What’s in a name? A look at the character of God revealed in Exodus 3

As a kid, I always loved hearing the origins and meanings of everybody’s names. I also enjoyed explaining the meaning behind my own: Sarah has a Hebrew origin and carries the meaning “princess”, while Hinkel has Germanic roots meaning “chicken”, thus giving me a title that will never cease to make me laugh– Princess Chicken. While modern names are not always chosen for the meaning behind them, names in the Bible carry immense meaning and add to the events surrounding them. One of my favorite examples of this is in the book of Ruth when Naomi, whose name means “pleasantness”, changes her name to Mara as an expression of her “bitterness” towards God after losing her family and provisions. 

Throughout the Bible, God is known by many titles and epithets including Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6), the Alpha and Omega (Revelation 1:8), the Word (John 1:1), King of King, Lord of Lords (Revelation 19:16), a Shepherd (Psalm 23:1 and John 10:11), Redeemer, Holy One of Israel (Isaiah 41:14), Immanuel (Matthew 1:23), and an Everlasting Rock (Isaiah 26:4). We can learn a lot about God and His character by looking at His names and the meaning behind them. Oftentimes in the Bible, we get the titles of God –although divinely inspired– ascribed by man. In Exodus 3 however, God Himself reveals His name to Moses through the episode of the burning bush.

I wish I could have seen Moses’ reaction to experiencing God through the burning bush. Not only was a bush engulfed in flames without being consumed, but God was speaking to him! Even more astounding, the voice knew him by name (Exodus 3:4-6)!! While this first point does not deal with a specific title of God, it reveals a lot about His character as a personal God. In other texts from the Near East, deities rarely address humans by name and have little care for the experiences and outcomes of humans. In addition to showing an individual connection with His people by addressing Moses by name, God shows His deep love for them through His plan to bring them out of Egypt, stating that “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings” (Exodus 3:7). The story of God’s people is far from perfect– even after He leads His people out of Egypt, the Israelites disobey God and seek salvation in other sources. Even Moses–who had murdered an Egyptian in the previous chapter– was far from perfect and would disobey God in the future.[1] Yet God still loved him and was able to use Moses in His plan to save His people. Just as God showed His great love for the Israelites by creating a plan to save them from slavery and bring them into the promised land, God showed His great love for us by saving us from slavery to sin through His Son, Jesus.  

While God tells him of His plan to save the Israelites, Moses asks, “Who am I?” to take on this task God has given him. God does not answer why He chose Moses; rather He simply affirms that He is with Moses, echoing His later title Immanuel initially introduced in Isaiah 7:14 and reiterated in Matthew 1:23, meaning “God with us”. As Moses returns to Egypt to convince Pharaoh to let the Israelites go, God works through him and creates displays that could not have been produced by man, it is clear how God is in control of the situation. As Moses approaches Pharaoh in the subsequent chapters, we hear how the Lord constantly speaks with Moses and that the Lord is sovereign over Pharaoh’s heart. While God may not have called us to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, God calls His believers to a commission of our own in the New Covenant:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. 
—Matthew 28:18-20

Just as Moses did not have to face Pharaoh alone, we do not have to face the world or our troubles and trials alone. 

When Moses asks God how he should introduce Him to the Israelites, He tells him that His name is יהוה‎ (typically transliterated as YHWH and normalized in English as Yaweh), which has uncertain etymology, but is typically translated as “I am”– although there have been some alternate translations put forth.[2] Some scholars have also suggested a meaning of “to enter into a relationship with”.[3] If we take this meaning, it further reflects the concept of God being with Moses and us, highlighting His desire to be in a relationship with His creation. This presents a starkly different picture from other ancient religions, which were much more transactional in nature. 

If we take the traditional translation of “I am who I am”, this also reveals a great deal about God’s character. The phrase “I am who I am” signifies that there is nothing higher for God to be identified with; there are no greater titles or epithets for God to be defined by. The concept of “I am” also demonstrates the everlasting nature of God. In John 8, this concept is reflected as the Pharisees try to disprove Jesus’ claims about being the Messiah and the son of God. In doing so, the Pharisees bring up their connections to Abraham and the Old Covenant. Eventually in verse 58, Jesus states: “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). “I am” always was, is, and will be from before creation, to the establishment of the Old Covenant with Abraham, to the Exodus, to the establishment of the New Covenant and the death of Jesus, and beyond the Second Coming and establishment of the New Heavens and the New Earth. יהוה‎ always is and always will be with us.

[1]  See Exodus 2:11-15 and Numbers 20:6-13
[2]  Also sometimes Latinized as Jehovah
[3]  Walton, John H. “The Name Yahweh.” In Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the OldTestament, 2nd ed., 52-53. N.p.: Baker Academic, 2018.

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