It is well to have specifically holy places, and things, and days, for, without these focal points or reminders, the belief that all is holy and “big with God” will soon dwindle into a mere sentiment. But if these holy places, things, and days cease to remind us, if they obliterate our awareness that all ground is holy and every bush (could we but perceive it) a Burning Bush, then the hallows begin to do harm.
― C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer
CS Lewis, in this quote, is making the claim that all ground is holy. In essence, he is equating common bushes found in any front lawn with the extraordinary event described in Exodus 3. Moses, in Exodus 3, literally had a face to face conversation with God. When CS Lewis calls all bushes “holy” be belittles God’s revelation and obscures the intent of the Exodus event. Although the mysticism expressed by CS Lewis may be very seductive, he creates pantheism out of all ground and all bushes. And despite the claims of CS Lewis, the theophany (an appearance of God) in Exodus 3 occupies a specific time and place which hallows the ground. The ground is made holy by this event. It is this event in which God’s introduction to Moses at the burning bush critically identifies God’s character as one whom we should worship. God is personal and relational rather than transcendental and omnipresent.
A Contextual Understanding of Exodus 3
Exodus 3 begins with Moses in tending the sheep of his father-in-law next to Mount Horeb (afterwards called the Mountain of God). Moses sees a burning bush in the mountain and turns aside to investigate. Unexplainably, the bush continues to burn and is not consumed by the fire.
God calls to Moses from the burning bush, and Moses answers with the famous “Here am I.” This reply recurs thematically throughout scripture as a reply to the prophetic call from God. It is the answer of Samuel to God in his bedchamber and the answer of Isaiah to God in the temple. God appears to each of these prophets, and they answer, “Here I am.”
As in all introductions, the parties exchange names. God knows Moses, but Moses does not know God. God introduces himself, “I am the God of your father—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Why does God here identify himself in relation to the patriarchs of Genesis? He has many names, such as Lord of Hosts (Head of Armies). But here, the personal God identifies himself by his relationships with individuals from the past, specific people with whom he has had close relationships. The reader should note that God is connecting with his creation rather than transcending it. He is identifying himself by his relationships to his creation. If you somehow were to lose contact with your grandchildren and then meet them in the future, how would you introduce yourself? Naturally, you would perhaps give them your surname and your personal name. But more importantly you would say I am your grandfather, the father of Rachel or Chris, your mother or father. You would connect personally with them. God is reconnecting with Israel and communicating his relational nature.
Jesus, in the gospel of Matthew, explains the significance of “I AM” in Genesis verse 6. In his confrontation with the Sadducees, they attempted to make the resurrection look ridiculous by creating a hypothetical situation where seven brothers married the same woman. They asked the “gotcha” question: after the resurrection, which brother will be married to her? Of course people do not remain married after the resurrection, but Jesus added positive evidence of the resurrection: have you not read what was spoken to you by God, saying:
Mat 22:32 ‘I AM THE GOD OF ABRAHAM, THE GOD OF ISAAC, AND THE GOD OF JACOB’ ? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.”
What is strange is that the verb for “I am”, εγω ειμι, is not in the Hebrew (Exo 36). The Hebrew, read literally, says, “I, God of Abraham, God of Isaac…” The “I AM” of this verse simply links God to personal relationships.
Apparently Moses understood who God is from this historical context or at least he had some prior knowledge about God. After making this introduction, God then tells Moses to confront the most powerful empire on earth (Egypt) to free God’s chosen people. Moses, understandably concerned about his role as a messenger, specifically asks God “What is your name?” Here, Moses was probably looking for power or assistance in God’s name.
The names of gods symbolize power. The name “Thor” depicts a hammer-wielding god associated with thunder, lightning, storms, oak trees, and strength: a name that would inspire terror enemies. The name “Zeus” depicts a lightning wielding god associated with the downfall of the Titans. Moses was seeking some sort of power in God’s name. Instead God frustrates him further.
God, perhaps himself irritated at Moses’ desire for a more useful name, says “I AM WHO I AM.” (אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה) To understand this statement, it helps to understand how others have used it in scripture. Paul, after explaining his own unworthiness, uses the same words in Greek to explain to the Corinthians his apostleship:
1Co 15:10 But by the grace of God I am what I am
Paul is saying he knows that he is not worthy of this apostleship. In his checkered past, he has persecuted Christians, but God transformed him into an apostle, preaching the good news to all who would receive him. When Paul says “I am who I am”, he means “what you see is what you get”, nothing more or less. Paul is not claiming to be an immutable, simple and incorruptible god, a claim made by leading Calvinists.
Additionally, in Exodus 3:14, the two verbs for “be” are in the imperfect tense in Hebrew. The imperfect tense is sometimes used for the present tense, making this statement “I am who I am.” Sometimes in Hebrew the imperfect tense will be used for events that are frequented or of general occurrence that are independent of time. In these instances the English present could be used. However, the imperfect tense is usually translated in the future tense. The better translation is “I will be who I will be.” Regardless, the other translation “I am who I am” could be used to convey the same meaning. In the context, this appears to be a defense to Moses on the use of God’s name. Moses wants a better name, but God is saying this is my name and “I will be who I will be.”
Remember, God has already identified himself by connecting himself with the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. When God replies to Moses, “I will be who I will be,” he is referring to that relationship. This is the same usage as Paul’s statement, “I am who I am”, referring to Paul’s history. This statement is a historical identification. It emphasizes that this is a fixed and permanent history, and this emphasis is carried on in the following verses.
God takes on the name, “I AM” to tell the nation of Isreal: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3:14) What does this “I AM” mean? God reiterates:
Exo 3:15 Moreover God said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the children of Israel: ‘The LORD God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is My name forever, and this is My memorial to all generations.’
It is clear from the context that “I AM” is the short form for this longer identity. He says “I AM” the God of your fathers. “I AM” is explicitly a historical identity of a personal relationship with his creation.
“I AM” is the personal name for God; Yahweh יְהוָ֞ה. Exodus Chapter 3 introduces God’s name in the Scriptures. Strong’s concordance lists 6,220 occurrences of this word in the Old Testament. It would be cumbersome to use the long form of his name, “The God of Abraham, the God of Jacob…” Rather, Yahweh is used. Those who know God also know of this passage where “Yahweh” is defined in detail. God is the God of history, the God of continuing relationships with the fathers, and the God who continues to relate to his people to this day.