“Exodus” is the Greek name for the second book of the Bible. In Hebrew, it is called the Book of Names. That’s because, like Catholic encyclicals, the Hebrew books of the Bible are titled by the opening words of the book: “These are the names…”
It is fitting that this title be given to Exodus, since Exodus is a book in which names play a huge role, both in the way they are emphasized and the way they are strategically de-emphasized. Exodus pauses to tell us the names of the two earliest pro-life heroines in history, Shiphrah and Puah, who saved Moses from the clutches of the population planners of the First Cairo Conference. It tells us how Moses got his name (a pun on the phrase “to draw out” owing to his being drawn out of the Nile which also prophesies his role in drawing Israel out of Egypt). It even disses the most powerful man on the planet by steadfastly refusing to ever name the villain of the piece by anything other than “Pharaoh”.
But the most important name we are given comes in Exodus 3: the Divine Name. When the Voice speaks from the Burning Bush and Moses rather reluctantly answers, a perfectly Jewish conversation full of wordplay, bargaining, and dickering takes place. What is striking about it all is how Moses manages to combine reverence and awe in the Divine Presence with a certain sort of audacity in daring to try to negotiate and not merely cringe before the Power that created him. He asks for proof (as if the Voice from the Burning Bush is not enough). He talks God into making his brother Aaron the spokesman. He wheedles and cajoles and asks to be excused. And in the end, he asks “Who shall I say sent me?” It is a question pregnant with a significance that is lost on moderns because we do not understand what names signified to the ancient Hebrew mind.
In ancient Israel, the name was a deeply sacred thing. It was not just a label slapped on a thing so that we could call it something besides a thingamajig. A name—and especially a person’s name—somehow expressed the essence of that person. To know someone’s name was to know them. To name, or rename, someone was to effect and reflect a fundamental change in who they are. When God reveals his Name he is revealing himself. We experience a tiny glimpse of that intimacy when some figure we have known or revered as an august adult presence (“Mr. Smith, the Math Professor”) turns to us and says “Call me ‘Jim’”. We sense it in a negative way when somebody who should know our name forgets it. It’s hard to escape the sense that they have forgotten us.
God’s self-revelation of his Name is, therefore, an invitation to intimacy. It is also a profound revelation of who he is. Other “names” given to God in Scripture are basically titles which tell us some of his attributes. But “I AM WHO AM” tells us who God is in his essence. God did not have to reveal it, and Moses certainly had no power to make him do so. God does it out of sheer gratuitous love and, in so doing, enters into a relationship with Moses and Israel whereby his people can “call on his Name”.
Indeed, that’s the entire point of God’s revelation to Moses at the Burning Bush. God’s purpose, which will not be thwarted, is not merely to bring Israel out of Egypt but into a covenant relationship with himself at Mt. Sinai. A covenant is more than a contract; it is a bond of sacred kinship. To make a covenant is to become family. And so when God reveals his Name to Israel, he is permitting them to call upon him as friend, ally and protector. It is a very significant step in a long process of making graciously himself vulnerable. Nor is that process concluded at Sinai. For God means to make himself so vulnerable to us that it will ultimately lead to scourging, a crown of thorns, the buzzing cloud of flies around his naked and beaten body, and the sound of mocking taunts in he ears as he struggles to gasp for breath against the excruciating bolts of pain in his wrists and feet. Sinai is a major step forward in the drama, but it won’t really be over until the redemption wrought in Christ brings the last redeemed soul into Heaven.
Because Sinai is a provisional covenant pointing forward to the New and Everlasting Covenant in Christ, certain cautions must apply. God is making a covenant with a desperately dangerous species who will never fail to misuse every good gift he gives them, including the gift of his Name. So he commands us:
You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain. (Exodus 20:7)
To use the Name of God was a solemn thing and not to be taken lightly. To swear in his Name falsely was to call the Truth himself as a witness to a lie. To invoke the Name in a curse against the innocent was to call him who is Justice to be unjust and him who is Life to be death. Scripture is adamant that to do this is an extremely dangerous violation of the covenant. Likewise, to treat the Divine Name as a sort of lucky rabbit’s foot or abracadabra is likewise to gravely insult the covenant because God is God and not a genie who must make us rich or beat up our enemies at the services of our greed or anger. The Divine Name is given us so that we may know him. He will not let us make use of it merely so that we can become more ignorant of our own concupiscence.
These days, of course, the name of God and Jesus is taken lightly every day. Much of this is inculpable since so many people have not the slightest idea that they are involved in a covenant with God (assuming they are baptized). Many people think that because no thunderbolt strikes people dead when they do so, the sacredness of names is just an ancient superstition. But it’s not so. The warning still holds and the judgment still obtains. The judgment on a culture that takes God’s name lightly is that it becomes a lightweight culture, fit only to be taken lightly, as ours so emphatically is. Today, take God’s Name seriously as he takes you seriously.