I Am YHWH: The Power of a Proper Introduction

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Most turn to Exodus 3 when they want to know God’s name. Here, Moses inquires of God, “When the people ask, ‘What is His name?’ [the god who sent me to you] What shall I say to them?” and God answers, “I AM WHO I AM. I AM has sent me to you” (3:13-14).

The version in Exodus 6 seems redundant after 3:1-4:17. You can almost see the befuddled expression on some ancient scribe’s face as he holds in his hands the same encounter between God and Moses, one written by a priest and another written by one who knew God as Elohim, unwilling to toss either in the trash; so, he looks both ways to make sure the coast is clear and sticks in Exodus 6-where God introduces Himself again– to the Torah. Even if the event did historically occur twice, it’s awkward. Few people prefer the chapter 6 version.

But I do. I prefer the awkward – wait-didn’t I just read that?- version because of one line: “I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name ‘The LORD [YHWH] I did not make myself known to them.” The chapter six version isn’t merely an introduction; it’s the commencement of a revelation. God’s name-the weightiest action verb in any language-is about to be made known.

The God made known in the Torah is not Bob or Josephine. His name is “I will free,” “I will deliver,” “I will redeem,” and “I will take.” His name is “I AM,” “I have freed,” “I will bring,” and “I fulfill what I swore.” He is “I will give.”

These are the nine verbs the LORD applies to Himself in Exodus 6 immediately after the pronouncement of His name. Your ancestors knew me as a proper noun. But you will know me as a verb.

Two of the nine compose a covenant: “I will take you as my people; I will be your God” (6:7) – a king’s committed action toward a vassal. And Moses seems to be on-board. His knees are a little wobbly, but he believes this God might be who He says He is-the Great Verb God.

However, the people to whom Moses is sent are far less convinced, and their reasoning resonates throughout the ages. “Moses told this [all the Divine verbs] to the Israelites; but they would not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery” (Exodus 6.9).

They simply couldn’t hear it. This God had been silent for too long, and the oppression of slavery had chained one too many generations. The taskmasters, under Pharaoh’s orders, were ruthless. Their spirits were too broken to hear hope in elusive verbs.

Frederick Douglas experienced a similar phenomenon in slavery that only dissipated when he took brave action against Edward Covey, the man who was tasked with breaking him. It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom. My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact.[1]

Douglas learned what God knows-action breaks the chains. The actions of God are perfectly just and lead to complete freedom. But for the Israelites, the nine verbs of Exodus 6 were unsubstantiated, and the scarlet security blanket God wove into covenant around them kept them no warmer than tissue paper in the rain. That is, until God finished His proper introduction.

God shakes hands with Israel in Exodus 3 through the tetragrammaton and makes small talk in Exodus 6 with nine verbs, but He extends a proper introduction in Exodus 7:14-10:29 with nine signs. Nine moves of follow-through on nine verbs so the people would know, “Our God is the One who frees, the One who redeems, the One who gives, the One who will be. . .”. Our God revealed Himself in our suffering as superior to the gods that enslave us. Our God is I Am.

The people who arrive on the other side of the Sea of Reeds in Exodus 15 are unrecognizable from the people of Exodus 6. The women, after Miriam, joyously shake tambourines and sing songs of deliverance. The people look up at walls of water and shout praise, “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods . . . doing wonders?” (Exodus 15.11).

True, “The Baal myth is present in the whole sweep of the Song [of the Sea]” (Brenner, 19).[2] Plus, the Israelites go on to refuse to see all that the LORD is doing in their midst and forget what He has done. They fail to hold up their end of the covenant. But they do, through God’s powerful introduction in the Exodus, successfully shift from polytheism to monolatry. In time, as the LORD continues to introduce Himself, they embrace His monotheistic declaration, “I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things” (Isaiah 45:7-8).

The LORD who has done marvelous things thousands of years ago and vows to do just things at eschaton may not sound like anything but empty words to those with broken spirits. The gods of the age vie for allegiance, and demons shackle spirits. Like the Israelites, “they will not listen.” But, though the LORD is the One who was and will be, He is also the One who Is.

The LORD of the Torah is the LORD of the present; the one and only Great Verb God who frees and keeps promises now. If we can believe the tongue-tied prophets of our age and lift up our broken spirits enough to see the signs the LORD is doing in our midst today, we too -though we may be slaves in form in a foreign land – will never be slaves in fact. If our hearts are soft to the LORD’s creating with the dirt beneath our feet, we too will eat the Lamb and lace up our shoes. If we can just receive the faith He offers in His Name, we too will walk through the waters. We too will shout with the community of the redeemed. We too will sing with the Saints (tambourines optional),

“There is a God, He is alive
In Him we live and we survive
From dust our God created man
He is our God, the great I Am.”

[1] Frederick Douglas, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas,” Documenting the American South, accessed on April 11, 2019. https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/douglass/douglass.html.

[2] Brenner, Martin. “The Song of the Sea.” New York, NY: de Gruyter Publishing, 1991.

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