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Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Why Not Now?

We live in an age of instant gratification.

If I want a superior coffee experience, I have only to walk to the corner, or drive to my friend Rod’s house. If I want to know what’s happening across the world, five minutes with CNN will probably do it. If I want to feign expert knowledge of virtually any subject, half an hour of Googling enables me to pass myself off as conversant with all but the genuinely knowledgeable.

God doesn’t operate that way. It’s a bit vexing at times, I must admit.

Exodus tells us that, for reasons known only to God, Moses had God’s character revealed to him in a way that at the time was entirely new:
“God spoke to Moses and said to him, ‘I am the Lord [YHWH]. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty [El Shaddai], but by my name the Lord [YHWH] I did not make myself known to them.’ ”
And of course my first question is, “Why not?” Why didn’t God make his personal name known to the patriarchs? I mean, what was so special about Moses?

El Shaddai

In Hebrew, El Shaddai is a compound name, generally translated into English in our Bibles as “God Almighty”. El means “god” in the generic sense.

Shaddai is … something else. Scholars argue about whether the word derives from the Akkadian shadu (“mountain”) or the Hebrew shad (“breast”); and thus whether it is primarily a name that denotes kingship and sovereignty or one that implies blessing and fertility. I suspect it may be the latter, since Jacob on his deathbed engages in a little bit of wordplay involving “The Almighty” and “blessings of the breasts and of the womb”.

Either way it is not a debate I am equipped to resolve, but that should hardly matter: it was primarily for the patriarchs that God revealed himself as El Shaddai, not for you and me. I bet each of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had a very solid idea what the name denoted, and it told them enough about God to get the job done in their day. I also note that this particular iteration of God’s name gets left behind in the patriarchal period pretty quickly: 42 of its 48 occurrences in scripture are during that period, and it appears most frequently in the book of Job.

It is by this name that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob knew God, though he appeared to them on numerous occasions. They never knew God as Jehovah.

That hardly seems fair, but what do I know.

The Big Reveal

The one that got the big reveal was … Moses. The guy who grew up Egyptian rather than Hebrew, but identified with his blood relatives anyway. The guy who killed an Egyptian and went on the run for 40 years, tended sheep in the wilderness, married the daughter of a Midianite priest, neglected to circumcise his son and nearly died because of it, and balked at pretty much everything God asked him to do.

Oh, I know he turned out alright in the end, but it hardly seems fair. Abraham went up a mountain prepared to sacrifice his son, but nobody told him God’s name. Jacob wrestled with God all night without hearing a single “I am Jehovah”. Isaac? Well, I’m sure he did something important apart from blessing the wrong son by mistake and being manipulated by his wife.

But at the time God told Moses his name, Moses had not done a whole lot to merit it. Even his signal act of faith (striking down the Egyptian and leaving home for Midian) involved what most people (including his own) would call an act of murder. And Moses just kept telling God, “Please send someone else” and “How will Pharaoh listen to me?” 

What’s the deal?

Jehovah

Jehovah is the common English translation of a name of immense significance to the Jew. The Hebrew equivalent is YHWH, and because ancient Hebrew was written without vowels, nobody knows how it ought to be pronounced. Some devout Jews will not say it or even write it in full (my Jewish friend R’B can’t even write the English words “God” or “Lord” without hyphens for vowels). YHWH occurs in the Hebrew scriptures nearly 7,000 times. It is by far the most common way by which God has revealed himself prior to the coming of Jesus Christ, and by which he has been known in the world.

Its meaning appears to be “the unchanging, eternal, self-existent God”, the “I am that I am”. There are monumental, life-changing truths to be unpacked from this revelation, but it’s not our subject today.

The patriarchs knew nothing of this name despite all their dealings with God. About this name, God tells Moses, “This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations”. Up until the coming of Christ, if you needed a one sentence descriptor for the Most Powerful Being in the universe, this was the ticket.

It’s the big one. And Abraham, Isaac and Jacob didn’t know it.

Why Not?

It is in our nature to wonder why, and it starts early. Why did my brother get the red shirt and I got the brown one? Why did my sister get all the looks in the family? Why did I have to work to put myself through college while most kids get a free ride? Why do I suffer from depression and OCD when my best friend is laid-back and entirely comfortable in her own skin? Why are the poor starving in Africa and bloated in inner-city America?

Why didn’t I get the red shirt? And why did Moses get the revelation of God’s name?

I suspect it has less to do with Moses personally than we might think, and it’s probably not a slight to Abraham, Isaac or Jacob either — anymore than being 5'2" is a slight and being 6'3" is a blessing. I think it just wasn’t time yet. God’s people had to come to a place in their history when they were ready to hear God’s personal name. And God knew exactly the right time for that. He always does.

Romans tells us, “At the right time Christ died for the ungodly”. Galatians says, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son”.

Not a moment earlier. Not a moment later. At just the right time. There are factors in God’s calculations that have nothing to do with you and me.

I noted Jo Nesbo’s complaint about this feature of God’s self-revelation in yesterday’s post. He sees Christianity as implausible because of it: Why would God wait so long and apparently bypass so many people to send his Son when he did?

The answer is probably somewhere in the name Jehovah, I suspect. By definition, one who is self-existent cannot be said to owe his creatures explanations. Sometimes he graciously gives them, but he certainly doesn’t have to.

Quite often we wouldn’t grasp them if he did. Most often, I think.

Sometimes these revelations await our own maturity.

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