God’s Name In Exodus 3

Moses saw a burning bush which was not consumed by the fire. Then God spoke to Moses, three times describing Himself as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” When Moses explicitly asked His name, God answered, “I am who I am.” He instructed Moses to tell the Israelites that “I AM” has sent Moses (Ex. 3: 13-14). Pope Emeritus Ratzinger argues in Introduction To Christianity that the purpose of this text is twofold: to “establish the name ‘Yahweh’ as the definitive name of God in Israel …” (117), and to give the name “meaning” (117). The root of the word “Yahweh” is hayah— in ancient Hebrew, “to be.”

It seems, however, that Ratzinger cautions his readers not to be irrationally exuberant about the apparent confirmation of Greek logos, which had led philosophers to conclude, through reason, the existence of an objective good, outside of ourselves, as the ultimate purpose of life. As Ratzinger points out, it seems that Exodus 3 confirms “the unity of belief and thought” (118) The concept of a unity of Plato and Moses, of philosophy and faith, writes Ratzinger, suggested to some that the Greek philosophers were familiar with the God of Abraham.
It is probably the other way around, though, writes Ratzinger. The Hebrew-to-Greek translators “were influenced by Greek philosophical thinking and interpreted the text from this angle” (119). There were many so-called “gods” at the time, and it would have been scandalous to simply attribute another name-among-names for the one true Creator. So, Ratzinger explains, the Greek translations “and the conclusions that the Fathers drew from it” were probably “based on a misunderstanding.”
As we do not really know the origin of the word “Yahweh,” Ratzinger asks us to focus more on the personal nature of the one true God. “He is not the God of a place but the god of men: the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (123) His power is incarnational— he is not bound to one spot (like the mountain where Moses first saw him), “but is present and powerful wherever man is” (123).

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The Covenant, the Ladder and the Wrestling Match: How God’s Grace Saved Jacob and Israel

Jacob, the grandson of the great Patriarch Abraham, though born after his twin brother Esau, schemed his way to get the birthright of the first born son. He did the same to obtain Isaac’s blessing, which was intended for Esau. Fearing Esau’s wrath, however, he was forced to escape.

In his travels, he dreamt of a ladder to heaven with angels going up and coming down. In the dream, God stood at the top, describing Himself as the God of Abraham and Isaac. God granted Jacob the land upon which Jacob was sleeping, promising him many children and descendants, and He gave Jacob His blessings and His protection.

Jacob, as the descendant of Abraham and Isaac, was the instrument through which God continued to fulfill His covenant to Abraham and Isaac. In accomplishing this, He gave Jacob another covenant, foreshadowing the ultimate fulfillment of the Old Covenant by means of bridging the gap between man and God (represented by the ladder).

Jacob did not earn this. He did not put his faith in God, despite the covenant. He continued to rely on his own designs, which again placed him in trouble: namely, two wives and more than 15 years of toil. Still, Jacob was a clever man and became successful. His schemes once again necessitated an escape, though, this time (following God’s command), back to his land and family.

But Jacob feared Esau’s revenge, leading him to pray for help. His prayer acknowledged that he, on his own merits, was unworthy of such help, but Jacob also reminded God of His covenant to him (Gen. 32:10-11). Jacob then organized a desperate scheme to appease Esau by splitting-up his caravan.

The night before Esau and 400 men were expected to arrive, Jacob found himself alone, behind his family and all his worldly possessions. “Then a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn” (Gen. 32:25). After this encounter, the “man” said, “You shall no longer be named Jacob, but Israel, because you have contended with divine …” (Gen. 32:29). Jacob named that place “Peniel,” or “the face of God” (USCCB footnote on Gen. 32:31, citing several other biblical passages).

Later that day, Jacob’s encounter with Esau was peaceful, loving and historic for the people of the land now known as Israel.

Jacob was given a vision of a ladder connecting man with God— a ladder that had traffic going both ways; God fulfilled his promise to Jacob, but only after Jacob, alone and without his earthly possessions, finally contended with God, who came to Jacob as a man. Jacob was truly the beneficiary of God’s grace, a foreshadowing of the New Covenant when God would ultimately become man on earth and die for our sins so that through grace (and not our own schemes) we can climb up to live eternally with Him.

The Limitations of Literal Interpretation

Any interpreter of a foreign language recognizes the importance of knowing the culture, setting, and context. Sometimes, “Google translate” results in hilarious translations. For example, in Latin, “adversus solem ne loquitor” translates precisely to “don’t speak against the sun.” A literalist would condemn those who complain on a hot August day. Someone who understands Latin, however, can explain that this phrase means, “don’t argue what is obviously wrong.”

The Bible involves many levels of interpretation. First and foremost, it is a spiritual document, not a scientific or mathematical document. Secondly, it was written in a variety of languages, long ago, in cultures that no longer exist. In other words, there are many layers of interpretation involved, often making literal or verbatim analysis absurd on many levels.

Saint Augustine of Hippo, writing 1600 years ago, interestingly had the same problem in his youth that many today have with the Bible. He writes in Confessions that there were “many difficult passages in the Old Testament scriptures” which he “taking them literally, had found them to kill” (Confessions 88). Ignoring the ironic fact that “to kill,” of course, should not be taken literally, Augustine was simply facing the same dilemma of many Bible readers today. Noah did not put two of every animal on his ark, Jonah did not literally live inside of a whale, etc. When Augustine finally heard from a wise man expounding on the Old Testament spiritually rather than literally, he writes, “I now found fault with that despair of mine, caused by my belief that the law and the prophets could not be defended at all against the mockery of the hostile critics.” Augustine did not treat Genesis and scripture as science.

Life of Brian – Blessed are the cheesemakers

Why is “knowledge of good and evil” a bad thing?

When Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, we are told that the fruit provided “knowledge of good and evil.” Why is this bad? After all, when we study ethics or even our catechesis, isn’t that what we work so hard to learn?

 Adam and Eve only realized they were naked after they had eaten of the fruit. They quickly covered their private parts… Does this mean nakedness is evil and they only realized it after having eaten of the fruit?

 The part of the text that made me think of this is Gen. 2:7: “Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.”

 Is it bad for our “eyes to be opened?” Is God teaching us that blind loyalty is better than reasoned faith? I believe that this story is a parable, explaining that there is suffering and pain on earth because of God’s decision to give us free will. Just as Jesus taught in parables, so did Moses.

 It is odd, though, that our ancestors’ decision to disobey God is what condemned us to a painful, mortal life. Still, the parable concept works here. We are given free will; we all sin—and the price of free will is suffering on this earth. We are not being punished for what Adam and Eve “did,” but we suffer because God has given us the gift of free will. We cannot have free will without the consequence of free will: suffering.

In the Beginning

The Old Testament logically starts with a description of God’s creation of the earth and of the universe. The author, Moses, teaches his people in a manner understandable to them how things came into being. There is poetic and profound structure in this simple story, a story that has withstood the test of time. For example, until the recent discovery of the “big bang,” skeptics decried this first book of the Bible, some declaring that the universe took trillions of years to be created, and others claiming that it has always existed. We now know that there was a beginning. Also, we have come to recognize that the basic law of physics (matter cannot be created) was violated—i.e. a miracle occurred. Scientific analysis, however, is not the purpose of the Revelation found in the Old Testament, including Genesis. Moses was an imperfect human being, and as expressed in “Dei Verbum,” the books of the Old Testament “contain some things which are incomplete,” although they “show us true divine pedagogy” (Dei Verbum ch. IV, 15).

Scientists prefer to call the creation as the “moment of singularity.” Science establishes the truth of the creation, but Genesis goes further by describing the Creator and lays the foundation for understanding the purpose of His creation. For example, He created man in His image, He gave man dominion over the earth, and He calls upon man to be fruitful and multiply. The first pages of Genesis represent God’s revelation, through Moses, to man regarding how the heavens and the earth were created, and teach God’s purpose and will for man.

The Word Made Flesh: Dei Verbum

God revealed Himself to us. He continues to do so, according to the famous encyclical, Dei Verbum, which literally means “the Word of God.” His revelation is “incarnational” because we have learned about God from people who have dwelt among us. Chiefly, according to Dei Verbum, this occurred when the Word of God was made flesh in the form of Jesus Christ. The Gospels of the New Testament, which were written by men about Christ (God made man), then, “are the principal witness for the life and teaching of the incarnate Word, our savior” (ch. V, 18).

“In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1), and “through the Word, God creates all things” (Dei Verbum ch. I, 3). The Word was revealed to flesh-and-blood humans like Abraham, upon whom God relied in order to make a great nation (Dei Verbum, ch. I,3), and to teach his people “to acknowledge Himself the one living and true God…” (Dei Verbum ch. I,3).

The Word was then made flesh in the form of Jesus Christ “in whom the full revelation of the supreme God is brought to completion” (Dei Verbum ch. II,7)—but the incarnational revelation does not end with Christ. Dei Verbum continues by pointing out that Christ “commissioned the Apostles to preach to all men…” (Dei Verbum ch. II,7). The Author of the Word became man to teach the Word, and depends on men to transmit the Word to all generations.

Thus, Dei Verbum characterizes revelation as “incarnational,” pointing out that God has revealed himself through Abraham and the patriarchs, through Moses and the Prophets, and ultimately through the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. This is not the end of divine revelation, however, for the “bride of the incarnate Word taught by the Holy Spirit” continues to give us “a deeper understanding of the Sacred Scriptures” (Dei Verbum ch. VI, 23).

A brief definition of “faith,” according to Ratzinger, in “Introduction to Christianity”

Cardinal Ratzinger teaches that faith is what creates meaning to human existence. The faith of a Christian is embodied in the Apostle’s Creed, which begins with the words “I believe,” and ends with the word “Amen.” Ratzinger argues that there is a spiritual, “invisible” world that is just as real—indeed more real—than the material world. We cannot, however, see or “lay[] it on the table” (70), but while we can’t prove the object of our faith objectively, this does not diminish its truth or importance.

Ratzinger sees faith and reason as allies, but acknowledges that the “foothold” from which we find true understanding and meaning in life is the materially unverifiable acknowledgment of God revealed, through Christ, redeeming mankind. Using Isaiah’s concept of faith as a “foothold,” Ratzinger argues that with all the success of human calculation, and with all we have learned in measuring the world, without faith, we cannot measure ourselves.

Opposing this empty materialism is at the heart of the Church’s teaching that man cannot live on bread alone. In this way, Ratzinger points out that while it is difficult to entrust “ourselves to what cannot be seen,” the invisible has a primacy over the visible. The proof of this can be seen in the misery of nihilism, and the fact that today so many living in such comfort “fall[] into the situation of no longer being able to live” (73). In sum, the Hebrew version of Isaiah 7:9 (if you don’t believe, you have no foothold) is perfectly reconcilable with the Ancient Greek interpretation (if you don’t believe then you don’t understand). Faith, then, to Ratzinger, is standing firm on the ground “of the word of God” (69), giving purpose to those who believe.