God said to Moses, “Speak thus to the people of Israel, ‘Yahweh, the god of your ancestors, the god of Abraham, the god of Isaac, and the god of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and this is my memorial from generation to generation.”– Exodus 3:15
If God had a name, what would it be? And would you call it to his face if you were faced with him in all of his glory? – Joan Osborne, One of Us
In the land where I am from
we worshipped the nameless God.
We built shrines to honor
and sang songs to praise
the God who had no name, no face, no form.
With fear and with trembling,
with heads bowed low and eyes cast down,
with reverence and awe
we approached our unnamed God.
In the land where I am from, we had names for many things. There was a name for the summer that lingers late into fall, a name for the time between sunset and darkness. Each of my brothers had names, and each of my sisters, and each of the animals we tended. But my God was a nameless god.
I cannot speak for the others of my tribe; I speak only for myself:
I was never able to love
a god I could not name.
In the land where I am from,
when we have no name for a thing,
we call it “thing.”
When I have no name for a god,
I call it “God.”
And so I did.
We all did, in the land where I am from.
Only when I left the land of modernity, when I began to read the ancient texts with ancient eyes, did I meet my God again. But this time, my God spoke his name. Like learning another tribe’s constellations—the same stars but in different shapes—there was a god who walked a beautiful garden in the breeze of the day, and he called himself Yahweh.
This, too, was the god who ate with Abraham beneath the shade of a tree, who spoke with Moses face to face, who was seen by the elders of Israel—they met him upon a mountain, and they rejoiced to look upon him as a table was spread with food. And the god who walked, who spoke, who ate, this god had a name, and it was Yahweh.
But what’s in a name? I cannot say, exactly. I can only tell you that when my nameless God took up his name, a hundred locked doors were suddenly flung open before me. Suddenly, there was something here, someone here, with whom I could interact, with whom I could communicate. When God took a name, there was identity, there was substance, there was being. And the world began to shift, swiftly tilting, moving from the vocabulary of concept and of title into the realm of relationship and affinity.
I had never been able to love God, but Yahweh I can love. It was presumptuous for me, a mere human, to lift my eyes up to God, but I do not fear to seek Yahweh’s face. And there could be no wrestling; no doubting was tolerable with God, but Yahweh asks me to lay myself bare and hears my laments. Yahweh can empathize with me, and I with him… something I had never found possible with God.
When my nameless God took up his name, a hundred new worlds unfolded around me, a hundred new stars bloomed in the night. I stood still, and he passed before me, and he spoke his name aloud.
To speak one’s name is to dispense with titles and to lay aside formality; it is an invitation to become intimates. Yahweh speaks his name that we may begin to know him as we would know one another. He speaks it because he longs for relationship, as messy and as complicated as that may be. Yahweh speaks his name in order to reveal his personality, inviting us in to his interior self.
When Moses stood in the cloven rock, Yahweh passed before him and proclaimed his name aloud. It is a declaration of his personality, of what he means when he says “I.” He proclaimed, "Yahweh, Yahweh, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, showing kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, but who will not leave the merciless unpunished." - Exodus 34:6-7
What’s in a name? I do not know. But for one such as me, it has made all the difference.
For a larger conversation about God in Exodus, check out the interview Sebastian recorded with Old Testament scholar Terence Fretheim here.
Sebastian Faust makes no claims to the throne and has no designs on small, undefended countries. He takes life by the reins, bulls by the horns, tigers by the tail, and lives a life rather ordinary in Nashville, Tennessee. He currently holds the position of Dauphin at On Pop Theology. You can’t follow Sebastian on Twitter because he doesn’t understand technology, but he appreciates hand-written notes sent by post or well-mannered carrier pigeon.
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Image #1 via Sebastian Faust
Image #2 via Eensteen
Image #3 via Tom Paton
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