Who am I? Who are you?

Out of the blue, and with divine enthusiasm, YHWH hits Moses up with the command to go to Pharaoh and delivering his people (Ex. 3:10). Though Moses is experiencing the mysterium tremendum, the awful numinous presence of God, both frightening and exhilarating at the same time, we have no insight into his feelings. All we have is the question, “who am I that I should go to Pharaoh….” We find no enthusiasm here. This was what God was waiting for all these years. When a young man in Egypt, with a princely upbringing, Moses thought he knew what he was but in reality did not. Now he is older and does not know who he is, at least in relation to the great task before him, but in reality knew well who he was, especially in his limitations. What will soon be revealed, he had learned the simple and humble art of staying out of the way when God is doing something. For the most part, young people do not comprehend this, and for that matter, many of the aged don’t as well.

There is, however, an answer to Moses’ question hidden in v. 12 about Moses’ identity. God assures him with a sign that He will be with him and that he will succeed in his task of delivering the people and will “serve (Heb. `ābad) God upon this mountain.” As we have established earlier, Eden was surely a mountain, the source of the river of life that flowed into the garden and from there to the four corners of the earth (see July 2, 2013). Moreover, Adam was to “work (Heb. `ābad) and keep (šāmar)” the garden (Gen. 2:15). These verbs are used throughout the Pentateuch to describe the work of the tabernacle and the keeping the law. The one idea, or motif, that best expresses what humanity was made for is “a gardener” charged to make things grow, both physically and spiritually, and thus serve God. The verb used here for “serve” (`ābad) is the very same word “to work” the garden. This combined with the motif of the “mountain” of God suggests Moses’ real identity. He is the “gardener” who will bring humanity back to the Mountain of God. True, there was no garden on Sinai, but as we shall see, there are all sorts of garden imagery in the Tabernacle that Moses was to build, which will become the new “mountain,” or Eden, where God will once again dwell in the midst of mankind.

Moses then asks God what His name was. Evidently Moses knew God by the generic word for deity ʹelōhîm, perhaps forgetting with the people the ancient name YHWH, the God of their fathers. The word ʹelōhîm is a common divine epithet in the Ancient Near East, and says nothing specific about Him. Moses knew that God must reveal something about Himself if the people were to get on board with the plan. But by doing so, God makes himself vulnerable to the people. Names in the ancient world were considered to be part of the very essence of one’s personhood, as real as an arm or a leg. To reveal one’s name is to share and entrust one’s very self to that person. It means entering into a relationship where one could harm the other’s reputation. When it comes to God, this is a very serious moment in the history of humanity.

God is very engaging here, ready to reveal. He immediately responds with ʹehyeh ʹašer ʹehyeh, “I am who I am,” but when spoken by humanity, pronounced “Yahweh” (YHWH) in the third person, translated “He is.” The name is ingenious in that it is not a noun, thus limiting God to a thing, nor is it properly a verb, thus limiting God to an action. Rather it is stative, indicating pure essence of being. The Hebrews at this juncture were not ready for such theological reflection. What it immediately meant to them is the translation “I will be what I show myself to be,” for the imperfect conjugation of the divine name can be understood as a future. They do not know Him now, but they will know Him by what He is about to do.

We see that Moses’ questions of identity, “who am I” and “who are you” are fundamental. Everything turns on self knowledge and knowledge of God. Nothing can happen further in the narrative without these preliminaries. Nothing of ultimate value can happen in our own lives without this relational interchange of knowledge.

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