The Burning Bush: I Will Be What I Will Be
What is God?
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The Burning Bush story just springs right out at us. It follows the book’s introduction that sets the scene of the Hebrews being enslaved in Egypt under the evil Pharaoh and his oppressive taskmasters. Moshe, a Hebrew who was adopted into Pharaoh’s household and a position of authority, witnesses the oppression of the Hebrews and understands that they are his people. He interferes a little and has to run away from Egypt. While out in the wilderness somewhere to the east of Egypt he experiences his epiphany by the bush.
The Burning Bush sequence itself is an odd mixture of images of God speaking to Moshe or being addressed by Moshe. First in order of appearance is an ‘Angel of Hashem’ – a very Biblical image that came up a few times in Genesis. ‘And an angel of Hashem appeared to him in the heart of the fire in the midst of the bush, and he saw that the bush burned but it was not consumed. And Moshe said: “I will turn and see this amazing sight, why is the bush not consumed?” And Hashem saw that he turned to look, and Elohim called to him from the midst of the bush, and said: “Moshe, Moshe”; and he said: “Here I am”. And He said: “Do not come any closer; take your shoes off your feet, for the ground that you stand on is holy ground. I am the God (translation of Elohim) of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob”, and Moshe hid his face, for he was afraid to look at Elohim’ (3:2-6).
At this point a strange dialogue ensues. Moshe asks a series of questions that display both his doubt about the success of this venture and his personal reluctance to be the point man. His questions are first directed to Elohim, even though Hashem was the name doing the talking. His second question is perhaps the most interesting and revealing. ‘And Moshe said to Elohim: “I will come to the Israelites and say to them: The God of your ancestors sent me to you; and they will say to me: What is His name; what shall I say to them?” And Elohim said to Moshe: “I will be what I will be”; and He said: “Thus you shall say to the Israelites: ‘I will be sent me to you’” And Elohim continued and said to Moshe: “Thus you shall say to the Israelites: ‘Hashem, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob sent me to you’, this is my name forever and my memorial from generation to generation.(13-15)”’. The rest of the chapter has Elohim giving Moshe the message that Hashem wants delivered to the Israelites and to Pharaoh, and the general plans for the Exodus (16-22). Following this Moshe raises three more objections to the mission which are all answered by Hashem (4:1-17).
Who’s calling the shots here? First it’s an angel, then it’s Hashem, then it’s Elohim, then it’s Hashem, then it’s Elohim, then it’s Hashem, then it’s Elohim, and then it’s Hashem. Why this alternation of images when it seems that both images have pretty much the same message? Why does Moshe address his initial questions to Elohim when Hashem was the speaker? Why does Elohim give Moshe the message of Hashem? Furthermore, what is this business of an official name? Didn’t God already have an established name? And what is this new name all about, this ‘I will what I will be’. Is that a name? Finally, why does Elohim give what appears to be conflicting names as an answer? Is it ‘I will be’, or is it Hashem?
First off we’ll deal with the angel. Angels are messengers of God. The Torah may label one either an ‘angel of Elohim’ or an ‘angel of Hashem’ or simply an ‘angel’. In our case it is an ‘angel of Hashem’ – a messenger doing the biding of Hashem. It was the fire in the bush. Angels, as we shall learn more about in future sections, do not necessarily come with wings and halos. They can appear in a more terrestrial form, like a person, or a voice, or a fire. It was the fire that didn’t consume the bush. The bush was a normal garden variety bush. But the fire was unusual. It was an agent of Hashem.
When Moshe replies that he was there and ready to listen, Elohim tells him that he is standing on holy ground so he must remove his shoes. Sometimes a person is called upon to do something that cannot be sullied with the muck and trivial busyness of the world. That person must somehow rise above the mundane and reach into another spiritual dimension. Those times, those places, those actions, are called ‘holy’. Moshe was standing on such a place. There is nothing wrong with wearing shoes, but as long as his shoes are on he professes readiness to get back to the business of his normal routine. Sometimes the shoes must be removed and the situation calls for a little spiritual contemplation. This was such a time.
Next we come to the big question, what is the name of God that Moshe should use in addressing the Israelites. The significance of the name of God cannot be overemphasized. It indicates under which image of God the process will take place. This was the very conflict/contrast that Moshe was dealing with. There are at least two of these images – the Guide of destiny and the personal deity. Which one would it be? Moshe asks this question of Elohim again, perhaps sensing that this was really a call to destiny as opposed to a personal mission.
But the answer he receives is exceedingly vague, almost contradictory. First, Elohim tells him what appears to be a direct answer to his question. The answer in Hebrew is ‘Eh’yeh asher eh’yeh’ – an unusual phrase that is most accurately translated as ‘I will be what I will be’. It sounds like God’s image as the Guide of destiny. So is this God’s name or is it a description of God? If it is God’s true name then why does Elohim tell Moshe to inform the Israelites of a different name? If it isn’t God’s name, why was it mentioned at all?
There are different approaches to interpret this strange answer. The classic approach holds that the actual name of God is Hashem, as the final words of verse 15 seem to indicate. The ‘I will be’ phrase, whether in its full form (‘I will be what I will be’) or its shortened form (Eh’yeh – ‘I will be’), emphasizes the absolutely destined nature of everything that God controls. This is the way that things are going to happen. It is the force of fate telling a human being with free will and an independent conscience, that there is an ultimate plan that will be followed, by hook or by crook. This is Elohim in all His solitary glory – the absolute ‘I’. But it isn’t the name we use for God. That name, the name that Moshe was to use in addressing the Israelites, is YHWH.
The primary difference between the two ‘names’ is in the first letter. The first letter in Eh’yeh puts the subject ‘I’ before the ‘will be’. In YHWH, the first letter puts the subject ‘He’ or ‘It’ before the verb ‘to be’. Eh’yeh is God describing God, almost as if God is talking to Himself and there is nothing else present. This is God’s absolute role as destiny. But the name that the Israelites would use, the name that God would be known by, is Hashem. This name addresses God in the third person, indicating that we, who are not God, are also here. God will be, God is, but we also are. As beings with independent minds, we have our own perspective of God. This perspective refers to God not as ‘I’ but as ‘He’. We may not control destiny, but we address God on our own terms.
There is a fate, a destiny, to the world. Each of us has to play a part in that destiny whether we choose to or not. We can do it kicking and screaming or we can do it like good little boys and girls. We can insert our own input into the general scheme or we can take a more passive role and just go along with the plan as obedient servants. That is our choice. But the plan must proceed no matter what we creations try to do. There will be occasional divine ‘corrections’ to make sure certain things are still heading in the right general direction, but they will be heavily disguised in natural events and used only rarely under situations that absolutely call for them.
Through it all, the hand of Hashem will always be there. This hand, this voice, this influence, penetrates into areas that Elohim cannot touch. Destiny may be the big overall picture, but it isn’t the entire picture. It is in the very personal arena that the influence of Hashem reaches, underwhelming the cosmic power of destiny with a still, small voice that can be heard above the din of everything else. This is the name that Moshe was instructed to address the Israelites with, for this is the image that will always be there, forever residing in the memory of those who recall. ‘I will be what I will be’ is a powerful image. It is what will ultimately come to be in some way that is perhaps beyond our control. But it is not the only image of God. No matter how overwhelming the forces of destiny whirl around us, no matter how powerful the pull of powers beyond our control, we always have a personal voice to recall, that reminds us that we also matter.
Perceiving the Image
There are two images here. We are already familiar with both of them. What is new here is the glaring contrast between the two and the ultimate influence of one over the other. ‘I will be what I will be’ is about as powerful a statement as could be made expressing the role of the Guide of destiny. It conveys a force that is beyond the power of any individual person, beyond that of all of humanity. It may be synonymous with the force of nature, but it may go beyond even that. It may even be a supernatural force that defies the laws of nature and stretches the bonds of credibility. It may be a pull towards war or an insight into the course of civilization. It may be an unpredictable scientific discovery or a strange religious urge that influences the course of history. In the end they are all the power of this image as it forces its will upon all its creations.
But it does not overpower its sister image. No matter how implacable these forces are, no matter how senseless it may be to try to resist them, there will always remain that still, small voice that whispers to the individual, that he or she is important. No matter how overwhelming the forces of nature, and how invincible the power of political movements, and how unpredictable the whims of fate, we still have an image that we can cling to that reminds us of who we are and why we are here. Moshe may have sensed himself getting caught up in the vast whirlwind of history and destiny, and felt himself inadequate for the task. But he also heard the voice of Hashem assuring him that, ‘I will be with you’. When the going gets tough, as it must; when the forces of destiny weigh down upon the individual soul and wrestle it into submission; the touch of Hashem lets us all know that we have not been abandoned to fate and we are not just pawns in a great game.
As we try to blend these two images together we sense the conflict between them. When does the power of destiny bend to the gentler sway of the personal? When must the personal submit to the fate of destiny?
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