A Meditation on the “Personality” of YHWH

The Hebrew conception of YHWH is, by and large, one of magnificent transcendence. When we look at how YHWH interacted with Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, or anyone other than Moses in the Old Testament, with the possible exception of Abraham the “friend of God” (James 2:23), there seems to be a formal distance. YHWH is so engaging with Moses, there is a give and take, a back and forth in conversation that would almost suggest parity. In Moses, the transcendent Creator-God, and his creature made in His own image, are intimate.

We might say that Moses is simply unique and there will never be another like him. However, in 4:21-23 YHWH reveals to Moses His intentions in the message He has for Pharaoh. In a nutshell, the coming battle is a parental one where YHWH the true God and Pharaoh the false god will wage war over their “firstborns,” Israel the seed of the woman (Gen. 3:15) and Pharaoh’s heir to the throne and the future of Egypt’s proud dynasty. Since YHWH is true God and Pharaoh mere mortal, it cannot even be described as a real contest, so YHWH will prolong it by hardening Pharaoh’s heart so that the whole world will see His glory. What arrests our attention here is that YHWH considers Israel His “firstborn,” which is a metaphor for “preeminent,” or that which evokes emotion and pride, that which is best. (See Ps. 89:27 where the messianic king is declared “firstborn,” which means, the “highest of the kings of the earth.”) We must conclude that the intimate relationship YHWH has with Moses is the relationship He wants with His people at large.

Such intimacy, however, can never be presumed upon. In the very next pericope (4:24-26), one of the great enigmas of Hebrew texts, we see that YHWH is absolutely terrifying. We take the antecedent of the pronoun “him” in v. 24 to mean not Moses himself, but his own uncircumcised firstborn, for the overall context of this narrative is that of firstborns. Zipporah saves the boy’s life by performing the operation herself, and in anger touches the foreskin to Moses’ “feet” (probably a euphemism for his own circumcised phallus), calling him a “bloody bridegroom” for his own neglect. The same YHWH who has shown himself so intimate and engaging is at another moment ready to kill a child that is not circumcised, even the son of Moses himself, and therefore not an obedient son of the covenant. It is not easy living with a Holy God! He is both engaging and terrifying.

We see this same reaction to Jesus Christ by His disciples. Nothing is clearer than that they are drawn to Jesus by His love for the Father and love for them. He is so engaging, seeking authentic intimacy and friendship as He did with Moses. On the other hand, it is clear that a common reaction to Jesus is sheer terror. Take the Gospel of Mark, for instance, where demons shriek (1:26, 3:11, 5:7, 9:26), and the people and disciples are often in a state fear (Gk. phobeo, in terror of the numinous, 1:27, 2:12, 4:41, 5:15, 33, 6:50, 51, 10:32, 16:8). Especially of note is 4:41 where Jesus “rebukes” the storm at sea and the disciples are horrified to find themselves in the same boat as Deity (only YHWH in the OT rebukes the watery deep, symbol of death and chaos, cf. Ps. 18:16, 104:7, 106: 8, 107:26f., Job 26:11-13), and 6:50 and 51 where Jesus walks on the sea (again, only YHWH can tread upon the watery deep, cf. Job 9:8), and the disciples are frozen with unearthly fright (Gr. lian [very] ek perissou [excessively], en eautois [within themselves] existanto [beside oneself with astonishment]). In the middle of this moment Jesus tells them “not to fear,” because “it is I” (Gk. ego eimi “I am” i.e. YHWH).

Nowhere in the whole of the Old Testament is the paradox of YHWH’s numinous “personality,” inspiring both love/intimacy and terror, clearly presented as here with Moses, and finds its parallel with Jesus in the New Testament. Both are necessary if YHWH, who is revealed as Jesus in the earliest kerygma of the Gospel (see I Cor. 12:3), is both transcendent God and intimate friend.

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