The revelation of the Divine Name (יהוה; YHWH or Yahweh) occurs in the context of the call of Moses. Interestingly, God reveals his name in an answer to an objection raised by Moses. Moses is reluctant to be the rescuer of the Israelites enslaved in Egypt. Let’s learn more about the significance of the Divine Name and the call of Moses with some notes from the Old and New Testament Library volume on Exodus by Brevard Childs.  

Yahweh Reveals Himself and Calls Moses

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?” 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 also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.

Exodus 3:13-15

These chapters are characterized throughout by an interaction between the human and the divine. The section recounts a revelation of God to Moses. It issues in a divine commissioning of a messenger. It relates at length Moses’ resistance to his inclusion in the divine plan. The intertwining of God’s redemptive purpose for Israel with the reaction of his chosen vehicle forms the warp and woof of the call narrative.

Moses Objects to the Call

Moses raises a second objection to the call. ‘Assuming that 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?’ Is this a genuine question? Was it something needful for Moses to know as God’s messenger? It remains part of the exegetical question at issue to determine from the biblical context whether the question is a genuine one of faith or not. Its role here cannot be simply assumed on the basis of general analogy.

Certainly in its present context Moses’ question is viewed as one in a series of objections (see 3:11; 4:1, 10). It is part of the prophet’s resistance. The issue as to whether it reflects the genuine concern of a prudent man or an artificial pretext of the doubter has, therefore, been somewhat relativized. The question is colored by the others in the series which more and more reflect doubt and outright excuse-making. Clearly the present text does not view Moses’ concern as something absolutely needful to his office which God inadvertently failed to clarify.

It is now our task to hear this testimony as it found its place within chapter 3. What is the import of the question in its present context?

Yahweh Responds to Moses’ Objection

Moses conjectures that the people will respond with a query. They will react to the announcement of his commission with the question, ‘What is his name?’ The question contains both a request for information and an explanation of its significance. These are two aspects of the one question. Clearly the people want to know more about God’s intention. By requesting his name, they seek to learn his new relationship to them. Formerly he related to them as the God of the Fathers. What will he be to Israel now?

In the answers which follow the major point of the original tradition which concerned the revelation of the divine name Yahweh has been modified by its new position within the larger narrative. God first directs an answer to Moses which is explicitly distinguished from the answer intended for the people in response to their hypothetical question. The answer addresses itself to the question of God’s intention. The fact that this answer is directed to Moses indicates that the question is not taken simply at face value. It reveals as much of Moses as it does of the people. He has cloaked his own doubt as to God’s intention in terms of the people’s query. God deals first with his problem which again indicates the description of prophetic resistance is still being portrayed. God said to Moses, ‘I will be who I will be.’

The Revelation of the Divine Name

The word-play on the name of God (’ehyeh-yahweh) confirms the connection between name and significance. The formula is paradoxically both an answer and a refusal of an answer. The tenses of the formula indicate that more than a senseless tautology is intended, as if to say, I am who I am, a self-contained, incomprehensible being. Moses is not simply refuted as was Manoah (Judg. 14.18). Rather God announces that his intentions will be revealed in his future acts, which he now refuses to explain.

The paronomastic formula (i.e., a play on words), which gives the answer its indefinite quality, also testifies that the reality of God will not be different from that made known in his revelation. The accent of the formula in 14a falls on the first verb, as is shown by 14b. God’s intention for Moses is an expression of his being God and will be manifest according to his own plan. A positive answer is given to Moses, but one which neither condones his doubt nor satisfies his curiosity.

The Meaning of the Divine Name

Next God addresses an answer to the people’s query which was posed by Moses. ‘Say this to the people of Israel: “I AM has sent me to you!’” Moses’ answer to the people can only reflect what God has revealed to him. He knows no more of God’s intention than has been revealed in the formula. The people also will experience God’s purpose by what he does in their future. But the God who has made known his reality has sent his messenger as the medium through whom the divine purpose will begin to work. Once the significance of the name has been explained, the ineffable name itself is given in a sentence which parallels v. 14b: Yahweh is the God of the Fathers. He is the one who sent Moses. The people’s question has been directly answered, but first the intention which it contained was carefully defined.

The final phrase of v. 15 indicated by its shift in person is again addressed to Moses: ‘This is my name for ever and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.’ God’s answer began with Moses. It now draws the theological implications for the revelation far beyond the immediate concern of Moses’ original question. God has revealed himself to Moses in his eternal name. This is the name which will then be cultically remembered by his people throughout the generations. The revelation of the name in Israel is not to satisfy curiosity, but to be the medium of continuous worship.

Keep Reading the Old and New Testament Library

The Old and New Testament Library series is an extensive commentary on the whole Bible. Volumes in this series include commentaries on the books of the Bible and theological topics. Visit our website where you can purchase the volume on Exodus mentioned above or learn more about the entire series.

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