The Evolving Name Of God

The divine name that God tells Moses at the burning bush expresses the different and evolving relationship that God has with every individual.

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Pshat

Moses, as can be expected, is overwhelmed by his theophany at the burning bush. Moses is not quite sure what is being asked of him, or who is asking.

The voice coming out of the bush identifies itself as "the God (Elohai) of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." Like the English word "God," the use of the Hebrew El or Elohim denotes the basic generic idea of "god." God here is self-defined by the relationships with the patriarchs; "I am the same God who was worshipped by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob." But a proper name is not given.

It is then explained that God has noted the plight of the Israelites in Egypt and that Moses is the one that God has chosen to go before Pharaoh to release the people from slavery. Moses then first demands to know why he has been chosen, and is assured that God will be with him.

Moses then asks again for the voice to identify itself, this time phrasing his inquiry as a request on behalf of the Israelites: "What shall I say to them?" Coming from the polytheistic environment of Egypt, Moses is not just satisfied knowing which god is speaking to him from the burning bush. He wants a proper name. This time God answers somewhat cryptically: Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh. This appellation, which is most often translated as "I am who I am," is not explained. God then continues, "This shall be my name for ever."

Drash

The name of God remains something of a mystery to us. Our tradition, beginning with the Torah, refers to God in so many different ways. Some of these designations may be proper names, some titles, others references to one of God's many attributes or characteristics, and yet others simply terms that we humans use to try and describe the unknowable.

The true name of God is thought to possess awesome power, and has only been used sparingly and carefully. Hence this somewhat ambiguous exchange between God and Moses at the burning bush. Moses seems to understand the power of the name and its importance in convincing the Israelites themselves to follow. God does not seem to want to be nailed down to one fixed reference. God's answer is a miracle in of itself, pushing the linguistic boundaries of the Biblical Hebrew language to allow for the greatest range of possible meanings.

Without going into a complete review of every way our tradition refers to God, we can begin by asking what motivated Moses to inquire of God's name, and then, hopefully, we can better understand God's answer. Did Moses not know?

Ramban (Nahmanides) points out that if the people of Israel knew God's name, Moses most likely knew the name as well, his knowledge being equivalent to theirs, and therefore telling them God's name would prove nothing. Likewise, if they did not know it, if Moses told them, it would not better convince them to believe him. So why bother asking?

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Rabbi Jordan D. Cohen

Jordan D. Cohen is the rabbi of Temple Anshe Sholom in Hamilton, Ontario. Previously, he worked as Associate Director of KOLEL - The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning in Toronto, Canada. Prior to his return to Canada, Rabbi Cohen served as Rabbi of the United Jewish Congregation of Hong Kong, and Associate Rabbi of the North Shore Temple Emanuel in Sydney, Australia.