The story of God speaking to Moses from the burning bush (Exodus 3-4) is one of the most striking stories in the Bible. Reading that story, it is almost impossible not to be struck by the wonder of it. We go about our lives, as surely Moses did, doing an honest day's work and trying to help our families and friends. Extraordinary events are few and far between.
So when one hears a story of a bush which burns without being destroyed and the voice of God emerging from that bush, one immediately becomes caught up in the miraculous nature of that event.
But tucked away in that amazing occurrence is another event which radically altered the way a primitive people understood God. These nomadic people would have understood God as present in nature and the manifestations of God as inextricably linked to the place where they occurred. If one had a mystical experience by a maple tree, for example, then that tree would forever be seen as imbued with magical power.
There was little sense that God could be beyond space, that God could be something greater than that tree itself. So, each tribe had its own gods, each tied to a particular place or object.
It is in this context that Moses, after receiving his call to liberate the Hebrew people, asks a question which strikes us as odd, but which would have been essential for someone of his understanding. Moses asks God his name. When Moses tells the people God has sent him, they will naturally wish to know which god this is.
God's reply is enigmatic. "God said to Moses, 'I am who I am.' He said further, 'Thus you shall say to the Israelites, "I am has sent me to you"'" (Ex. 3:13-14). God does not give himself what we would call a proper name. He does not say, "My name is Fred." But neither does he say, "I am the God beyond all knowing, the God beyond all names."
With his name, Yahweh God establishes his closeness to his people. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it: "God has a name; he is not an anonymous force" (no. 203). Because God has a name, we can establish a personal relationship with God. We can call on God; we can invoke his name.
But Yahweh God is not a God trapped by space and time. We cannot simply identify this God with the burning bush. His name points us toward mystery, to something far beyond our ability to comprehend. This is not simply one God among other gods, but an eternal God, the God who is the seed and the root of all being. God may be manifest in nature, but God is beyond the natural realm.
This has enormous implications for how we ought to live our lives. God is close to us, very close, but also far greater than us. We can establish a relationship with God. But we cannot control him by speaking his name or offering him sacrifices. "Faced with God's fascinating and mysterious presence, man discovers his own insignificance" (Catechism, no. 208). People are subject to God and not God to us.
This combination of God's transcendence and God's closeness is exceedingly difficult for us to hold together. The Jewish leaders at the time of Jesus waited for a messiah. But they could not accept that God would take human form. When Jesus identified himself with God, they tore their garments and had him put to death.
Peter did accept that Jesus was God, but thought that Jesus' divinity was a ticket to glory in this world. When it became clear that Jesus was to be put to death, Peter proclaimed, "I do not know this man." He could not accept how much like us God would become.
Pope John Paul describes the development of the synagogue and of Islam as protests against Christianity's insistence that God loves us so much that he would die to redeem us from our sins.
The pope writes: "Neither can accept a God who is so human. 'It is not suitable to speak of God in this way,' they protest. 'He must remain absolutely transcendent; he must remain pure majesty. Majesty full of mercy, certainly, but not to the point of paying for the faults of his own creatures, for their sins'" (Crossing the Threshold of Hope, p. 41).
God reveals his name, his being, to Moses on Mount Horeb as an act of love for his people. God wants not so much to be known as to set his people free from slavery. At the very core of God's being is a powerful, powerful love. "In the course of its history, Israel was able to discover that God had only one reason to reveal himself to them, a single motive for choosing them from among all peoples as his special possession: his sheer gratuitous love" (Catechism, no. 218).
Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 -- Western Catholic Reporter
Our mission: To serve our readers by bringing the Gospel to bear on current issues in the Church and in secular culture through accurate news coverage and reflective commentary.