“I am who I am” not “I am who I say that I am”


Scripture: Exodus 3: 1-8a; 10-15 Nigel Bunce

“I am who I am” has much meaning.  It is the answer God have to Moses when he asked, “What is your name?”  But for us, it is not always the same as ‘I am who I say that I am.” 

The Scripture story

In last week’s Scripture, Pharaoh’s daughter rescued Moses from his basket among the bullrushes. Moses has now grown up. He’s out tending his father-in-law’s flock of sheep. There, he sees a bush that seems to burn but is not consumed. He’s curious. He looks more closely, and comes face to face with God. God says that he has chosen Moses to lead the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to a land of milk and honey.

Very reasonably, Moses asked how he could achieve this. The answer was that Moses must take everything on trust, knowing only that God will be with him. Moses foresaw that this answer would not convince his countrymen in Egypt. So, he asked God another reasonable question “Who are you? What is your name?” To which, God replied enigmatically, “I am who I am.”

It must have seemed to Moses like God was playing with him. Moses wanted to know God’s name. Why not give him a direct answer? However, “I am who I am,” told Moses that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was different from other gods. Precisely because God did not have a name like the gods of Canaan, Greece and Egypt. With names like Asherah, Apollo, and Isis.

So who is God?

Greek, Egyptian and Canaanite gods were just statues in temples. The writer of Exodus makes it clear that Israel’s God was much greater. Not a mere statue in a temple. More than anything that the human mind can conceive. God cannot be limited to time or space.  Likewise, Islam does not give God a conventional name. Allah is a contraction of al-ilah (the God). 

That’s why the Ten Commandments prohibit graven images.  Even when Solomon built the Jewish Temple, the most sacred spot (called the Holy of Holies) was just an empty space.

How should we, humanity, respond to the God who is simply “I am who I am”?

There are two technical words for this. One is ‘immanent’.  It means that God takes an active part in human affairs. The other is ‘transcendent’. That means to rise above or beyond human experience. One is neither better nor worse than the other. They are simply different human responses to the presence of the divine.

I like to explain that idea via a couple of well known hymns. “In the Garden” is very immanent … and he walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own … Or, for the transcendent aspect of God: Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with awe and trembling stand; ponder nothing earthly minded, for with blessing in his hand, Christ our God to us approacheth …

The meeting between God and Moses is both transcendent and immanent. You couldn’t imagine anything more immanent than the God who speaks to Moses personally at the burning bush. He tells Moses that he has seen his people’s oppression.  He has chosen Moses to lead them out of slavery. But then, that enigmatic reply to, “What is your name?” is highly transcendent.

A personal view

In reality, I doubt that most of us think of God as always immanent or always transcendent. But the issue is worth thinking about. Personally, I find myself towards the transcendent end of that spectrum of belief. But maybe, that’s because I’ve had only a few significant personal encounters with the divine.

However, for me, it’s also because of my attitude towards prayer. As I have said before, I believe that the purpose of prayer is to stir me to action concerning the things I pray to God about. I have difficulty with the idea that God answers my prayers by making special deals for me. So I am more comfortable with a transcendent God. However, please realize that this is only my own perspective.

I’ll guess that many (most?) modern Anglicans are comfortable talking to God. That’s what prayer is! But we’re much less familiar with God talking back to us. However, Biblical writers, especially in the Hebrew Scriptures, seem completely at ease with the idea of two-way conversations.

“Here I am”

In today’s Scripture, that conversation began with Moses wondering about the burning bush. “It burned but remained whole. That can’t be right. Hmm, what’s going on here.” Then a call, perhaps softly. “Moses, Moses”. And Moses replied, “Here I am.”

“Here I am” is a refrain to many Scriptural stories when God calls someone. Think of the boy Samuel asleep in the priest Eli’s house, or Isaiah sitting in the Temple. Think about Jeremiah in exile in Babylon, or Mary summoned by the Angel Gabriel. They all had free will. So presumably they could have said, “No.” But they all actually said, “Here I am,” or words to that effect. We have that choice when we believe that God is calling us to do something. Perhaps to speak out against injustice. Do we say “No,” or “Here I am”?

What is your name?

After Moses responded, God gave him his marching orders. All Moses did was to ask God his name and explain why he needed to know. Biblical names are fraught with meaning. Jesus, which has the same root as Joshua, means “He who saves.” Moses means, “Coming from the water”, as we saw last week. Indigenous names likewise have significance.

Therefore, “I am who I am” isn’t just one attribute of God. It’s the whole concept that God is beyond human comprehension.

But Western society today is different. Parents usually give their children names they happen to like. I don’t know why my parents named me Nigel. I can explain my middle name, James. It was the middle name of both my grandfathers. But our names are very important to us. My daughter Caroline would get quite annoyed if someone called her Carolyn. “My name is Caroline,” she would say.

“I am who I am” or “I am who I say I am”

But there’s something more. God replied to Moses, “I am who I am.” Judge me by my actions, not by a label. That idea is relevant to every one of us. Not, “I am who I say that I am.” That’s the politician who wants try to establish their persona, their brand. But it’s outsiders who see who they really are. “I am who I say that I am” often turns out to be the story of the Emperor’s new clothes.

And not just for politicians. Most of us aren’t quite the people that we think we are, or portray ourselves as.  We present to the world like a Photoshopped image, or the Instagram picture of the perfect loaf of bread, or the perfectly captured vacation destination.  Never mind the loaf that didn’t rise, or the cracked sink in the hotel room. 

So “I am who I am” is more than just a name for God that’s hard to understand. Are we, individually or as a parish, really what we say we are? Are we really compassionate to other people? Do we really live out our baptismal vows of respecting the dignity of every human being, not just people we like, or people like ourselves? Do we really care for God’s Creation, or do we just say that we do? “I am who I am” is true, for me, as it is for God. But only someone else can see whether it’s the same as “I am who I say that I am.”