What is God’s name?

by Colonel Phil NeedhamRemember the story of Moses and the burning bush? God appeared to the Hebrew fugitive with no warning and spoke to him from the flame. It was a simple request. All he wanted Moses to do was to go to the ruler of Egypt and tell him to let the Hebrew people leave Egypt. That’s all.

Now before Moses was going to respond to this insane request, he needed a little more assurance. First, he needed to be assured that he was capable of doing the job: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh…?” (Exodus 3:11) God said, don’t sweat it: “I will be with you.” (v.12) Second, Moses needed assurance about his back-up:”Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of my fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” (v.13) Before he set off on this monumental undertaking, Moses wanted to be as sure as possible from whom he was taking orders. He wanted to know exactly who was behind him.

And in that absolutely unique revelatory moment in Scripture, God tells Moses his name. Now, of course God has a number of names in Scripture. But there is something singularly important about the name which God shares with Moses here. At this moment he reveals what appeared in the Hebrew text as the Tetragrammaton: YHWH. (The original Hebrew had no vowels, only consonants; the vowels were added later.) Earlier English translations transliterated this as ‘Jehovah,’ though ‘Yahweh’ is probably a better approximation.

The intriguing thing about this name is that it seems to have some connection with the verb ‘to be’ in Hebrew. Hence, scholars have usually taken the name to mean “I am who I am,” or “I will be who (or what) I will be.” And translators have usually translated that latter part of v.14: “This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you’.” The Western philosophical mind has had a heyday with interpretations of all this. Concerned with being and existence, it has used this special name to identify God as the one who has always existed and would always exist and as the one who gave existence to everything and everyone else. To use Tillich’s phrase, he is ‘the ground of being.’

At our recent THQ officers councils, special guest Dr. Leonard Sweet gave us a wonderful ‘new’ insight into the meaning of the name. He told us about how the great Jewish theologian, Martin Buber, struggled his whole adult life with the meaning. Finally, shortly before his death Buber came to an exciting conclusion. He called his students together, told them he felt certain now that he had discovered the meaning of the name, and said, “I am convinced that the name means ‘I will be there’.” God is the one who is always there, the one who never abandons us, the one we can count on, the one who will see us through, the one who is there for us. God was saying to Moses, “You don’t have to worry. I’m not just sending you. I’m sending you to a place where I will be. The one sending you is the one who goes with you.”

My good friend, Dr. Ken Callahan, tells me that he thinks it is even more accurate to translate the name in the present tense, ‘I am with you.’ He may be right. God’s presence is not delayed till the future. It is now.

The central message of the Christmas we have just celebrated is precisely this. God does not keep his distance. He is the one who is with us, the one who came on that first Christmas as Immanuel (‘God with us’), and who remains. Christmas was the permanent touchdown of the message in the name Moses heard long before.

Leonard Sweet said something else that was interesting. He said that he thought there was a very close connection between the message of God’s name and the mission of The Salvation Army. He explained: You are the folks who are always there for people. “The Army is always there when you need them,” they say. “Your motto,” said Sweet, “should be: ‘We’ll be there’.”

I thought about September 11. Someone said we were on site 20 minutes after the first plane hit. I recently heard Commissioner Fred Ruth, our representative to the United Nations, tell about his own experiences helping with our relief work at ground zero during the days following the disaster. One day, after many hours of rescue work in the ‘pit,’ a group of firemen emerged, obviously exhausted and emotionally drained. One of them spotted Fred in his Army uniform and came over to him. Grasping his hand he said, “Your presence here means everything to us. It keeps us going. Please don’t leave.”

The name of God is not only a comfort to us Salvationists who need his abiding presence; it also defines who we are. We are those who follow and obey the ‘I-will-be-there God.’ We live out our lives in companionship with the ‘God-with-us Jesus.’ So like him, our teacher, we also are called to be there for people. We can’t help ourselves. This is what we do.

It’s just nice to know that this is what God wants us to do–because it is who he is. And so, in our own faltering, sometimes clumsy way, we Salvationists are the ‘be-there people.’ We may not say the right thing nor do the right thing every time, but we’re there. We’re there because God is, and the more we simply let ourselves be there for people, the better we’re going to get at doing and saying the right thing.

God said to Moses, “I will be with you. In fact, that is my name.” In the confidence of that promise, we go into situations where we have no right, other than by the name of the God who is there, to stand alongside him and celebrate his presence with our service.

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