With these chapters we start the Book of Exodus, and ‘Act Three’ of the drama of the Bible, which lasts for the rest of the Old Testament. Where so far we’ve seen God in relation to the whole world and then to one family, now he’s focussing on one nation – Israel. That’s going to change a lot of things about how God works and speaks. Now there’s a need for leaders, for structures and rules, which will shape the story for well over a thousand years to come. So it’s important that we have Genesis as a lead-in to this.
Here we read the beginning of the story of Moses, with all the familiar bits of attempted genocide, crafty midwives and a courageous big sister; the story of how Pharoah’s cruelty would eventually become Egypt’s downfall.
Then there’s the central story of the burning bush. And here is where the picture of God is drawn for us.
It’s worth a quick pause to look first at how Moses meets with God. He’s tending his father-in-law’s sheep when he sees the burning bush and pauses for a closer look. It’s only then that God speaks and calls him closer. How often do we miss what God has to say to us because we don’t stop to look at the wonders alongside us, busy with our own equivalent of looking after the Sheep?
When Moses comes closer, God speaks to him, and introduces himself. And there are two parts to that introduction.
The God of your fathers
It’s probably worth noting that God doesn’t really give himself a name, as such. The gods of the nations around all had names, like Marduk, Osiris, Baal and so on. The God of the Bible doesn’t, really – though we use some of the images we read, and the ‘name’ he is about to reveal – as names to help us to relate to him.
First of all, God introduces himself in his relation to Moses and Israel.
“I am the God of your father/ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.”
So God starts by naming himself in relation to Moses – and indeed to us. The first key thing when we talk about God is that he is the God who has been with us in the past, in unchanging love and faithfulness. That is more important than a ‘name’ in itself.
The Great I AM
Yet Moses still presses this God for a name. After all, he’d grown up in Egypt surrounded by temples to many gods. To which one was he speaking now? Or was it the God, whose name we don’t know, whom Jethro served? He wants a name to take to the people.
And again God doesn’t really come up with a name as such, though we won’t do better until we get to the New Testament.
‘God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM”.’
That’s it. God needs no name, he simply IS. And while I know it’s a convention in translation, it’s the sort of IS that needs capital letters. I remember being asked by a Year 5/6 class at Breadsall primary school whether God was real. The only answer I could give was that God was more real than anything, including more real than me or them. For without God there would be no reality to be part of. When God says ‘I AM’ then it’s a statement in mile-high stone letters, a statement not just about one supernatural being whom we name to distinguish from all the others. It’s a statement about the whole basis of being, of ‘Am-ness’. I am me only because God is God.
Yet this fundamental ground of reality, this one true certainty, is the God of my ancestors too. And in time he will be the God of my grandchildren’s ancestors. Because he is, incredibly, my God too.
So God may not have a name he can write on a badge. But HE IS – and he is for me.