In Peter Rollins book, The Fidelity of Betrayal, Rollins discusses an idea that the ancient egyptians had, that to be able to name a god was to have power over that god. In reflecting on this as it applies to the discussion between Moses and God when God calls Moses to deliver his people, Pete writes:
Still unconvinced about accepting this immense task and still skeptical that this promise of presence will be enough when faced with Pharaoh’s formidable army, he attempts a different strategy: “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?
Here we can see that Moses is looking for more than some common name. After all, he already knows whom it is that he is being addressed by. Instead, the writer is presenting us with someone who is seeking the secret, sacred name of God, a name that will wield unheard-of power, power that will be able to overthrow even the Pharoah himself, power that will enable a stuttering old man to carry out the world-historical task that is being asked.
In response to this query concerning the Name, God replies with the enigmatic phrase ‘ehyeh ‘asher ‘ehyeh, a term which since the Septuagint, has generally been interpreted as a noun and translated in English as “I AM WHO I AM.”
… The narrative is thus interpreted as representing the Israelites’ God as infinitely greater than the gods and goddesses of egypt precisely because the Israelites’ God cannot be manipulated through sorcery and thus has no fear of disclosing the secret name.
I have been thinking about this idea of naming something in order to have power over it, and I think it has a wider range in our lives than just as some sort of vague spiritual principle that other religions at the time of the Israelites believed. I am firmly convinced that we engage in this process of naming something so that we have power over it regularly.
We name someone as liberal or conservative or catholic or protestant or atheist, because to have a name for that thing is to be able to have some sort of power over it and be able to categorize it. Don’t we also do the same things with relationship? We name one relationship “friend” and another “lover” and another “mentor” and another “mother” all with the intention of being able to put some control over it.
Surely, this tendency to give something a name so that we feel like we can categorize it or control it is not all bad. It is part of how we cope with life. But I do wonder if it doesn’t say something to us about how we think of God. In some forms of theology, there is a tendency to have an answer to every question, to in a sense reduce God from a person to some sort of divine math problem. If we can just find the right variables, we can figure out what that math is and then we will feel in control.
And so we identify different theories of the atonement and say it must be Christus Victor or Penal Substitution or Satisfaction theory. We look at God’s return and argue over pre-millenial and post-millenial and amillenial or over whether the rapture is pre-trib or mid-trib or post-trib, but we do all of it to try to exert some form of control over God. We feel that if we can name these aspects of God, we can control God. We think that we can go about with no mystery about God as a person.
I find it refreshing that God knows that he cannot be controlled by being named, and so when Moses asks him who this God is, God responds ‘ehyeh ‘asher ‘ehyeh.
I am who I am.
I wonder if there is something to embracing this mystery, this God who is, that has to do with us giving up on trying to control him, on realizing that this God is.
And when I think of that I wonder if it doesn’t also have something to say to us about how we interact with others, naming or labeling them so that we feel like we can control them. Maybe there are times that we need to abandon the names we believe we have for people, and see that they are beyond the name we attempt to give them, because they are made in the image of the God who can’t be controlled by being named, the God who is.
May it be that we realize that our naming things does not give us control, that as much as we attempt to name others with labels, that they go beyond those labels and defy our naming. And may we also realize that while we speak about God that we also never get to control this God by naming him, the God who is has a tendency of smashing our formulas of how we think he is and invites us to figure him out on his own terms.
‘ehyeh ‘asher ‘ehyeh – I am who I am.