I’m not sure that we can get a more famous scene in the book of Exodus than the scene of God speaking with Moses from the burning bush. The scene is dramatic, memorable, and gripping. It is perfect for movies. And almost everybody, even those who are not students of the Bible, know something of it.
Included in that scene is the question Moses asks the Lord about his name. Moses knows God is sending him to Egypt to bring out God’s people. Moses wants to know what name he should use for God. He wants to know what to say if they ask what is God’s name.
Exodus 3:13-14 – 13 Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I am has sent me to you.’ ”
God tells Moses, “I am who I am.” On the surface, this does not seem terribly helpful. But, a bit of consideration here is very helpful.
First, let me not go down the often traveled road of many modern teachers. I’ve heard people say that the “I am” is open-ended so that we can know that God is everything we need. Certainly, God has no lack in his ability to supply our needs, our joys, our comforts, and all the rest. However, I do not know that this is behind the name.
I would think it more likely that God was letting Moses know that God is, well, God. Moses and the people of Israel living in Egypt do not get to define him. This is not to say that God is beyond being defined. But, it is the Lord, through his revelation of himself through his word, who will define himself. He is not going to be simply the God who rescues or the God who comforts or the God who heals or the God who judges. Such are pieces that are too small to be the entirety of the Lord. God is God, the ultimate God over all. He is Lord, and he will not be subject to our wishful thinking as to his ways or limits.
Consider how a restrictive name might have impacted Moses’ mission. He goes to Egypt and tells people that God has called the people to leave the land of their slavery. They want to know God’s name. Then, pretend that Moses does what we often do in modern Christianity and begins to define God based on what the people seem to want at the time. Would Moses be describing the reality of God? This is not likely. The people wanted rescue and freedom. They wanted to be out from under the yoke of their harsh task masters. But, did they want a God who would, in the next 40 years, watch them die in the desert for their refusal to obey his commands?
When we consider the phrase, “I am who I am,” we must consider the truth that God is God, whether we want him to be or not. We do not get to reshape him in our ways. We do not get to tell him how he should have done things. It is not ever our place to approve of or disapprove of his choices in our lives. God is God. He is who he Is. He is perfect, holy, righteous, and all the other things he revealed to us over the centuries of revelation in Scripture. He is not someone to be repackaged for a new generation.
In many ways, we have a Moses-like job. We are called by God to walk into a land of slavery and hostility. We are to locate people who belong to the Lord and call them to leave the land of their slavery for a place of life. In so many ways, this is evangelism.
As we try to tell the world around us about Jesus, about the call of the Lord to leave this land, they may question us as to the identity of the Lord. What is his name? How foolish we are to try to drum up a good ad campaign for God, shining on the Lord the light that we think the world most wants to see. He did not leave such an option open to us. We cannot rename God as a person who approves of things the world loves even though the Scripture has called it sin. We cannot reshape the image of God to make him into someone who would never judge, who makes human autonomy the ultimate good, and who expects no faithfulness from those he rescues. No, the Lord is the Lord, he is who he is. And we, if we are to be faithful, must present the world with the genuine picture of the God who calls them out of the land of slavery.
May we learn from the name of God given to Moses. May we present the Lord as who he is and not as what we think the world wants him to be. May we also serve him as who he is, and not based on how we want our lives to be. The reward is the promised land of eternal life, eternal joy, and eternal perfection. The reward is worth any of the hardships we face in the here and now as we find ourselves having to be reshaped into God’s image instead of us reshaping God into ours.
And, we must recognize that, in our own Christian walks, God is who God is. That means that when things do not go the way that we want, we have no right to declare God to have failed us or mistreated us. God is, by definition, perfect and holy. His ways are right. His understanding is beyond us. We cannot rightly redefine him as a different kind of being based on how we feel about what has occurred in our lives. God is God. God is Lord over all, even over our every moment. And we best honor him when we understand this: He is who he is, and he is always, always exactly right and pure and perfect in every way.