God’s first encounter with Moses is like a case study in what he was like; both us and beyond-us, both near and distant, both alien and human. According to the book of Exodus, God said,
“And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I
have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them.
So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh
to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”
But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and
bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”
It seems to me that God was trying to help Moses see the close and human side. He told the man that he stands in solidarity with his people. It seem like this wasn’t enough for Moses; he resists. And he resists in a way I find particularly interesting. He says, “Who am I?”
This is interesting because, up to a certain point, we have established that God knows who this is. The whole thing begins with the burning bush saying Moses’ name. What happens next, it seems to me, indicates that a related question Moses needed to ask was, “Who are you?”
And God said, “I will be with you. And this will be the
sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you
have brought the people out of Egypt, you will
worship God on this mountain.”
Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites
and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’
and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”
I have been there. Maybe you have to. Dealing with somebody intimidating, powerful, somebody it is hard to speak your mind to. So we take this approach where we just say, “Hey, I am good with the whole thing. But just in case somebody else isn’t, what are we supposed to say?”
God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say
to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’”
God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, 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 forever,
the name you shall call me
from generation to generation.
People so much smarter than me have said so many interesting things about the meaning and nature of the name that God gives here. Richard Rohr talks about how the insights of a rabbi lead him to understand that the name, which we take to mean something like “I am who I am” sounds and feels like a breath.
Breath, which is where life begins. Breath, that center piece of meditation. Breath, that process that begins with birth and ends with death. Just as God is both with us and beyond us, just as he as empathic and an alien, burning-not burning bush, God has a name which is much like our names, and also so very different than our names.
There is a tradition of declaring God’s name unsayable. And yet, to the extent that God’s name is a breath itself, we say it more than we say any name at all. Declaring His name unsayable is a way to point at God’s transcendence. It is a declaration that we can not limit, contain, and fully understand God. And yet, that act of breathing, is an act of waging peace, an act of taking control of ourselves.