Read Exodus 3:13-15
13 But Moses said 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?” 14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” 15 God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’:
This is my name forever,
and this my title for all generations. (NRSV)
It seems an innocent and simple enough question that Moses asks of God. He has been told by this God to tell the people of Israel enslaved in Egypt that they have not been forgotten. Moses wants to know the identity of this God. The word ‘God’ is not enough: it is a generic term which could be misunderstood as being one of many deities worshipped in that time.
God’s answer seems utterly obscure. But the phrase “I am who I am” is more revealing than our translations suggest. It more precisely means that God’s nature will be revealed in how he will act: I will be who I show myself to be. In other words, God is not to be defined in terms of a dictionary, or by abstract argument. We could wildly paraphrase God as saying to Moses: Just you wait and see, I’ll show you what sort of God I am.
In this it is rather like trying to define ‘love’. So hard to do, so sterile to discuss. Love shows itself in actions above all. Similarly, we come to know the character of God by looking at what he does in human history, and from our perspective we come to know it through Jesus.
Perhaps the rather strange reply to Moses is God’s way of warning him against trying to pin God down, trying to capture him in purely human terms or concepts. In the Bible, the word ‘name’ does not mean what it means to us today. It means character or nature (as we might use the term in, she has a good name). And God’s ‘name’ is not a mere collection of alphabetic letters but actions in history and supremely the life and work of one unique man in that history.