The No-Name God
The book of Exodus contains a strange conversation between Moses and God. Moses has been commissioned to go to Egypt to help deliver his people from slavery. He is intimidated by the prospect. He tries evasive maneuvers, but God will have none of them. Then Moses asks, “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?” God said to Moses “I am who I am…. This is what you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you’.” (Exodus 3:13-17)
Here is the dilemma that scholars have faced for centuries, “What on earth does that mean?”
Almost 7,000 times the Old Testament uses the four Hebrew consonants Y-H-W-H for the name of God. (Sometimes called the Tetragrammaton – the four letters.) If we were to try to pronounce them it would sound something like “Yahweh”. In the KJV it was pronounced “Jehovah”. In most modern translations we simply use the word “LORD”. But here is the puzzle: “Why did God choose this name for Himself?” There have been dozens of answers to the question. Here are the main contenders.
“I Am” Present tense
YHWH is the present tense of the word “to be”. That can mean several things. It can mean, “I AM the God of the present” not just of your past. I AM your God as well as the God of your ancestors. I am the one who is always present. I am with you always, even to the end of time. If that is its meaning, it is a wonderful name. God is promising to be ever present with His people, and his name is the guarantee of that.
I Am the One Who Exists
There is another possible meaning to this name. It could also mean, “I am the God who exists” and I am the only God that exists. All other so-called-gods are figments of imagination. They simply do not exist. They are non-entities. There is only one God and I am he.” It may then be an early declaration of Monotheism.
I am the One who causes all else to be
There is another possible meaning to the four letters of God’s name. It may be the causative form of the verb “to be” which can mean, “I cause to be.” This declares God to be the source of everything else. The ground or essence of every other thing. The creator; the one who causes everything else to exist. He is the essence of existence. The most central reality in the universe.
There are other possible solutions, but let me go to the one that I think is the most accurate.
The “no-name” God
If you were to ask me, “Who are you, What’s your name?” and I answered, “I am who I am”; you would know immediately what I was saying. I would be inferring that my name is none of your business. It would be my way of being evasive. The name YHWH then may not be in fact God’s name. He may be announcing that he is the “NO NAME GOD”.
Why would God do that?. Why would God hide his name?
- Naming gives control
In the ancient world the presumption was that to know the name of a person was to be enabled to gain control over that person.
In Genesis 42 Jacob wrestles with an angel. As they struggle for mastery, the angel asks, “What is your name?” and Jacob who is losing the fight, but hanging on for dear life, gives his name. Then Jacob asks, “What is your name?” The answer comes back, “Why do you ask my name?” and the angel does not give it.
There is a similar story in Judges 13:17-18. An angel appears to Samson’s father. Manoah asks the angel, “Tell me your name, so that we may honor you.” But the angel of the Lord said to him, “Why do you ask my name. It is beyond understanding.” and he does not give it.
When God refuses to give his “real name” He is refusing to be manipulatable by Moses or Israel, or anyone. Dietrich Bonhoefer has reminded us that God is “not haveable”. God is not controllable. He is not cajolable. He is the sovereign Lord, who will not give us his name for us to put to our use as a good luck charm.
- God is greater than any image.
Any image of God is a distortion. Any name we give him is inadequate. The ancient world chose images to represent their god. But images are deceitful things at best.
In the 10 commandments God gives the directive to his people, “You shall not make for yourselves a graven image in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth, or that is in the waters under the earth.” Nothing animal and nothing human. Nothing celestial and nothing terrestrial. Even though every other religion had images of its gods, it was not to be so in Israel. No graven image of any kind, and no naming image either. Any container we try to put God into will be too small and too limiting. God is greater than any image whether material or metaphorical.
- He is beyond comprehension
There may be a further reason for God choosing not to give His name. When someone asks the question, “Do you know Jim Smith?” We answer, “yes” because we know his name. We can recognize him when we see him. We know that he works as a baker down town. But if someone were to ask more pointedly, “Do you really know him?” the answer is “well no, not really.” Here is the danger: when we know a few outward facts about a person, we presume we have him or her catalogued. We presume that because we know some facts about a person that we now know them. Someone has said, “God is beyond comprehension but not beyond apprehension.”
God may be reluctant to give His name, because He does not want to be merely named then cubby-holed. He prefers intimacy to information gathering.
- Jesus is the “spitting image” of God
There would come a day when he would reveal himself more fully. What he had disclosed in the Old Testament about Himself was only a preamble to a more complete revelation of Himself. In the fullness of time God sent forth His son, who was the “spitting image” of the Father. Jesus could say, “He who has seen me, has seen the Father.” In consequence the church began to call God, “the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” because it was their understanding that “like Father like Son”, and “like Son, like Father”. Though God may have preferred to be the NO-NAME God in Israel’s history, He named Himself in Jesus as His Father and ours. Do we want to know what God is really like? Then let us turn our eyes upon Jesus. Look at Jesus of Nazareth and say, “Thanks be to God, that God is just like Jesus. Such a one I can trust with my whole life.”
Think it Through…
What is your response to the following poem written by C. S. Lewis?
He whom I bow to only knows to whom I bow
When I attempt the ineffable name, murmuring THOU,
Yet dream of Pheidian fancies and embrace in heart
Symbols (I know) which cannot be the thing Thou art.
Thus always, taken at their word, all prayers blaspheme
Worshipping with frail images a folklore dream,
And all men in their praying, self-deceived, address
The coinage of their own unquiet thoughts, unless
Thou in magnetic mercy to Thyself divert\
Our arrows, aimed unskillfully, beyond desert
And all men are idolaters, crying unheard
To a deaf idol, if you take them at their word.
Take not, Oh Lord, our literal sense. Lord in Thy great,
Unbroken speech our limping metaphors translate.
Examine your favorite “images of God”. What are the assets in such “imaginings” and what are the dangers in those very same metaphors?
For The Small Group Leader…
Discuss the various possible meanings of the word YHWH. What are the implications of each of the range of meanings?
How do we bridge the gap between “We can’t know anything about God” and “We can know everything about God.”
Published in Light and Life , July-August, 2000.