A sermon by Dr Donald T. Williams - donaldtwilliams.com
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Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 07/07/1996
"What's in a name?" asked Shakespeare's Juliet. "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." But names can have significance, and Romeo and Juliet cannot escape the significance of theirs: Capulet and Montague. Robert Frost plays with the possibilities in his poem "Maple." The fact that a girl is named Maple instead of Mabel sends her on a search to find out what her parents meant--was it a certain maple tree that inspired them? And the search determines the course of her life in unexpected ways. And so Frost ends the story, playfully, "Name some children names and see what you do." We saw something of the meaning of God's personal name, JAHWEH, when it was revealed in chapter three. Now that theme is reprised here as an answer to Moses' discouragement in a way that takes it one step further.I. THE PROBLEM: Ex. 6:3 vs. Gen. 15:2.
There is first of all a problem in this passage. For in verse 3 God says that he was not known as JAHWEH to Abraham, but back in Genesis 15:2 Abraham calls him JAHWEH Adonai, translated "Lord God." What's going on here? The standard liberal approach is simply to accept this as a contradiction, created by the editor's clumsy handling of the different sources out of which he patched together the Pentateuch. We don't have time this morning to go into the many good and sufficient reasons for rejecting this whole approach, called the "documentary hypothesis," as an explanation of the text of these books. But let me suggest some alternative ways of seeing this particular passage.
One conservative option is to say that Abraham did not know the name JAHWEH, but Moses did, and used in anachronistically in Genesis. But this does not solve the problem, for we still must face that fact that Moses put this word, not just into Genesis, the wrong time frame, but into dialog by Abraham himself. It might not be a contradiction on this view, but it would still be a careless bit of writing. And it is arrogant of us to assume that's what we have if there is a better explanation available.
The problem with both of the previous answers is that they involve a superficial understanding of the Hebrew concept of names. Names had a powerful significance in Hebrew culture, very similar to the way they were treated by native American cultures. Moses' name is from a verb meaning to draw or pull out, because he was pulled out of the Nile as a baby. Isaac means "laughter," because of his mother's laughing when his birth was prophesied in spite of her old age. Names were expected to be more than simple designations; they were expected to have a meaning. Also, the word "know" has an interesting range of meaning in Hebrew. It often does not mean simply the possession of information. "Abraham knew his wife and she conceived" hardly means simply that he had a purely cognitive awareness of Sarah's existence! So "they knew me as El Shaddai but not as JAHWEH" does not necessarily mean that Abraham did not have the word JAHWEH available to him or was unaware of its existence. Therefore, a good paraphrase of 6:3 might be, "They knew me as El Shaddai, God Almighty, that is, they had a good understanding of what it meant to call me that; but the complete knowledge and understanding of what it meant to call me JAHWEH was not fully revealed until now, in your time and in your experience." If the words are capable without stretching of a meaning that does not involve Moses in a contradiction--and they are--then that interpretation should be the one that faithful Bible readers accept with confidence.II. THE MEANING
What then does Ex. 6:3 add to our understanding of JAHWEH? Abraham knew him, i.e., had experienced him, as El Shaddai, God Almighty. Abraham knew him by experience, in other words, as the supremely powerful One: the Creator of heaven and earth, the Destroyer of Sodom and Gomorrah, the giver of life through necrotic and barren sexual organs. He was omnipotent, all powerful, irresistible. Abraham also knew him as the God who establishes his covenant with men. But even there he was the God of incomprehensible power--even seemingly a bit unpredictable, as with the apparent command to sacrifice Isaac. There were of course hints already of the fuller concept of God that would be progressively revealed through his further dealings with his people, but they were hints, not yet fully realized in Israel's experience. For that, some passage of time would be required.
The full significance of the name JAHWEH could only be revealed through the passage of time. As we saw before, it means "I am who I am," or simply "the One who exists simply because he exists," the transcendent and non-contingent One. But while that is its root meaning, the application to knowing God is not merely metaphysical but also practical. Because he was not created--he just is--he is not subject to change. This most mysterious of attributes ironically adds a kind of stability to the almost unpredictable mystery of the numinous Power that Abraham knew. For if God is not subject to change, then he will be the same yesterday, today, and forever--which means that he can be counted on to keep his promises, to fulfill his covenant, no matter how much time has passed. And this of course Israel could not experience until some significant time had passed, enough time to raise the question and foment the doubts.
There is then a double stress that the name JAHWEH brings into our relationship with the God it names: his self-sufficiency and his faithfulness. It is supremely the name of the Covenant-Keeping God. He keeps his promises to Abraham even though Abraham is no more, even though 400 years have elapsed, even though Pharaoh is hard of heart, despite all the power of Egypt--despite even the sin and unbelief of Israel! Nothing can stop him, not just because he is powerful but because he is also consistent. Therefore, when we factor in human sin as one of the obstacles to the keeping of his covenant which this name overcomes, the name JAHWEH ultimately tells us that he is the God of Grace, unmerited favor, in his dealings with man. This revelation will reach its climax with the addition of another Name: Jesus. But what Ex. 6:3 is telling us is that it is reaching a new level here in the experience of the Exodus itself.III. THE SIGNIFICANCE
Ironically, then, JAHWEH, the most transcendent and mysterious of God's names, actually makes him more accessible, less threatening. The merely numinous might do anything. But our God is more than that without being less. He is still El Shaddai, still the God of aweful and terrible and threatening power. But now he is not so unpredictable. If we could put it this way, it was El Shaddai who asked for the sacrifice of Isaac, but JAHWEH who put the ram in the thicket. Therefore, when the call to sacrifice Isaac comes (as it still does), we know (as Abraham did not) that the ram will be there. Why? Because he is also JAHWEH, the I AM, the unchanging and therefore the promise and covenant keeping and faithful One.
The name JAHWEH then is also our license to read the whole of Scripture. We understand the historical character of the biblical revelation, which shows God dealing with men at different times, in different circumstances, in different cultures. But it is the same God in all those times: JAHWEH, the covenant keeping and faithful and unchanging One. The God who created the heavens and the earth is the same as the one who preserved Noah in the flood, split the Red Sea, gave the Law at Sinai, set David on the throne, sent Judah into exile and brought her back, preserved a faithful remnant, sent the Messiah, poured out his Holy Spirit--this is all OUR God, and what is revealed about him at one point is therefore true of him at all points.CONCLUSION
The progressive unfolding of the name of God that we see in this passage then continues throughout Scripture. It is not contradictory but supplemental, building toward its inevitable climax. He is Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. He is Immanuel, God with us, Messiah, Comforter, Paraclete. He is finally the name that is above every name, which every tongue shall confess and at which every knee shall bow--the climax of the series--the name of Jesus. Amen.
Here endeth the lesson. Dr. Donald T. Williams