Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The new name

Tonight I sat down to study the Torah portion (Exodus 6:2-9:35), then began to draw comparisons between Abram (aka Abraham), Jacob and Moses in their respective experiences of God's calling, promise and blessing, covenant, testing, signs, etc. All three were 'Jews by choice', that is, by their choice to accept the covenant terms and by God's choice to call them into his service. For example, in Genesis 18:19 God says of Abraham, "I have known him," which others have translated "singled him out" (new JPS) or "chosen him" (RSV) or "embraced him" (Robert Alter).

But only Abram and Jacob received new names as part of their 'conversion' or encounter with God's covenant promise and blessing. At first my question was: Why wasn't Moses, bearer of an Egyptian name, given a new name?

This brings us to Exodus 6:2-3 (along with 3:13-15). Moses receives the revelation of a "new" name for the God of his fathers: "I am the Lord, and I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make myself known to them by my name, the Lord, “ which is "my Name forever."

Now my question is: what is the significance of this reversal of the naming ceremony in the case of Moses?

In the case of Abram and Jacob, the naming formula was: "you shall no longer be called .... but your name shall be...." In the case of Moses, God in effect says, "I shall no longer be known only as .... but my name shall be ....forever!"

One response to my question focuses on the difference between El Shaddai and the Lord as names of God. The first name, El Shaddai, defines and delimits God as a certain sort of God, prone to act in certain ways toward his creatures. The new name introduces a entirely different approach to God, as Abraham Joshua Heschel explains: "Definitions take the name of God in vain. We have neither an image nor a definition of God. We have only His name. And the name is ineffable." (Man Is Not Alone, p. 97) The new name is open-ended and limitless, as in the interpretation “I will be who I will be.” (Exod. 3:14)

The God whose name defies definition nevertheless chooses to align himself with certain interests and principles. For while “the Lord does whatever he pleases“ (Psa. 135:6) yet “the Lord has chosen Jacob for himself, Israel for his own possession.” (Psa. 135:4) To his people Israel he brings deliverance and freedom, redemption and well-being (Exod. 6:6-8). But this God is not only the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, he is also the God of the stranger, the orphan, and the widow (Deut. 10:18). Such are his interests, as understood and taught by Israel.

As to his principles, they are revealed to Moses when God “proclaims in the name of the Lord” that he is a God of compassion and grace, kindness and truth, who extends forgiveness yet requires accountability (Exod. 34:5-6 MT). Likewise we read: “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne, kindness and truth go before you.” (Psa. 89:15 MT) Such are his principles, as understood and taught by Israel.

A final thought: Does the new name taken on by God in Exodus imply a new relationship with his people? When both Abram and Jacob were given new names there was an implied new relationship, a covenant relationship, with God. Perhaps the reverse is true here, as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob reveals his intention to redeem his people with the announcement that he will be known henceforth by a new name.

The phrase “I am the Lord” (ani hashem) is found 199 times in the Hebrew Bible, but of this total 177 occur in just 4 books: Exodus (17), Leviticus (52), Isaiah (22), and Ezekiel (86!).


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