Many years ago, I played a Bible trivia game with a friend. He had been raised in a very evangelical church. I had already given up on church but thought I might remember a few things from Sunday school. He ended up destroying me in that trivia game. But what I remember most was a question about God’s name. I thought God only had titles such as God or Lord, I had no idea that he actually had a name. When I saw the answer to the question, I couldn’t believe that I had spent all that time in church and never heard anything about God’s name.
This is important. What happens when you enter into a relationship with someone? Right after you greet them for the first time, you offer your name and ask for theirs. Knowing their name is vital to a relationship. Can you imagine being married and somebody asking your spouse’s name and you responding, “I don’t know, I’ve never asked them”? That just doesn’t happen.
I remember as a child discovering what my mother’s real first name was and my father’s real middle name was. I felt closer to them having that information.
The same should be true when it comes to God. If God is willing to share his name, we should hear about it and make it a part of our relationship with him.
Moses at the Bush
The story we are looking at involved Moses. At this time, the Israelites were in captivity in Egypt. Moses, while born an Israelite, was raised as an Egyptian. He ended up fleeing Egypt, intending to close that chapter on his life. But he ended up meeting the God of Israel while tending his flocks on a mountain. God spoke to Moses through the burning bush. God’s plan was to free the Israelites from slavery and he was going to use Moses to make it happen. This was problematic as the current Pharaoh was Moses’ adopted brother and they had parted on bad terms. Moses had a whole list of reasons of why he was the wrong person for the job. However, God was determined that Moses was going to be the one to lead his people out of slavery.
Then Moses came out with his final argument. Moses didn’t even know God’s name. Why is this a problem? Isn’t God just God? The problem is that Egypt had many gods. They even had multiple sun gods. What god is this Egyptian runaway coming in the name of?
That’s when God offers the big revelation. God tells Moses his name. This is important, even though it sounds strange to us. He says, “I am that I am.” He then shortens that to “I am.” What kind of name is that? We need to remember that names in the ancient world were not just ways to address one another. Names reflected who the person was. That is why we see Abram becoming Abraham and Jacob becoming Israel. There was a name change with their new destiny. Some of the later prophets were commanded to name their children a certain way as part of the prophetic message to the people.
“I am” is not just who God is but what God is. Much time could be spent on this but the images found in this phrase include the one who exists, the one who creates, the one who is powerful and the one who is present. How relevant is that to a people trapped in slavery? It could be said that God is exactly who the Israelites needed him to be. He was exactly who Moses needed him to be.
But we may ask, Why don’t we call God by the name “I am”? Good question. The Hebrew for “I am” is changed to “He is,” which is Yahweh. That is the name that I was surprised by in that Bible trivia game. Some Bible translations use Yahweh in the Old Testament but most replace it with LORD. The reason for that is that to the Jews, Yahweh is too holy of a name to say out loud and so they replace it with Adonay, which means lord. When you see in your English Old Testament “LORD,” the Hebrew behind it means “He is” rather than lord.
This word is also sometimes given as Jehovah. Certain letters can shift and Yahweh can become Jehovah, although Yahweh is more accurate. God has a name and it is good for us to know it.
God’s Name and Us
I find this stuff fascinating but why should any of us care? What does this have to do with real life? What about people who are going through trials and tribulations, why should they care about Bible trivia?
We need to remember that this revelation wasn’t given just out of a sense of curiosity. It is not as if Moses was doing some theological research and needed some information to get it published. The people of Israel were in an extremely difficult position. Moses was being asked to do something that felt way beyond his abilities. It was in that context that Moses was given the name of God.
What situation do we find ourselves in? It may be personal crisis. It may be concern for friends and loved ones. It may be a burden for this city or for this world. What kind of God do we need? We need a God of power and presence. We need a God who is “I am.”
Not only is that God available to us just as he was available to Moses, he is available in a new way. In Mark 1:3, an Old Testament prophecy is given about John the Baptist. “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.” John is the one preparing and Jesus is the Lord who is being prepared for. But when we go back to the Old Testament, the Hebrew for LORD is Yahweh or “He is.” This and many other New Testament passage identify Jesus as the one who accomplishes that which was attributed Yahweh. God is still Yahweh, but he is also Jesus.
Now not only do we have a name for God but we have a face for God. Jesus brings God closer to humanity than anything that had taken place before. We can have a personal relationship with God. We can get to know God and experience who he is.
And like the ancient Israelites, he is exactly the God we need. His is the God who loves and the God who saves. He is the God who is present in our most difficult moment and the God who rejoices with us in our victories. Jesus is the great I Am.
Strangers are people whose names we do not know. God is not a stranger. We know his name. He is not just God in a generic sense but is Yahweh, the I am. Whether we call him Jehovah or Lord, it is the same God who revealed himself to Moses and reveals himself to us in Jesus Christ. Our God is personal and because of that we can be in relationship with him.