I AM: What’s in a Name?April 19th, 2013 by Oleg Kostyuk
What’s in a name? Well, what if I introduced myself to you as, “my name is a man”? You would probably add, “Yes, but what is your name?” This is the setting that I would like us to experience now.
The greatest prophet of the Hebrew religion is Moses. What Muhammad is for Muslims, Moses is for Judeo-Christian thought. God revealed himself to Moses and that is why we have the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. But it is HOW God revealed himself to Moses that draws our attention. In order to see that, we need to travel to the desert of the Middle East. Moses fled Egypt and for forty years he tended the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, who happened to be the priest of Midian (Exodus 3:1). After forty years of this humbling task he received a revelation of God. God appeared to him in – of all things – a burning bush (Exodus 3:4). What an unusual way for God to talk with humans! Why did God choose a thornbush to reveal himself to Moses? In other instances in the Bible, God revealed himself through grander methods: he met with Abraham under the great trees (Gen. 18:1) and, later, he would reveal himself to Moses on a mountain (Exodus 19:3). But here God chooses just a bush in the desert. How much lower could he go than that?
Which brings us back to the question: why the thornbush? Might it have been chosen precisely because it was a scrub? To the Egyptians, the Israelites were scrubs – thornbushes. Scrub people – like scrub bushes – count for little; few will care if they are abused or destroyed. But God cares. He discloses the depth of his caring in a symbolic action. By dwelling in and speaking from the lowly bush, God proclaims his identification with a no-account people. The Israelites were “bush” people and God recognized that. They were not especially great or good. He knew well their rebellious thorns (Deut. 7:7-8; 9:4-6). But he loves his people and will not stand by while cruel rulers waste them.
That is why God revealed himself in such an incredible, surprising way. In fact, after Moses inquired to learn his name, God revealed his name as, “I AM WHO I AM” (Exodus 3:14). What a strange name… It is not anything like Moloch, a false god that was thirsty for children’s sacrifices and their blood. It is not Osiris, the ancient Egyptian god of life. Instead, God reveals himself as I AM. In fact, that name is known to us today as YHWH or Yahweh. There is something particularly special about these four letters: it is the present tense form of the verb “to be,” which is I AM. You see, this name is so personal and so caring that Moses, while writing the book of Genesis, made sure that we understood that YHWH highlighted the personal, caring nature of God. When depicting God creating Adam, he wrote, “And the LORD [YHWH] God formed a man of the dust of the ground” (Gen. 2:7). When Moses described God walking around the garden of Eden looking for Adam and Eve he again used the name YHWH. It is YHWH who is in search of humans, he is so loving and so caring that he is constantly seeking us out. In fact, whenever you read an English translation of the First Testament and see the word “LORD” it is a rendering of the Hebrew word YHWH. In contrast, when you read the word “God” in your Bible, it is an English translation of the Hebrew word Elohim. Elohim is also a word for God, but it highlights the bigger, mightier, more powerful nature of God; like in Genesis 1:1, where Moses writes, “In the beginning God [Elohim] created the heavens and the earth.” So Elohim is the word that describes the mighty, omnipotent aspect of God and YHWH is the name of the same God but it represents the very personal side of God, who deeply cares for his creation.
Now, let us jump to John chapter eight. Here, after a very nasty discussion between the religious leaders and Jesus – which we talked about on Cross Connection – Jesus reveals his identity. His statement is so bold and direct that it provoked an impressive reaction. Jesus says, “Before Abraham was, I AM” (John 8:58). Here Jesus simply says I am YHWH. He is the same God that formed Adam from the ground and that appeared to Moses in a bush! No wonder why the crowd took up stones to throw at him (John 8:59). Ten chapters later in John 18 we read about the arrest of Jesus when the soldiers and religious leaders approach Jesus and are ready to arrest him. Here Jesus reveals himself again by stating, “I AM.” The reaction of the crowd is especially significant, they “drew back and fell to the ground” (John 18:4-6).