Exodus 3:13-22: And Who Are You?
In this section of the story, Moses is still at the burning bush talking with God. God has told Moses that Moses is to go to Pharaoh and lead the Israelites out of slavery. Moses responds, "Who am I to lead them out?" Moses is right, who is he? He is not welcomed in Pharaoh's house nor by his own people. How can he possibly negotiate a liberation? He is not qualified.
God responds to Moses, "I am/will be with you." Moses is wrong. The issue is not Moses' qualifications but God's Presence. God essentially says to Moses, "It's not you, it's Me! I am/will be with you and that is all that matters!"
Moses is quite reluctant about this whole burning bush calling, so he comes at God with another question: "Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' Then what shall I tell them?" This question about God's name is much deeper than it first appears, for God has already identified himself to Moses as the God of his father and forefathers. Moses already plans to introduce God to the Israelites with this same introduction. By it the Israelites will know who, or better, which god, Moses is talking about when he says "the God of your fathers." The question of God's identity is not the issue. Moses and the Israelites know which god is the god of their fathers.
So why the name question? When Moses asked "Who am I that I should go?" and God said "It's not you but Me" Moses' next question is essentially "Who are you to be sending me before Pharaoh? Who are you to be promising deliverance? Who are you to set Israel free from Pharaoh?" The question about God's name is not so much a question about identity as it is about power, ability, character, qualifications, authority, etc. Down in Egypt, Pharaoh was the name. Moses is asking, "What is your name compared to Pharaoh's name?"
God must have figured that it was a fair question, for instead of rebuking Moses for asking such a question God answers the question, "I am who I am." This is the first person singular imperfect of the Hebrew verb "to be." As an imperfect it connotes both future action and continuous action. Thus, some translations emphasize the future, “I will be who I will be,” and others the continuous, “I am who I am.” It is difficult for our English to do justice to this simultaneous presently continuous yet future dynamic. Old Testament scholar John Durham suggests "I am the IS-ing One." I would modify that to "I is-ing who I is-ing." Or to put it in the vernacular of ebonics, “I be is-ing and I keep on is-ing.” The action/being of God is present in this moment and continues out into eternity.
Israel's name for God, the one too sacred to pronounce, is the third person singular imperfect of the verb "to be." Thus, God names God’s self "I am" and Israel calls God "He is" or "He is-ing." Israel's name for God is a witness that God did not lie when God said, "I am." Israel testifies, "He is!"
I know what you are thinking: "This is-ing, am-ing, will-be stuff is getting too philosophical for a Bible story devotional, and most anything else as well." You are right! The question of God's name is not a philosophical question, but a power question. In Egypt, Pharaoh is. In Egypt, Pharaoh has constructed a reputation and reality that asserts Pharaoh always will be. Reality in Egypt is Pharaoh today, Pharaoh tomorrow, Pharaoh till the day you die, and Pharaoh for your kids and grandkids after you. Pharaoh was, is, and will be. It's his world.
When God says "I is and I will be" God is challenging the world that Pharaoh has built. In essence, God is saying "I am and Pharaoh is not!" God goes on to tell Moses that not only has He heard the Israelites' crying and seen their oppression, but that He knows that Pharaoh will not let them go except under the compulsion of a mighty hand. God says "I will stretch forth my hand and strike the Egyptians. Pharaoh will let you go." "Strike" is the same verb as the Egyptian beating the Hebrew and Moses beating the Egyptian to death. God has the might and the will to shatter Pharaoh's world and to liberate the Israelites from Pharaoh's bondage. God is and will be; Pharaoh is soon to be not.
The imposing "I am" of God cannot be managed or squeezed by Pharaoh (or Israel for that matter). God is making God's world and Pharaoh cannot impinge upon it. God's will and not Pharaoh's will shall be done, in heaven, on earth, and even in Egypt. Pharaoh's is is no match for God's is. Pharaoh cannot keep God out of Egypt, cannot keep God from shattering Egyptian reality. God says "I am" and liberated Israel testifies "He is!"
In the Gospel of John we find Jesus laying claim to being the embodiment of the Divine Is/I Am. Jesus makes 12 "I am" statements about himself: I am the bread of life; light of the world (twice); gate (twice); good shepherd (twice); resurrection and the life; way, truth, and life; and true vine (twice). Once, in 8:58, Jesus simply declares, "I am." I especially want to focus on "I am the resurrection and the life" (11:25). Jesus is saying that not even death can squeeze or contain him. Death may be a reality, but it is not ultimate reality. The is of Jesus is greater than even the is of death (see "I am" in John's Gospel).
There are many Pharaohs in our world, each positing a reality that is and always will be, at least within the span of our lifetime. Pharaohs come in many shapes and sizes, from institutions (even Christian ones) to governments to employers to individuals to corporations, to sickness, disease, and death, etc. All Pharaohs have two things in common. First, as noted, they all posit a reality that simply is and will always be. The United States is and will always be the determining nation in the world. Point Loma Nazarene University, my alma mater, is and will always be, even if its name changes several more times. My son, is and will always be hearing impaired. Silas, my friend, is a shell-shocked, alcoholic, Vietnam vet and will always be. You get the picture.
The other thing all Pharaohs have in common is absolutely crucial to remember: they are no match for the "I am" of God. All Pharaohs have a day coming in which they will no longer be. Their worlds are real but not ultimate. Yahweh, embodied and revealed in the exodus and most fully in Jesus, is, was, and will be. God cannot be squeezed, managed, or hemmed in, even by Pharaoh death. Pharaohs pass. God crumbles their worlds and brings them to pass. God tells Moses "I am." Israel testifies "Yahweh" (He is.) The Church echoes in proclamation, "He is risen!"
Our challenge is to live according to the ultimate reality of God as opposed to "Pharaonic realities." There is only one ultimate throne in the land, even in Egypt, and it belongs not to Pharaoh but to God. God de-thrones all pretenders. God is. That is the gospel truth that liberates us from the dominion of posturing Pharaohs. It is the gospel truth that needs to inform and shape all of our living. God is. Beware of bogus thrones.
This is the reality we proclaim and come with which we come in contact during worship. This is why worship is such a critical component of the Christian life - where else will we get a vision of the ultimate reality that God in Christ is and Pharaoh(s) is not? So let us not forsake meeting together around the throne of the One who truly Is.