“God also spoke to Moses and said to him: ‘I am the LORD.1 I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name ‘the LORD’ I did not make myself known to them” (Ex. 6:2, 3). The LORD as revealed to Moses is unknown to the patriarchs. But are we altogether sure we know what we mean when we say that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob did not know God as the LORD? Or, what is infinitely more important, are we sure we know what God means when he says that the patriarchs did know him by that name? Here I discuss God’s name, how we know it, and why it matters.
The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
Some may take the above passage to mean that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob simply had never heard the name the LORD, and instead only used the name God Almighty. This, however, would be a mistake. The Bible records all three of the patriarchs using God’s personal name. Abraham addresses God as the LORD and even names a place after him (cf. Gen. 15:2, 17; 22:14). Isaac follows in his father’s footsteps by using the name of the LORD as a place name (26:22), and Jacob also shows that he knows the name of the LORD (27:20). If they were aware of his name, how can God say to Moses that the patriarchs did not know him as the LORD? Critics of the Bible say plainly that this is a contradiction. But could there be another explanation?
I Will Be What I Will Be
If both the patriarchs and Moses knew the Name, in the sense of knowing its syllables, then how did they differ? In what way does Moses’ knowledge of God differ from that of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?
When God calls Moses from the burning bush to send him to Egypt, Moses asks for the Name of the LORD. We may assume that Moses as well as the Israelites knew the Name, just as their fathers did. What, then, do we make of the question? Names are more than identifying labels. They reveal the character of a person. To know the name of God is to know who he is (cf. Ex. 33:19 where God’s “goodness” is made parallel to “the name ‘The LORD’). For Moses to ask the Name of the LORD is to ask to be shown what sort of God he is. In response God says “I AM WHO I AM” (Ex. 3:14), or so it is translated in most English versions. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks takes issue with this interpretation calling it an “obvious mistranslation.”2 It ought to be translated “I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE.”3 This future tense gives us a hint as to the difference in Abraham’s knowledge of God and Moses’ of the same. Whatever God’s Name would prove to mean is in the future tense, that is, it is still to be revealed. The Catholic Catechism says this about God’s Name, “It is at once a name revealed and something like the refusal of a name, and hence it better expresses God as what he is-infinitely above everything that we can understand or say: he is the ‘hidden God’ …”4 God’s Name as revealed here “is a grammatical remark that suggests that God is known by what God does”5 and it was yet unknown what God would do. He will be what he will be. So it is that Moses and the Israelites would witness works of God which were unknown to the patriarchs and would thereby know him in a way unknown to their fathers. They would have to wait to see what God would do in order to “know the Name”, that is, to know the full import of what it means for the LORD to be their God.
The Redeeming God
When God declares that the Israelites will know the Name, unlike their ancestors, the declaration of his Name is immediately followed with “seven dynamic verbs” describing the acts they would soon witness as a revelation of his character.6. “Say therefore to the Israelites, ‘I am the LORD, and I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from slavery to them. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. You shall know that I am the LORD your God, who has freed you from the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; I will give it to you for a possession. I am the LORD” (Ex. 6:6-8). Notice: these acts are how “You shall know that I am the LORD.” The acts of God listed here describe the redemption of the Israelites from slavery. And that is the difference between their knowledge of the LORD and the patriarchs’. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob knew him as El Shaddai, God Almighty, the God who can provide (cf. Gen. 22:14). But they did not know him as the God who redeems. This knowledge, the experience of redemption by the arm of the LORD, would set the Israelites apart from their fathers. Knowing the LORD is regularly associated with witnessing his acts. Most often the specific acts are those of the Exodus, or they are described using its language, as when the return from Babylon is pictured as a second Exodus (Ex. 7:5; 10:1-2; 29:45-46; Isa. 52:1-7; Eze. 35:4, 9, 12, 15; 36:10, 23, 36; 37:6, 13, 14, 28; cf. Jer. 23:7-8).
Proclaiming the Name
The most explicit revelation of God’s Name is found in Exodus 34. God had called Moses to Mount Sinai where he promised to reveal the LORD to him (cf. Ex. 33:19). As Moses hid in the cleft of the rock “The LORD passed before him, and proclaimed, ‘The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation” (34:6-7). This is one of the most oft repeated scriptures in the Old Testament.7 Most translations, like my own, begin the quotation with a dual repetition of “the LORD.” While this maintains what I believe to be the sense of the passage, it is made clearer by placing the quotation marks later. “The LORD passed before him, and proclaimed the LORD, ‘The LORD, a God merciful and gracious.'” God here “proclaimed the LORD”, he defines his Name, he explains its meaning, its essence, and he does so by rehearsing his acts. He abounds, he keeps, he forgives, he visits. This is what he does, and that is the meaning of his Name.
Psalm 136 is a perfect example of how important God’s acts are to knowing him. When God declares that he is abounding in steadfast love, we are not left in the dark as to what “steadfast love” means. The psalmist takes up the task of defining it for us, but he does not do so in abstractions. For him, to tell what steadfast love means he must tell the story of the Exodus. For the Hebrew, that is the revelation of God’s goodness, the very revelation of his Name, and their children cannot know the LORD apart from this redemptive act (Ex. 10:1-2; Deu. 6:4-9, 20-25). Indeed, every subsequent generation is to commemorate the Exodus in Passover and to consider himself as personally present during the actual event (cf. Ex. 13:8).8 To experience this act of redemption is what it means to know the LORD.
The Hidden God
While the Exodus is the paradigm of revelation in the Old Testament, it is not the last word. It does not entirely encapsulate the LORD. Their life together was a continuing education in what the Name means. God further reveals himself in history and he is a constant surprise. One such surprise is described in Isaiah 45. “Thus says the LORD to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him and strip kings of their robes, to open doors before him–and the gates shall not be closed: I will go before you and level the mountains, I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut through the bars of iron, I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the LORD, the God of Israel, who call you by your name” (45:1-3).
The surprise at God’s actions is addressed by the LORD himself. To the Israelites who cannot imagine God working through Cyrus as “his anointed” he says, “Woe to you who strive with your Maker, earthen vessels with the potter! Does the clay say to the one who fashions it, ‘What are you making?’ or ‘Your work has no handles’? Woe to anyone who says to a father, ‘What are you begetting?’ or to a woman, ‘With what are you in labor?’ Thus says the LORD, the Holy One of Israel, and its Maker: Will you question me about my children, or command me concerning the work of my hands? I made the earth, and created humankind upon it; it was my hands that stretched out the heavens, and I commanded all their host. I have aroused Cyrus in righteousness, and I will make his paths straight; he shall build my city and set my exiles free, not for price or reward says the LORD of hosts” (45:9-13).
It was just when the Israelites presumed to know what sort of God he is that they got it wrong. When they thought to have a handle on him they attempted to correct him. “You’re not the sort of God who works through pagans like Cyrus. What are you doing?” They become like clay that says to the potter, “You’re doing it wrong. You didn’t make any handles.” God turns out to be a surprise. They did not know the Name as well as they thought they did. Their conclusion could be none other than it was. “Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior” (45:15). God remains hidden, and whatever he reveals he reveals through his acts.
What is the Name of the LORD?
Isaiah 45 continues. The LORD shows his superiority over idols. He calls a council of court and asks those who serve idols to witness to their gods’ power. When they fall short, when they fail to be adequate witnesses to the power of their idols God declares that it is he, not idol gods, who is the savior. It is he who orders the world, and there is no other. “For thus says the LORD, who created the heavens (he is God!), who formed the earth and made it (he established it; he did not create it a chaos, he formed it to be inhabited!): I am the LORD, and there is no other … Assemble yourselves and come together, draw near, you survivors of the nations! They have no knowledge–those who carry about their wooden idols, and keep on praying to a god that cannot save. Declare and present your case: let them take counsel together! Who told this long ago? Who declared it of old? Was it not I, the LORD? There is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is no one besides me. Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn, from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear’” (45:18-23, emp. mine).
This should sound familiar to every Christian. It should be familiar because it is a description of Christ himself. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death–even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Php. 2:5-11). God’s Name is known only through his deeds. His greatest deed, and therefore the most perfect revelation of his Name, is the salvation of Man through Jesus Christ. If we would know God, we can do not better than to look at Jesus. “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Mat. 11:27). His is the Name. It is the Name that is above every name. It is the Name at which all shall bow. Jesus: this is the Name of the LORD.
The Revealed God Remains Obscure
Jesus himself declares, “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world” (John 17:6). Indeed, it is in knowing God through Jesus that eternal life is to be found. “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (17:3). If we would know God we are not permitted to look beyond Jesus.
Despite this final revelation of God, he remained and remains obscure to many. Over and over the New Testament records people’s shock and amazement at Jesus. Even his own disciples found it difficult to comprehend who he was and what he was doing. He remained “the hidden God.” Many times certain Jews objected to Jesus saying, in essence, “You can’t do that” or “If you really were Messiah, you would not do that.” They made the mistake of thinking they knew the Name of the LORD apart from Jesus. They stood in judgment against him. Just then he reminded his enemies, “The Son of Man is Lord of the sabbath” (Mat. 12:8). When we find that our idea of God does not fit Jesus, it is our conception of God which is mistaken. “In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4).
The God of the Psalms
What does any of this matter? It matters because knowing God is eternal life. Further, even rejecting God requires a kind of knowledge of him. When atheists decide what sort of God they disbelieve, then Christians can decide whether or not they agree with the atheists. The problem is that they don’t know any god well enough to say whether or not they can believe in him. For example, the only argument which pretends to disprove God is the Problem of Evil. But that problem requires a particular sort of “God.” The psalmists did not seem to think that God was the sort of God who could not exist alongside suffering. They would cry out to God in the midst of their suffering, even blame God for their suffering, but they would not give up faith in him. After their complaint the psalmists would undoubtedly say, “Regardless, you are God.” Instead of assuming they know what sort of God he is, and then deciding that he cannot exist alongside pain, they confess that–apparently–they did not know him after all, or at least not as well as they had thought. The pain is a surprise because they did not know God was the sort of God that worked like this. Still, it made better sense to them to say that they do not know God well than to say that God does not exist at all. Even amidst the suffering of crucifixion, Jesus would rather think himself God-forsaken than think that God does not exist. That at least is the language of the psalms. Only the saint, it turns out, knows God well enough to decide whether or not he can believe in him, but the saint always decides that God alone is good (cf. Mat. 19:17). So we are left with this interesting truth: those who disbelieve in him cannot, and those who can do not.
Repeating the Sin of Adam
The only reason why suffering should cause us to disbelieve in “God” is if we repeat the sin of Adam. We take it upon ourselves to grasp the knowledge of good and evil, apart from God. We then take our new invention we call “goodness” and submit God to that standard. When God does not match our definition of goodness we decide that we no longer believe in God. We now believe in Goodness, the god of our own making, and so we become idolators. We stand in judgment against God and find him guilty. But this is like submitting a game of chess to the rules of checkers. If we should find that the Knight had made an illegal move we will discover that is only because we thought we were playing a different game. You may rebel against God. You may even hate him for not playing by your rules. But you cannot disbelieve in him. If you do, you only find that the God in which you disbelieve is not the God of the Bible. When it comes to that God, disbelief is not an option. The only live option is idolatry. It’s strange; An atheist is a someone who does not believe in God. He will be surprised to learn that God is someone who does not believe in atheists.
Christians: The Original Atheists
Under the Roman Empire Christians were considered atheists because they did not believe in the gods of Rome. I imagine Christians were proud to be so called because the gods in which they disbelieved were not the God of the Bible. Atheists today, who say that the Holocaust means that they cannot believe in a particular sort of god, will be surprised to find that Christians agree with them. The sort of god disproved thereby is not the Christian God. As such, I am indeed a devout atheist. I also happen to be a devoted Christian. How odd. But then again, there always is something odd about the truth.9 God will be what he will be. And as it turns out, he will be the crucified Christ.
“Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:20-23).
©M. Benfield 2017
1. When “LORD” or “GOD” appears in all capital letters that indicates that YHWH, the personal name of God, is used. In general, I follow this practice in imitation of the modern Jewish reticence to use the name of God.↩
2. This remark comes from his explanation of the title of his book Future Tense, which can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TCHu85d5iJ8&t=100s ; accessed 6 June, 2017.↩
3. The Hebrew is Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh and is the imperfect form of the verb “to be” which is roughly, though not precisely, equivalent to the English future tense. The NRSV and the JPS both make note of this possible translation, and Adam Clarke mentions it in his comments on Exodus 3:14. The number of times this particular form of the verb appears varies according to one’s source (38-43 times). By my personal count, it is translated as future tense 33 out of a total 38 times.↩
4. Catholic Catechism, article 206. Available at: http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P16.HTM ; accessed 26 June, 2017.↩
5. Stanley Hauerwas, Working with Words, “Naming God”, (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 81.↩
6. The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Fourth Ed., n. on Exodus 6:6-8 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 90.↩
7. Bobby Valentine names it “The Pulse of the Bible” in his article by that title, available here: http://wineskins.org/2014/11/30/exodus-34-pulse-bible/ ; accessed 26 June, 2017.↩
8. “In every generation a man must so regard himself as if he came forth himself out of Egypt, for it is written, And thou shalt tell thy son in that day saying, It is because of that which the Lord did for me when I cam forth out of Egypt.” Mishnah, Pesahim 10.5, Trans. Herbert Danby, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2013), 151.↩
9. This is, of course, in reference to Flannery O’Connor’s now famous statement, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.”↩