Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He said “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”
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?” 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.’” Exodus 3:7–14
Having fled from Egypt to escape punishment for killing a slave driver, Moses took up the quiet life of a shepherd. One day, while he was alone in the mountains, a bush burst into flames. He knew immediately that God was in the fire, for a voice told him that he now stood “on holy ground.” God had seen the sufferings of the Israelites and told Moses to go to Egypt and plead with the Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. Moses wondered why the Israelites would follow him, of all people, and so he asked for a sign, a name that would give him credibility with them. God responded, “I AM WHO I AM.”
What’s in a name? Why do we ask for them? If someone tells you his name, he gives you a way to get his attention. He tells you something about himself and offers what could be the threshold of a closer relationship. He dispels some of the mystery of who he is and implies that he may give up even more of that mystery as your acquaintance deepens. The God of this passage is not going to do that, not then, not ever. Moses and the rest of us will have to get used to the idea that God is radically, mysteriously, and beautifully different from anything we can shape, control, or even describe, and that is how God remains free from being defined (and therefore not limited) by us.
We can only hope that once in a while, and likely when we least expect it, we will find ourselves “on holy ground.” There may be no burning bush in those moments but we will, as a result, become more sure of who we are and more confident of what we must do. God leads not by becoming more attractive or visible to us, but by becoming unavoidable. I AM WHO I AM or, as it is sometimes understood, I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE.
The Israelites finally sought their freedom not because they knew God would hold their hands, leading them safely past all danger and then making everything right, but because they believed they had to do it. Something finally unavoidable compelled them to leave the comparative securities of slavery for the freedom and terror of the wilderness. As it turned out, God’s five-word self description really meant, “I am who you must confront.”
When those confrontations arise, when we are asked to do what is difficult but right, something crucially important to our future integrity and happiness happens. May we recognize this even if we don’t understand why.