Reflection on Exodus 4-13-16

by John Keehan Profiles in Catholicism



When God speaks to Moses in Exodus 4/ 13-14, it is grammatically in the first person in direct address, one person to another. This was preserved in Exodus 4/ 13-15: which came from the northern, Elohist or Priestly tradition:

Then Moses said to God, “I am to go then to the sons of Israel and say to them, “The God of your fathers has sent me to you.” But if they ask me what his name is, what am I to tell them?”

And God said to Moses, I Am who I Am [Ehyeh asher Ehyeh].

This, he added, is what you must say to the sons of Israel: Ehyeh has sent me to you.

The highly personal first person singular: “Ehyeh,” changes to the third person “Yahweh.” That change probably reflects a revision of Genesis by one of the Deuteronomist editors.


And God also said to Moses, You are to say to the sons of Israel: Yahweh , the God of your Fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob has sent me to you.” This is my name for all time: By this name shall I be invoked for all generations to com.


Exodus 4/ 16: The southern or Yahwist tradition.

Go and gather the elders of Israel together and tell them, Yahweh, the God of your fathers, has appeared to me, the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob; and he has said to me: I have visited you and seen all that the Egyptians are doing to you.


In the Yahwist tradition the name of Yahweh goes back all the way to the Flood. In the northern tradition God revealed himself to the Patriarchs as “El Shaddai.” He only revealed Himself as, “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh” [ I am who I am, or I am what I am] to Moses at the burning bush. Ehyeh was an archaic form of the verb “to be.” It may have been in use in the time of Moses, but not by the time of Deuteronomy.


I am what I am may be simply a statement that God is a mystery. God states that he had a relationship to The Fathers, and did wonderful things for them.


There was a theology of the name. To have the name of a human gave one power over him, or at least over his reputation. The culture often treated their gods much like powerful human beings with special powers. To know the name of a god was thought to give one power over that god, or the possibility of manipulating a god, as a clever person might manipulate a king or warlord. No one has such power over this God. [cf. “in the name of Jesus . . .” in Hebrew “la shem . . .].


Yahweh replaced Ehyeh. Yahweh is in the third person, and means, He who is, or is real, as opposed to Idols which are nothing. It no longer indicates the personal relationship, but an institutionalization of the relationship.


Later traditions, influenced by the assumptions about the name of a god, assumed that the name of the God of the Hebrew gave them power. Institutionalization of the religious practices of Israel further changed use of the “name” of God with laws to protect God’s name from misuse in oaths or invocations.


EXODUS 20/ 17:


You shall not utter the name of Yahweh, your God, to misuse it, for Yahweh will not leave unpunished the man who utters his name to misuse it.


Leviticus 19/ 12 explains this clearly, using it to swear falsely.


The Septuagint translated “misuse” by “in vain,” a reference to something empty or useless.


Today, observant Jews do not use even the word Yahweh, but prefer “Ha Shem,” literally, “the Name.”


Matthew 14/ 27: “It is I,” literally, “I am! Do not be afraid.”


Significantly, Jesus quotes the passage about the Go

d of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as indicating that they are still alive with God, who has a relationship with them, more powerful than death.


There is only one real mystery the relationship of the persons of the trinity. The Father so loved us that he sent his son to become a human being and to teach us that the Father loves us. The Gospels have several examples where Jesus tries to explain to his disciples that they should think more like God and less like the rest of the human race.

Our relationship to the Father is through the Son who shares our humanity. Jesus’ trust and love of the Father meant that he practiced the sort of love the Father had for all. His ability to love his disciples was the love that comes ultimately from the Father. And his disciples loved people with a love that came from the Father, through Jesus. So too hopefully the love we offer others can come from God, not merely from hormones.