I’m looking forward to delivering the Day-Higginbotham Lectures next week at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. (For more details, see here.) The theme of the two lectures is “God, the Bible, and Being.” By way of preview, below is an excerpt from the second lecture. The excerpt focuses on the ways God’s self-revelation through the theophany of the burning bush (Exod 3:1-6) and his commentary on the divine name (Exod 3:14) mutually interpret one another, conveying something about God’s eternal and unchanging being and guaranteeing God’s promises to his people yesterday, today, and forever.
The so-called “Hellenization thesis” led many modern biblical scholars and theologians to resist drawing ontological conclusions from the revelation of the divine name in Exodus 3:14. With the discrediting of the Hellenization thesis for what it was, a modern scholarly fashion untrue to the scriptural text and to early Jewish and Christian reception of the scriptural text, recent interpreters such as Michael Allen, Andrea Saner, Emmanuel Durand, and Jonathan Platter have offered fresh readings of Exodus 3 that better prepare us to appreciate the ontological significance of the divine name revealed in that passage. Though space precludes a full exposition of this magnificent text, a few summary observations can help us appreciate its teaching regarding the divine name and the divine being.
To more fully appreciate the revelation of the divine name in Exodus 3:14, we must first consider the revelation of the divine theophany in Exodus 3:1-6. What the Lord conveys via creaturely imagery in the burning bush theophany, he conveys via creaturely language in the self-exposition of the Tetragrammaton in Exodus 3:14.
The sign of the burning bush manifests several wonders regarding God’s holy being. Consider, first, how the sign of the burning bush conveys a positive similarity between fire and God’s holy being. Like fire, God’s holy being is elemental, pure, irreducible to more fundamental building blocks. God is pure God and nothing but God. Like fire, moreover, the holy flame of God’s being is an agency that originates and terminates within itself. God’s being has no reason for being beyond God’s being; God has no efficient, formal, or final cause.
Consider, furthermore, how the sign of the burning bush nevertheless manifests the transcendent dissimilarity between fire and God’s holy being. This fire, the divine fire manifest in the burning bush, indicates that God’s holy being is independent of the creature. The divine fire does not rely on the creature for fuel. The bush burns, but the bush is not consumed. This fire, moreover, suggests—to our great and saving consolation—that God’s holy being can dwell with the creature without destroying it, without consuming it. God’s holy being is not contrastive or competitive with that of the creature, in either a metaphysical or moral sense. Later passages in the Book of Exodus, such as Exodus 3:14 and Exodus 32-34, will unpack at further length the truth about God’s non-contrastive, non-competitive being, culminating in the concluding theophany of the Book of Exodus, where God’s transcendent glory descends to indwell Israel’s tabernacle.
What the Lord conveys via creaturely imagery in the burning bush theophany, he conveys via creaturely language in Exodus 3:14. In Exodus 3:14, God engages in an act of divine self-naming in response to Moses’ question in Exodus 3:13: “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God responds to Moses’ question with a “word play” and “commentary” on the Tetragrammaton: “I am who I am.” This divine commentary on the divine name positively communicates something of what it means to be YHWH that, in turn, authenticates Moses’ prophetic ministry and guarantees the remarkable promises made, not only in the past to the fathers, but now to Moses and Israel as well.
What is that “something” and what is its significance in the immediate narrative context? For reasons noted earlier, modern commentators have sometimes resisted drawing ontological conclusions in answer to this question. However, as Andrea Saner argues, by means of its word play on the Hebrew verb “to be,” the revelation of the divine name in Exodus 3:14 “clearly impresses on the reader something having to do with ‘being.’”
Who is YHWH and what is he like, Moses asks? In Exodus 3:14, YHWH declares himself to be an ontological tautology: “I am who I am.” Who YHWH is is identical with what YHWH is, and also with the fact that YHWH is. As the burning bush theophany has already revealed, YHWH is self-existent: he is the flame that burns without any fuel, “the one who is” (Exod 3:14 LXX; Rev 1:8) without any aid. YHWH is self-identical: YHWH is pure YHWH, identical only with himself and therefore comparable only to himself, incapable of being named or defined with reference to broader categories or classifications of being. Perhaps most importantly for the immediate narrative context, YHWH is self-same, self-consistent: he is eternal and unchanging, “the same yesterday and today and forever” (Psalm 102:26-27; Heb 1:12; 13:8). What YHWH promised in the distant past to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Exod 3:6), he now pledges to fulfill in the immediate future for Moses and Israel (Exod 3:12). The continuity between what God was as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and what God will be to Moses and Israel is guaranteed by the revelation of the divine name: he is who he is, self-same, eternal, and unchanging. And so he commands Moses: “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (Exod 3:14).