Names and the Name – 9

God has a name – 8

The Jewish theologian Michael Wyschogrod has written, ‘The God of Israel has a proper name. There is no fact in Jewish theology more significant than this’. The ongoing significance, however, for the people of Israel of God’s revealing his proper name through his action is aptly summed up by Janzen:

From now on, the issue of the faithfulness of God is posed both in terms of his faithfulness to the actual situation and its historical claims upon him, and in terms of his faithfulness to the intrinsic mystery of the divine life as pure unbounded intention. Complementarily, from now on the issue of the faithfulness of Israel is posed in terms of its loyalty to the name Yahweh: in the implications of that name for who Yahweh is and for who Israel is. Like Yahweh … Israel is called to be faithful to its past. Like Moses, Israel may never again allow itself merely to come to terms with the actual situation – for this is idolatry and death. The secret, the burden, the vocation of Israel lies in the divine name entrusted to it in the Book of Exodus.

While wrestling, Jacob asks for God’s name and is met with God’s refusal: ‘“Please tell me your name.” But God said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him.’ Not by his name, but by his blessing, is YHWH known. So Exodus 34:5–7,

The LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”

The Exodus 3 account invites a plethora of unanswered – perhaps unanswerable – questions. Scholars have long debated the historical origins of the name, its pronunciation, its etymology, and its relationship to the other names that God spoke to Moses at the bush. But as Soulen notes, these questions are not the real mystery of the name. At most they are signs that point to the mystery, just as in the Gospel narratives the sign of the empty tomb points to the mystery of the resurrection. The genuine mystery of the Tetragrammaton is at once extremely simple and inexhaustibly deep: the Tetragrammaton is a proper name, a personal proper name, like Moses, or Jeremiah, or Mary Magdalene.

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