And Moses said to God, “Behold me coming to the children of Israel and saying to them, ‘The god of your fathers sent me to you all,’ and them saying to me, ‘What is his name?’ What do I say to them?” And God said to Moses, “I Am Who I Am.” And he said, “Thus say to the children of Israel: ‘I Am sent me to you all.'” And God said moreover to Moses, “Thus say to the children of Israel: ‘YHWH, the god of your fathers, the god of Abraham, the god of Isaac, and the god of Jacob sent me to you all.’ This is my name for all eternity, and this is my remembrance for all future ages.”
I don’t know about you all, but growing up, I always thought that God’s name was, well, God. I understood calling God Lord or Almighty or Father, like calling my dad Dad or my mom Mom or my teacher Ma’am or Sir. And then you throw in the whole Jesus thing, saying Jesus is God, and it gets a little confusing, but I was able to separate it in my brain and understand that Jesus still wasn’t God’s name, but just a different manifestation of God, and he had titles too – Prince of Peace, Son of God, Wonderful Counselor, etc. But still, God’s name was God – that’s what I was told since I was really little. Oh and also, God was a he.
But, by the by, I grew up, and in high school I committed to reading the Bible all the way through. Now, that’s a pretty easy commitment to keep for like the first chapter. Actually, it’s not too bad until you get to about the middle of Exodus. And once you get to Leviticus, it’s like, “kill me now!” So I had made it through Genesis and I was reading the beginning of Exodus, and I came across this passage, which is our text today. And I remembered hearing it before, but when you’re that young, you don’t really understand what God is doing here. This time, however, I read it, and I said to myself, “huh!” God’s name isn’t God! They’ve been lying to me all these years! God’s name is… IAWIA (that’s short for “I Am Who I Am”). But seriously, this is actually quite brilliant (like we should expect anything less from God) – God says, “I’m not going to tell you my name! I am who I am, and that’s enough to identify me.” See, when I started back in Genesis, I had this nifty archaeological bible at the time – because I wanted to be an archaeologist – and at the part where Adam names all the animals, it said in a footnote, “Ancient Israelites believed the act of naming someone or something gave you power over them or it.” That merely to know someone’s name gives you power over that person. And if you think about that for a second, it makes perfect sense. How many of you – raise your hand – will turn around in the middle of a crowded street if someone yells, “hey, you!” And how many of you will turn around if someone yells your name? How many of you answer when someone says your name, but they’re talking to the other person in the room who happens to have the exact same name you do? Yea, there are like, five Chrises at Wake Forest Divinity School, it’s insane. So this act of naming gives you intrinsic power over someone else, and to name God would be to give humans power over God. And so Moses, bless his heart, I believe he really was sincere and didn’t think the Israelites were going to listen to him, but his question comes off almost like a trap – he says, “hinei!”, which we translate as “behold!”, and that’s a good translation, but there’s really just nothing like this sentence construction in English so I’m going to try and explain it. “Hinei!” in the Hebrew Bible is like telling somebody, ‘behold!’ and then putting them in front of a movie. “Imagine!” is another good word to translate it. So Moses isn’t even asking God a direct question; he’s pulling God into this scene, so that God literally sees Moses go to the Israelite people and tell them about God, and the Israelites rejecting Moses’ testimony without a name. And then Moses pulls God back out of that scene and says, “so what should I tell them?”
And God says, (laughs) “I’m not gonna tell you that. They want to know which god came to you? They want to know whether it was Ba’al or El or Anubis or Orion? Tell them I am not some lifeless statue you keep in your house. Tell them I am not a tree, or a weather system, or even just a planetary body. Tell them I am not the sun or the moon or any other created thing they can think of. Tell them I am. Tell them that the Ground of All Being has sent you, that the source of existence itself is your god.” Can you imagine what Moses must have been thinking? Like, ok… you didn’t really answer my question. I just wanted a name.
Well, Moses kindof gets his wish – we do get a name in verse 15. We call it the tetragrammaton – that’s a fancy word meaning it has four letters. In Hebrew the letters are yod, he, vav, he, which we write in English as Y H W H. This is the name of God; and guess what? We have no idea how to pronounce it. See, for much of its existence, Hebrew Scripture was passed down orally; when it was finally written down, it was written as consonants. Ancient Hebrew writing didn’t have vowels. Since it was an oral culture and people knew the words anyway, they would just pronounce the word how they knew to pronounce it when reading it. It would be like if I put up the letters WRD or CHRCH up on the screen. You would know what those words are; now, one of them may have more than one option – “word” or “wired” or “weird” – but if you’re reading it in a sentence, you can use context to figure out what the word is. That’s what they did back then, those who could read. But, by the time it had all been written down, because the ancient Israelites took the third commandment so seriously – don’t take God’s name in vain – nobody actually pronounced the tetragrammaton the way it was supposed to be pronounced; we’re not sure if anyone at this time even knew how to pronounce it. Instead, when the reader got to that word, they would skip over it and say ‘adonai’ instead, which, in Hebrew, simply means “my Lord.”
Well, much later on, in the 11th century, after Christianity had come about and the transmission of manuscripts of Scripture was largely taken over by the monasteries, there was a group of monks called the Masoretes who decided they were going to add vowels to the Hebrew text of the Old Testament. So, they came up with their own system of vowels and, using the oral tradition of Jews who were still alive and well and reading their Scripture aloud in the synagogue, they added these vowels to the text. Of course, these Jews still didn’t pronounce the name of God correctly – saying ‘adonai’ instead – but the Masoretes went ahead and added the vowels to the tetragrammaton anyway. So, the word now sounded like this in Hebrew: yehova. Of course, in Latin they don’t have the ‘y’ sound, and any word that begins with an ‘i’ or a ‘y’ is pronounced as though it begins with a ‘j’. Given the fact that nearly everything in medieval Christianity was done in Latin, the non-word ‘Jehova’ became common in theological circles as the proper name for God. It took a while for people to realize what had happened – or, more likely, just to care. But now most scholars think that the pronunciation of the tetragrammaton was closer to something like, ‘Yahweh’ (translated into English, of course).
Whew, that was a nice little tangent, wasn’t it? I’m sorry, I just love that little bit of trivia; and now you can correct your friends when they call God Jehova! The point is, though, that even with all of that history, we still don’t really know what the proper name of God is; we’ll probably never know. All we know is that it is somehow related to the Hebrew verb ‘to be’. And theologically, I think that that’s magnificently beautiful. God cannot be named, and thus God cannot be put in a box. The god we worship is an unboxable god, a god that does not fit neatly into human categories, a god that cannot even be contained within the pages of a book. The god we worship is a god that encompasses all of Creation, a god who is the very force of being in the universe, calling, birthing, speaking, breathing things into existence; the god we worship is a god in whom we live and move and have our being, because it is god who is being itself. And because of this, when you try to imagine God, the image you have in your head will never be adequate enough to describe the god of the universe. In and of themselves, words are ineffective at describing God, because God will always be on the edge of description. In fact, this realization has hit some Christian theologians so hard that they were convinced God could only be described apophatically – meaning, God could only be described based on what God is not. They said God is not evil. God is not a tree; God is not the sun or the moon or a weather system or anything else from the created order of things. God is not passive. God is not inanimate. God is not boxable. God is not named.
And yet, as admirable as this endeavor may be, Christians who take the apophatic approach of describing God may find that they have no idea who they are worshipping at all. Indeed, God’s own self, in response to Moses’ basic question, “Who are you?” does not say “I am not…” but rather “I am.” So what are we supposed to do with that? We’ve already decided that no single word is adequate enough to describe God, indeed that though we may exhaust the vocabulary of the world’s 6,500 languages we shall never be able to fully describe the God who is. Still, God’s own statement, “I am who I am,” encourages us to avoid describing God in terms of what God is not, and to instead use words affirming of who God is. And so we say that God is Creator, Sustainer, Healer, Giver of Peace, Rock, Refuge, Shield, Hiding-Place, Almighty, Shepherd, Provider, Eternal, Savior, Liberator, Hope, Alpha, Omega, Sovereign, Holy, Potter, Maker, Truth, Love, Hope, Strength, Sanctifier, Righteous, Father, Son, Spirt, Advocate, Comforter, Lord, Nurturer, Protector, and, oh yes, Mother. These are all biblical images of God; each and every one of these can be linked to Scripture. And yet, we know that we have barely scratched the surface with these words when describing the all-encompassing force of Being that Creates and Sustains the universe. Not only are there plenty more descriptions of God in the Bible, but we do not have to be restricted to Scripture to come up with ways of naming God. God is Grandfather, Grandmother, Painter, Dancer, Chef, Composer, Architect; God is a child’s laughter. God is the silent understanding shared between two friends. God is a song, sung from the deepest trenches of the soul. God is all of these things and more. God is.
When we talk about God, when we pray to God, when we imagine who God is, we must not get caught in always using the same words and images. Some of these words may be more meaningful to us than others, but if at any point we ever think we have God pinned down, then we need to switch words. Because God is not boxable, and if God ever becomes boxable for us; if we ever get an idea in our mind of who exactly God is, then we can be sure that we are no longer worshipping the true God at all, but an idol. We commit a grave sin whenever we use the same language over and over exclusively to define God, because through that language we have graven an image into our minds of what we call god, thus violating the commandment, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.” There are plenty of other words in the Bible and in Christian tradition to choose from, so why don’t we?
Many of us have a false idol for a god. We may be perfectly willing to grant all that’s just been said and committed to thinking of God in different ways so as to be sure not to create a graven image. But if we’re all really honest with ourselves, most of us worship a man who is not God. Most of us have the image of a god in our heads who is old, and muscular, and bearded, and white, and dressed in kingly attire or a white robe of some sort, and, of course, he is a man. Or if we don’t have all of that in our heads, at the least we still have an image of a masculine god. And even if we say, “no, actually, God has no form in my head, he’s just kind of an abstract, mysterious spiritual force when I think about him,” we still use masculine pronouns to describe God, and we still, when we pray and converse with God, interpret the voice that calls to us from between the mist as a deep, masculine voice. Do we ever imagine God as a nurturing Mother? Do we ever hear the comforting tones of a woman’s voice when we speak with God? Do we ever refer to God as She? Are we uncomfortable even thinking about it right now? If we are, then I would suggest that our god is male – and this is not the same God who is.
This is an incredibly difficult paradigm shift to make, and I have to admit that when I was first presented with it, I resisted it vehemently. I assented to the notion that of course God is not inherently male. Neither is God inherently female. God has no gender. God has no race. God has no physical characteristics to speak of because God is God. I preferred to define God apophatically, but I also argued that we have to say something in order to talk about God, and we can’t call God an ‘it’, so why can’t I say He? Why can’t I call God Father, if that’s who God has been to me my whole life? I imagine many of you probably feel the same way. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that they’re right. It is idolatrous to continue to refer to God as ‘He’, because in doing so I cannot imagine God as ‘She’, and I am therefore denying the very name that God gives God’s own Self – “I am.” I was wrong when I said God has no gender – God is all genders. I was wrong when I said God has no race – God is all races. I was wrong when I said God has no physical characteristics, because God has them all. The only way I can affirm that is to use expansive and inclusive language – not exclusive.
So that’s why I will stand here before you today and say that God is not brown, dark brown, light brown, tan, or pale – God is. God is not tall or short – God is. God is not fat or skinny or muscular or curvy or pudgy – God is. God is not abled or disabled – God is. God is not brown-, blonde-, gray-, white-, pink-, green-, blue- or red-haired or bald – He is. God is not male or female – She is.