“Because he is bound to me in love, therefore I will deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my Name.” (Psalm 91:14)
Many nights, if I am awake enough by the time the Compline bell rings, if my attention has not been too blunted by the heavy-laden hours of the day and the familiarity of daily repetition, this verse from Psalm 91 finds its way into my heart and brings me peace. On other nights, the ears of my heart hear the word “bound” and a part of my soul protests and prevaricates like a child being put to bed, resentful at this seeming limit to his independence. To know God by name is no small thing; to be bound to God in love through that name opens the way to intimate friendship with God as well as the demanding responsibility of a mutual, covenanted, adult relationship. Sometimes, the demands of such a friendship can seem too great, and I can sympathize with Moses. Having turned aside from the well-trodden path to gaze at a bush that burned without being consumed, Moses is naturally astonished and afraid to encounter the God of his ancestors. He summons every question and prevarication possible.
Moses says to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”
It is hard to discern the motivation behind the question. Is Moses asking this out of a genuine, personal desire to know God’s Name? Is he attempting to veil his own desire for this knowledge out of humility by presenting this hypothetical scenario? Or is he requesting this Name as a decisive authorization in the sight of the people to do what God is asking? The many gods of the Egyptians all had names, and knowledge of their names conferred power upon their priests. The people may very well expect from him the same knowledge of the divine name.
Whatever the motivation – and like most of us, Moses’ motives are probably mixed – God takes his question quite seriously. “God said to Moses, ‘I AM who I AM. Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you…This is my name forever, and this is my title for all generations.” This is an answer that at first seems like a non-answer, an assertion of the divine prerogative to remain utterly Other and shrouded in mystery. But while retaining that essential transcendence, God bestows upon Moses a profound revelation: God IS, and this IS-ness comes before all else. It is so intrinsic to God’s nature that, for God’s people, this shall be God’s Name. This revelation of the Name, so sacred to the Israelites that it was not directly pronounced, invites Moses into a deeper degree of friendship with God. It is a friendship with very clear boundaries and nearly super-human demands, but it summons Moses and the People entrusted to his care into a slowly unfolding mutuality with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
For us as followers of Jesus, God is the one who Is, and he is the one who Saves. The angel Gabriel announces to Joseph about his betrothal to Mary: “she will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Jesus, Yehoshua in Hebrew means “God saves.” When we as Christians ask, “What is God’s Name?,” we rejoice in faith that Jesus is the pronouncable, human name of God, to be taken upon our lips again and again with wonder at the salvation that has been offered to us in him. But to know God by this name is no small thing. To be bound to God in love through the Name and Person of Jesus opens the way to intimate friendship with God; in Jesus we find rest, simply abiding in the One Who Is. But to be bound to God in Jesus also entails the demanding responsibility of a mutual, covenanted, adult relationship – in other words, a yoke. A yoke is meant to join two plowing animals: one more experienced, and the other less so. We are yoked to Jesus, and it is by this partnership, this synergy, that we learn to love what he loves, to desire what he desires, and to live in him as he lives in us. Being yoked to a Master as gentle and humble as Jesus is primarily a path of consent, to trust in a gentle bondage that holds and absorbs the struggle and strain of life until it settles and comes to rest, as a parent might hold a protesting and prevaricating child who will not go to sleep. As Moses will say to the Israelites on the shores of the Red Sea, “The LORD, the One who Is, will fight for you; you have only to keep still.”
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