God replies, “I AM THAT I AM”. Another translation has it: “I AM HE WHO IS”
In Hebrew, the words are “EHYEH ASHER EHYEH” which translates as “I WILL BE THERE HOWSOEVER I WILL BE THERE”.
Nothing is more enigmatic I think than this phrase. According to the great Hebrew scholar Everett Fox, there is and probably will forever be much debate about this statement.
In Egyptian magic, to name a thing gives one the power to control it; thus Moses envisions the slaves of Egypt being able to summon this God and call upon his power. In some sense it always gives the holder a coercive ability, or at the least as Fox says, an ability to understand the true essence of the named one.
Surely that has been the goal of untold billions of believers down through the ages. We both want to grasp this God, and make him do our bidding. We don’t take kindly always to having our prayers ignored (or so we imagine).
Yet there is more. In Hebrew, the phrase is alliterative, making it in Fox’s words both important and mysterious. It both teases us with its symmetry and its illusive quality. Some suggest that the best understand is “he who causes things to be.”
Martin Buber, a great Jewish philosopher famous for his existential I-Thou, I-It dichotomy, took things in a different direction. He suggests that God is rendered as the “one who is there”, and this is the one Fox himself adopts. The verb is hayoh, being there, which coincides Fox argues with the later back and forth as Moses brings up reason after reason why he is not up to the task God directs him to. In all but one response, God answers with the hayoh verb, that he will “be there”.
It may well be as Fox points out, that God simply meant to be purposefully vague in order to show his lack of “magical”ness. It becomes the YHWH or Yehweh which we commonly understand today as the “He who creates” or “he who is”.
Buber’s argument for the “He who is there” is from a pastoral point of view, much the preferred. We long to not just recognize that our God is the Creator, but more than he is “there” for us. We seek and feel his presence in our daily lives, always available to guide and nudge us in the right direction, or conversely to raise the pangs of nagging conscience when we have strayed from the path.
We don’t of course know how Moses viewed it, but we know that he responded to the call and put all on the line to serve this God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And his voice was, with the “God-who-is-there” strong enough to convince the people to follow him in the desert as they made their way slowly and arduously to the promised land.
We of course are in our own desert during this Lenten period, and we seek the promised land as well. Our way is sometimes slow, we have lost our way many a time. We have stumbled and fallen and feared that we did not have what it takes to finish the journey. But we are comforted by the knowledge that our God is not some far-off deity who demands our worship and remains aloof to our needs and desires.
Our God, is with us during all our struggles and long dark nights of the soul. He nourishes us and shares our burdens, and often, if we allow, takes them upon himself while we rest and refresh our spirits. His words are food for us, his love embraces us, holding us tight when we are afraid.
This is the God whom Moses brought to us. This is the God who endures, who ever was, ever is, ever will be. He is as close as your breath, and as dear as your closest human companion. She is as tender as a loving mother, as loving as them most proud father, and that cannot be changed. You have only to reach out your hand, and you will find the steady rock that you have so longed for.
God is there. He has said it. He will be there.
** The Five Books of Moses (The Schocken Bible Vol 1), Translation, Commentary, Notes by Everett Fox. ( do yourself a great favor and get a copy of this–the poetry in this translation is simply breathtaking.)
- The Divine Name and the Mystery of God (insightscoop.typepad.com)