The God whose name isn’t God

A sermon preached at Wine Before Breakfast on October 25, 2016, on Exodus 3.13-22 by Beth Carlson-Malena

My first name is Elizabeth.
I’m named after my mother’s mother.
She went by the short form “Libby,”
but ever since I was born, everyone has called me “Beth.”

My middle name is Claire.
Claire was the name of my mom’s best friend at the time when I was born.

My last name is Carlson-Malena.
The first half was my wife Danice’s last name, and I assume it means “son of Carl.”
The second half, “Malena,” is from the Czech language of my great-grandfather,
and means “raspberry.”

We decided to put “Carlson” before “Malena”
because Danice thought Carlson-Malena
would sound better on the lips of Kanye West
than “Malena-Carlson.”
No word of a lie.

I don’t know if my name reveals much to you about me as a person.
If anything, these days, our names probably reveal more about our parents than about us.
But our names do represent us, at least in the realm of language.

And in the Bible, names carried a lot more personal meaning.
Often God would assign or change people’s names
to indicate something about their character or mission.
There is a sacredness to names.

This burning bush episode with Moses
is the first time in Scripture when someone asks for God’s name.

Most of us have grown up in a monotheistic environment,
where we can just say the word “God” without requiring further clarification.

But in Moses’ time, this God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob
was just one of many competing gods.  And these gods had names.
For example, there was Baal, Asherah, Marduk, Molech,
and the gods of Egypt, who would soon be in direct competition with Moses’ God: Ra, Osiris, Anubis, Horus.

Usually their names connected them to an animal or form,
or some part of the natural world, like the sun or moon.
Moses grew up in a world crammed full of gods.
So it wasn’t weird for him to ask this burning-bush God for its name.

God had three responses to Moses’ question.

First God said “Ehyeh asher ehyeh,”
which could be translated in a variety of ways.
“I am that I am.”
“I shall be what I am.”
“I shall be what I shall be.”
“I will prove to be what I prove to be.”
“I will become what I choose to become.”

After that, God uses a shorter form, just “Ehyeh,”
which is basically just “I am,” or even “is-ness.”

And finally God responds with a four-letter word
that no one knows how to pronounce,
not even Sara, who just read it.
Of course, what Sara saw and read was the word “LORD” in all-caps,
which is what most translators have decided to use
every time this unpronounceable four-letter word appears in the Old Testament,
which is 6823 times.

I counted.

Not really.
I found the number in the Wikipedia entry for “tetragrammaton,”
which is what biblical Hebrew scholars call this 4-letter word – it just means “4 letters.”
Do we have any students of Hebrew in the room this morning?

These four Hebrew letters are yod – he – vav – he,
which in English is roughly YHWH.
These are particularly slippery Hebrew letters.
In Hebrew the H is usually silent,
and the Y and W were most often used as vowels, or place-holders for vowels.

Vowels in Hebrew were later added to manuscripts
as a series of lines and dots placed underneath the consonants,
which means you’re not only reading right to left, but also constantly looking up and down.
Don’t you love Hebrew!

But when it came to this four-letter word,
the scribes intentionally left out the vowel points,
because the rabbis wanted it to remain unpronounceable.

And the reason they didn’t want people to pronounce this word

was that they considered it too holy, too sacred to be pronounced by ordinary people,
except, perhaps, once a year, by the high priest,
on the Day of Atonement.

The rabbis taught that the word should be replaced with a safer, less-sacred word.
Some stringent Jews used “HaShem,” which simply means “the Name.”
But most of them replaced the four-letter-word with the word “Adonai,” which means “Lord.”
Which is exactly what our English translators are doing.

Eventually the Hebrew scribes took those four original consonants
and added in the vowels for Adonai.
Over time, the original pronunciation was lost.

When Latin-speaking people came along and translated the Old Testament,
they tried to squeeze these consonants and the “Adonai” vowels into their own system
and came up with something like “Jehovah.”

But later a German guy named Wilhelm Gesenius
was studying Greek translations of the tetragrammaton
and concluded that it’s likely the original Hebrew pronunciation was more like “Yahweh.”

So, there’s controversy over how YHWH is pronounced,
but there’s even more controversy about what it means.
You can fall down a deep, deep hole
in the internet reading different theories.
Because of the context,
most people think it’s somehow once again
playing on the Hebrew verb “hayah,”
which means “to be,” “to exist,” “to happen,” “to become.”

For all of you who completely zoned out
during that fascinating journey through linguistics,
let me summarize:

God has a name, and it isn’t God.
But we don’t know how to pronounce it,
and it has no real discernible content beyond “I am.”

What’s your reaction when you ask your God, “Who are you?”
and your God answers, “I am that I am”?

Do you find it deep and beautifully philosophical?
Or does it inspire some other reaction in you?

The lead singer of the band Vampire Weekend is named Ezra Koenig.
Ezra’s own name hints at his Jewish identity,
but the truth is, he has a complicated relationship with Jewish faith,
which is evident in his music.

He sings a song called “Ya-Hey,”
a purposeful mispronunciation of Yahweh,
which I think is a sardonic nod to the rabbis don’t want God’s name spoken.

The chorus to the song goes like this:

“Through the fire and through the flames
You won’t even say your name
Only “I am that I am.”
But who could ever live that way?

He’s frustrated by the fact that God’s answer to Moses
through the fire and flame of the burning bush
sounds very much like a non-answer.
Who could live with a God who refuses to reveal themself?

When God simply says, “I AM,”
It can feel like God is playing hide and seek.

When God says,
“I shall be what I shall be,” or “is-ness is is-ness,”
it can feel like God is cheating at hide and seek.

Do you get the sense that this is a God who plays by any rules?

This is a God who cannot be compared to the sun like Ra
or represented by any animal, like the falcon-headed god Horus,
because God preceded and created all those things,
God is the underneath everything that is.

This God declares independence from any created thing.
This is a God who is completely and utterly free,
who can’t even be tied down to a pronounceable name.

This God, He reserves the right to define himself on his own terms.
This God, She moves in mysterious ways.
This God will not fit into a gendered box,
or any other box for that manner.
This God shatters any boxes we try to put around them.
This God shatters any images we try to create of them,
except the diverse images we ourselves are of this God.

And maybe this is unsatisfying,
but maybe this abstract non-answer is also a subtle invitation,
sparking our curiosity without satisfying our desire for full revelation,
hinting that Moses, and we too,
need to lean in and learn more about this God,
more of God’s uniqueness, specificity, and reputation,
not through a name or an image,
but through what this God does, through how this God acts.
This is a dynamic God who happens.

But this God who acts still makes me uncomfortable.
Because even in this very passage,
this God is talking about some conflicting actions.
This God is freeing one people
and giving them the land of another people,

So I can’t decide if this is a God of liberation or of colonialism.
And that brings me to the core question for me,
and I think for Moses too, which is:
Can I trust this God?
Can I trust an anonymous God?
Can I have faith in a God who won’t show their face, only their backside?
Can I lay my life on the line for a God who can’t be pinned down?

My answer is, very honestly, no.
I really cannot trust this God.
I would not have made a good patriarch…
or if I were, I would have been most like Jacob, who wrestled with this God.

I wrestle with this God who is said to have hardened Pharaoh’s heart,
who is said to have allowed the death of so many firstborn
as collateral damage in a divine pissing match,
who is said to have sanctioned the genocide of the Canaanites.

This is a God who I hope is obscured by the humanity of biblical authors
who cast Him in their own image, as we are all prone to do.

But I have an advantage that Moses did not have.
And at risk of jumping ahead in this story we’re telling sequentially this year,
I’m going to remind you what it is.

Centuries after Moses died,
God revealed another name.  A much more pronounceable name.
God voluntarily pinned Godself down.
God showed God’s face, God’s own image, to the world.
This high God Yahweh whose name was too holy to be spoken
was revealed to be God With Us.

At that time, God shattered and ruptured
and queered several more boxes and boundaries.
The boundary between divine and human.
The boundary between death and life.
The boundary between us and them.

When my idea of God is slippery, and I’m sliding down,
and I don’t know how to interpret certain parts of the Bible,
or whether I can trust this strange God,

I remember that Jesus said, “Truly, truly, before Abraham was, I AM.”
I remember that Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.
Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”

And I don’t fully understand everything Jesus did –
– he is still at times more strange than familiar –
but I trust the person Jesus is.
I trust the love I see in the life Jesus lived.

The God in the burning bush intrigues me,
but the crucified God, the God who suffers with me,
that’s the God I’ll follow into the wilderness.
That’s the God whose name I know.

Beth Carlson-Malena

One Response to “The God whose name isn’t God”

  1. Wayne Morgan

    This is an awesome sermon – I like how you tell and develop the story and your own honest thoughts to inspires us.


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