In the second chapter of his book The God of the Old Testament: Encountering the Divine in Christian Scripture, R. W. L. Moberly deals with “The Mysterious God: The Voice from the Fire in Exodus 3.”
For the complete review of the book, visit my previous post, Book Review: “The God of the Old Testament.”
The revelation of “the mysterious God” comes at the occasion of God’s revelation of himself to Moses on Mount Horeb, the mountain of God. The title of the chapter was probably drawn from Rudolf Otto’s book, The Idea of the Holy in which Otto depicts God as mysterium tremendum et fascinans, a mystery that engenders fear and fascination. Moberly quotes Otto’s book on page 56.
The Call of Moses
When Moses ascended the mountain, he did not expect to find God. He was curious about the bush on fire which was not being consumed. Moberly draws attention to the fact that in the theophany, Yahweh only speaks to Moses after Moses turns aside to look at the bush. Why Yahweh did not talk to Moses before that event, the biblical writer does not tell his readers the reason for God’s silence.
Moberly says that fire is the primary symbol of the presence of God (p. 55). The fire symbolism represents the idea of holiness. Moberly says that fire attracts because of its warmth and repeals because of the pain it causes if a person is burned by fire. Thus, God attracts and is approachable and yet humans are limited to how close they can come to God.
Moses was in the presence of a holy God. Moses was asked to remove his shoes because he was in the presence of the divine. God identifies himself by his relationship with the ancestors of Israel. The God who revealed himself to Moses identified himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God tells Moses that he was aware of Israel’s suffering and that he was about to deliver his people.
God told Moses that he was sending him to bring Israel out of Egypt. Moberly discusses the concept of being sent in the Old Testament. He says: “To be ‘sent’ by God— to act in response to an initiative from God and not on one’s own initiative— is the core conception of Hebrew prophecy” (p. 58).
This concept of sending also applies to the relationship between God and humans. Moberly writes: “God acts, and this action is realized in and through the actions and words of those humans whom He calls to His service. Humans are given the dignity and privilege of implementing the purposes of God on earth” (p. 59). Moberly says that “the invitation to implement God’s purpose is a privilege and responsibility; it can give meaning and direction to human life” (p. 59).
However, the call to serve God may not be good news because when one accepts God’s call to be involved in carrying out God’s purpose in life, the call “brings a demand one must go and do something that will change one’s life completely” (p. 59).
Moses’ response to God’s call was apprehension and reluctance. “He feels overwhelmed and inadequate for the task that God was giving him” (p. 60). God does not force Moses to accept the call to serve him. Instead, God provides an answer to each of his objections. He reassures him that he will be with him through the journey. When Moses says that the people may not believe in him, Yahweh enables Moses to perform signs that will confirm that he was sent by God.
The Giving of the Divine Name
Moberly spends a large portion of this chapter discussing the many issues related to the revelation of the divine name to Moses. In his dialogue with God, Moses asks God: “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” (Exodus 3:13). God answers Moses: “‘I AM WHO I AM.’ He said further, Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:14).
Moberly discusses the relationship between v. 13 and v. 14. According to Moberly, v. 14 answers Moses’ question in v. 13; v. 14 seems to be an explanation of v. 13. However, v. 15 contains the divine name YHWH. Moberly also discusses the relationship between the divine name and the Hebrew verb hāyāh, “to be.” Thus, when God speaks about himself, he is ̛ehyeh, “I AM,” the first person form of the verb hāyāh. When people speak about God, he is YHWH, the third person form of the verb hāyāh.
Moberly introduces an Excursus in which he discusses four issues related to the divine name: 1. The distinctiveness of Exodus 3:13-15 in Context; 2. Does Exodus 3 depict Israel’s first knowledge of God as YHWH?; 3. Does Israel’s imagined question envisage a polytheistic background?; and 4. The Kenite Hypothesis.
On the issue of Israel’s knowledge of the name of God, Moberly writes, “I argue that the divine name is indeed to be understood as newly given to Moses and that all the uses in Genesis are . . . retrojections of Israel’s familiar name for God into the world of the ancestors” (p. 67). On the issue of the Kenite Hypothesis, Moberly emphasizes that it was YHWH himself who revealed the divine name to Moses.
The Interpretation of the Divine Name
Moberly deals with the problem of translating ehyeh asher ehyeh (Exodus 3:14), whether the divine name should be translated in the present tense, “I am who I am” or in the future tense, “I will be what I will be.” Moberly takes his clue from Exodus 33:19b and says that he is inclined to use the present tense to translate the name (pp. 71-72).
Moberly asks if “I am what I am” gives the meaning to “YHWH,” then what is that meaning of “I am what I am”? (p. 72). Moberly presents the proposals of several scholars before presenting his own view. Moberly believes the divine name symbolizes God’s presence with his people and at the same time reflects the mystery that is God. Using Terence Fretheim views about Exodus 3:14, “the more one understands God, the more mysterious God becomes,” Moberly says that the divine name points “to the mystery which is intrinsic to the nature of God, a mystery of reality which needs to be engaged in order to be in any way understood, and in which the understanding transcends rational categories, but which is active in the life of Israel” (p. 81).
Moberly concludes his study of the revelation of the divine name by discussing Exodus 3:14 in the Greek translation of the Septuagint, how Exodus 3:14 is cited in the New Testament, and how Exodus 3:14 was interpreted by the early church.
The Septuagint translates the divine name as “I Am the One Who Is.” The Book of Revelation identifies Jesus as “he who is” (Revelation 1:4, 8), a clear utilization of Exodus 3:14. The two passages where Jesus identifies with the “I am” (John 8:24, 58) is also an allusion to Exodus 3:14.
In his conclusion, Moberly says that Exodus 3 is important to Jews and Christians because “human knowledge of the one God is possible because this one God has given Himself to be known” (p. 88).
Moberly’s study of the call of Moses and the revelation of the divine name provides a wealth of information that deserves careful study. The God who revealed himself to Moses is the God who took human form in the person of Jesus Christ and lived among us.
My next post will deal with Chapter 3, “The Just God: The Nature of Deity in Psalm 82.”
Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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