slept where some guy would sing a song about my name. I don’t remember much about it except that it goes, “Let’s sing a song about Michael.” But my brother and I still joke about how this song would be our lullaby as we both slept in our bunk beds.
I used to think that my name was so important, but then I went off to kindergarten and met three other Michael’s. It turns out that Michael was the most popular name for boys in the 1990’s.
I wasn’t so special. At least, not as special as that song had told me for the past few years.
Names in our society, the Western World, names do not much too much. They are chosen with care by the parents, but they do not mean much more than that.
However, in the Ancient Near Eastern culture, a name is not merely a label. It was meant to signify one’s identity and one’s character.
I’m going to be looking specifically at the giving of the name YHWH, the Tetragrammaton, to Moses. This giving of the name is a distinct point in the time of the Hebrew people because it was a shift from the God of the fathers to the God of Israel. It was a change from the God of the past to the God who will be forever. The divine name ehyeh asher ehyeh is a verb. The name given to Moses in Exodus 3:1-15 is that God wants to be. YHWH is both transcendent and intimately tied to humans because YHWH has chosen to be known in this way. YHWH links his name to Moses’s heritage in v6 both solidifying Moses’ familial history and God’s dealings with them. But the linkage was so much more than solidifying the idea of God’s involvement in the past. It was God’s way of highlighting his involvement with Moses’ family so that Moses could be certain that God will be with him in the future. To quote Tye Tribbett, “If he did it before, he can do it again.”
The meaning of God’s name does not lie in etymology but in theology. In this name, we have a balance between the divine transcendence and divine imminence. The theme of knowing is dominant in the buildup to the revelation of the divine name. For example, YHWH says to Moses earlier that he has known of the Israelites’ suffering. This yada is used to convey divine intimacy. God has a personal stake in his people.
We are also told that Moses is to remove his sandals for he is standing on holy ground. Moses is in the presence of the divine, but God is still present. It is not that YHWH is too distant to Moses to be known. YHWH chooses this specific way of presenting himself, through a burning bush, to Moses while Moses was tending his sheep. This divine name was given to Moses while he was doing something so ordinary. It wasn’t that Moses was off seeking divine revelation, instead YHWH revealed himself to Moses. God’s holiness will reside among normal people.
There is this tension showcased in the name. God is holy, but God is here. God is revealed in his past works (Ps. 19 “The heavens declare the glory of God”). Through the sunsets. Through creation. Through just the splendor of it all.
But God also makes a personal revelation to Moses. The God who was will be. God’s holy transcendence was such that God wanted to be for his people. He wanted to know his people, and he wanted his people to know him in this way.
The first time that I read about YHWH, and how it is too holy to be spoken, I was scared. I didn’t even want to try and pronounce the word because it was too pure for my unclean lips.
And maybe the name is. But God isn’t because the character, identity, and personhood of God is that God is for us. It is a holy name because God is a holy name, but who is revealed in the name is a loving God wanting to be known.
He will be what he will be.
To God alone be the glory.
*Full disclosure: Most of these thoughts have been spurred by my studying for a final for God in the Old Testament this Friday.