Names – Exodus 3:14
The Children of Israel were languishing under the whip of the Egyptian taskmasters and their outcry rose to the heavens. God appears to Moses in the burning bush and He tells Him that He has seen the pain of His people. God then commissions Moses with the task of bringing Israel out of Egypt. Moses asks the Lord; when the people will ask me “what is His name?” what shall I tell them? God responds “I will be who I will be” (Exodus 3:13,14).
What is the meaning of this enigmatic exchange? What does God mean when He calls Himself “I will be”? Isn’t God’s existence eternal? He was, He is and He will always be, so what is the significance of this focus on the future? The mystery is only compounded when we consider the fact that nowhere is it recorded that Moses actually used this appellation of God when he spoke to the children of Israel.
Another interesting feature of this Scriptural narrative concerns the children of Israel. Throughout Scripture, the most common name of our nation is “the children of Israel.” Indeed, this book opens by referring to our nation by this name. But once the nation became enslaved, they are no longer called “children of Israel,” instead they are called Hebrews (Exodus 1:15,16,19; 2:6,7). The Scripture goes out of its way to avoid mentioning the names of Moses’ parents (Exodus 2:1). It is only when Israel cries out to God that they get their name back (Exodus 2:23).
When Israel was enslaved by the Egyptians, their identity as the children of the patriarchs dimmed. They were overwhelmed and overcome by the culture of their captors. And it is for this reason that they are not named as children of Israel throughout this trying period.
When God revealed Himself to Moses on behalf of the children of Israel, Moses knew that the spiritual state of the children of Israel was far from ideal. These were not people whose association with Abraham. Isaac and Jacob was clear and obvious. His question to God was not a question about the nature of God, but about the nature of the people of Israel. When God allows Himself to be associated with a person or with a community it tells us something about that person or that community. The fact that God allows Himself to be called the God of Abraham tells us that Abraham lived a life that reflected Godliness. So Moses was asking God; how are you associating your holy name with these lowly people?
God’s response to Moses was a response about God’s mercy and compassion. God was telling Moses, I don’t need them to be Godly right now. I hear in their cry a yearning for something higher and holier. It is enough for me that they want to be and I associate Myself with them because “I will be.” With their cry to God they regained their national identity, not so much because of what they were but because of what they wanted to become. And God is not only the God of the righteous but He is also the God of those who yearn.
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Yisroel C. Blumenthal