On the Name of God. Part I.

You say I took the name in vain.

I don’t even know the Name.

But if I did, well, really, what’s it to you?

There’s a blaze of light in every word.

Leonard Cohen

It doesn’t matter which you heard –

The holy or the broken Hallelujah.

(from Leonard Cohen, “Hallelujah”) 

“Hallelujah” is one of Cohen’s most famous songs, and there is a lot more to it than what I’ve quoted. There’s David in it and Samson, and there’s Leonard and you and I. But in the wake of some recent discussions with friends, I have to show you this verse, and I have to go through it. It says in six lines everything about praise, love, judgment, and biblical misunderstanding that I feel the need to explain. Now I come today not as a poet but as an analyst and commentator, so it will take me a lot more lines, but I’ll get to it all if you give me a chance, in this essay and the next one. I’ll even talk about Jesus, just you wait.

I have this conversation, so well summarized by Cohen, with my students when we come upon the Third Commandment in the book of Exodus. It’s the commandment we tend to know as forbidding the taking of the Lord’s name in vain. The one that makes some people say “Gosh” and “Cheese and crackers” when they stub their toes or marvel at piano-playing kittens. The one that makes some other people write “G-d” in their passionate sermons that promise fire and brimstone to the infidel, mixing atheists, Muslims, and liberal Catholics into one big Lord-offending soup. The one the multiple breaking of which they put into movie confessions to illustrate just how much the subject has nothing to confess. You know – the silly one.

This conversation in my classroom usually centers around what “in vain” means, what “name” we are talking about, and what the commandment was actually trying to achieve when it was… well, let’s say “written.” And it always harkens back to a previous conversation, normally from the week before, that takes place while we tell the story of Moses’ becoming the first Hebrew prophet. Because it is that story – the prophetic call of Moses – which makes the Third Commandment both completely unnecessary and profoundly meaningful.

So let you and me start there, too.

Ten Commandments

Some of you know the narrative perfectly well, but here’s a refresher: In chapter 3 of Exodus, Moses, a former Egyptian Hebrew adopted by a princess and now a fugitive in exile, who is 80 years old and has lived half his life in the desert with the Midianite tribes, married here and working for his father-in-law, is walking along and minding his own business when God (that’s right, you might have noticed from before that I spell out all kinds of words, and I’m about to explain why) – when God decides it’s time to “tap him on the shoulder.” To “appear” visibly and audibly. To make contact. Because God wants something. This is what God will do to nearly all his prophets; it will be His modus operandi, and most of the prophets’ responses will follow a similar pattern, so Moses becomes prototypical when it comes to the prophetic call.

Anyway, our still-unsuspecting Moses sees a bush that’s burning but not burning up – a curiosity – and goes to investigate. As he approaches, a voice from inside the bush – a voice new to Moses but familiar to us from the stories at least of Adam, Noah, and Abraham – utters a solemn, “Moses, put off your shoes, for the place where you stand is holy ground.” Then God introduces himself to the shaking human as the God of Abraham and explains the mission: Moses is to go to Egypt, confront the pharaoh and demand that he – you know, “let his people go.” Then he is to lead the Israelites out of bondage, back here. To worship.

Moses reacts in the way many prophets after him will: after gathering his initial wits about him, he finds every possible excuse to get out of it. He begs, schemes, argues, and downplays his own abilities. No one will listen to him, he is of no stature. No one will listen because he doesn’t know the name of his god. He can’t win a contest against the pharaoh’s priests. He is dim-witted. He has a speech impediment.

Hebrew prophets don’t want to be prophets, and it surprises an occasional Bible reader. Where’s the awe, the gratitude, the feeling of honor and privilege? Save the awe, nowhere, and if you think about it, that’s understandable. Since the dawn of human history and in the present day, prophethood has been an unenviable fate: lonely, hard, and dangerous. No prophecy is needed in kind and peaceful times to pat people on the back. More often than not, prophets come, in the Bible and out of it, to warn of disaster and doom, to yell at their nations and hold up a mirror and shout at the top of their lungs, “Look at yourselves! Stop! Ugly!” And no one wants to hear that. That’s why humanity has always jailed its prophets and put them in pits and in stocks, and labeled them crazy and put them into asylums, and beaten them bloody and chased them out into exiles, and called them liars and killed them. Sometimes, in the name of God.

We do not choose prophecy. It chooses us. But once It does, It doesn’t take no for an answer.

We don’t know exactly how much historical basis the figure of Moses has, but centuries after his time, pretty historical persons of Isaiah and Jeremiah and several others will experience the Reality of Prophecy thrust upon them with a necessity of mission, visions of God and all, and each will have a desperate plea ready to rise and an excuse on his lips, and none will be released. Moses offered God not one excuse but, as you’ve just seen, a barrage of them – and God empowers him to overcome each one, patiently at first. Moses will go to Egypt with two kinds of miracles to perform, with God directly at his side to guide him and tell him what to say, and even (at this point God’s getting irritated) with Moses’s brother Aaron as a mouthpiece – a mini-prophet, if you will.

Long story somewhat shorter, Moses accepts his mission as all prophets eventually do. After epic battles of power, faith, and leg muscle, exhausted and terrified children of Israel will return here, to Mount Sinai, as promised, now free, and Moses will be given what becomes the foundation of Judaism: Mosaic Law, represented most succinctly by the Ten Commandments, the third of which is the topic of this essay.


Okay. Why go in such detail into what happened by the burning bush? Because I left for last one interchange that actually matters to us today. Still baffled by the setting and the mission, anticipating the skeptical questions both from the Egyptian priests and from the Israelite elders, Moses asks what should have been a perfectly normal question for someone raised and fluent in a polytheistic culture: “When they ask me the name of the god who sent me, what shall I say?”

What Moses needs is to identify the god he is dealing with and to prove to his audience he has divine authority. He must state he comes in Someone’s name. “What is your name?” he asks.

tetragrammatonThe answer he gets is, perhaps, the most loaded word in the Bible. Actually, it’s not a real word. It’s four letters: אהיה, its English equivalent “Ahyeh,” and it’s not really a name. In other contexts it becomes יהוה – a better-known version, “YHVH,” which doesn’t help any more than the first. It has something to do with the Hebrew word “be,” but it’s not clear. It’s neither a noun nor a phrase nor a sentence. More a phrase than a noun. It’s not a name the way names work in Hebrew. It’s been translated and understood as “I AM” or “I AM THAT I AM” or “I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE.” It’s mystifying. It’s an answer of some sort but not quite an answer to Moses’s question.

Four letters. We call it “the tetragrammaton.”

Yet God makes it clear to his prophet that this is important, and to all the future generations He wants to be known thus, as “I AM.”

So what does this mean to us, the biblical peoples? We’ve inquired of God’s name and got “I AM” in return. Yahweh. Jehovah. Pick your transliteration. Do we know God’s name now? The debate rages on still, and I am of the school of thought that says, “No. We don’t.” But many of the biblical traditions point out, with reason, that no matter what arguments, this word is as close as we’ve ever gotten to it. This is the most sacred word in the Abrahamic world, and there are traditional Jews who, when they come upon it in the text of the scripture, will not read it out but substitute for it something like Adonai (Our Lord) or HaShem (The Name). It is out of respect for this tradition that we academics sometimes refer to the word as “the tetragrammaton.” It’s a euphemism for a word too holy to be said aloud.

Still, what interests me most of all in the story of Moses at the bush is why the answer to his question is “I AM.” What does it mean? And why won’t God tell us His name?


I ask my students these questions, and I am proud to say that over the years, with many theories recurring, we’ve come up together with a good list of possibilities.

Why won’t God tell us His name?

Whom do you tell your name and whom do you not? What’s in a name?

It is a very ancient concept from multiple cultures that words have power, and names carry the power of their objects. The more powerful the thing or the person, the more powerful her name. And power can be used – and misused. Now imagine the Being we are talking about in the minds of the writers of the book of Exodus: the creator of heaven and earth, the God of Abraham and Isaac. The most powerful deity in existence. How powerful would His name be? And would you want this power in the hands of humans?


Here’s another ancient and related concept: knowing someone’s name gives you power over him. Because our names are our identities; they make us unique and differentiate us from the rest of the world; they make us recognizable and relatable and circumscribe us to a place in that world. They make what we are, known. Think of folk tales from around the globe in which the secret to defeating evil monsters is finding out and pronouncing their names. Would God tell us His name?


Going one step further, how does one get a name? Besides various nicknames and aliases, what we call our “real names” are given to us by others. The namer and the named are also in a power relationship – yet another very, very ancient concept that we have internalized and preserved to this day. Think about what we name: our children, our inventions, our creations, our possessions. My students often say “cars.” For some reason, this generation likes to name their cars, I guess. In one of the oldest parts of the Bible – the story of the Garden of Eden – Adam gets to name all the animals and is in charge of them. And he gets to name Eve. Twice. There’s quite a bitter debate in academia about the alleged misogyny of this arrangement. And who names Adam? God, of course.

The question is, who would be there to name God?


This is the question that leads to a new category of questions: rather than ask why God won’t share His name, we begin to wonder if God has a name at all.

Why do we have names? It’s obvious, and you know this: so I can survey my student class and call on Amy or on Helen, both of whom are human, student, 21 years old, female, short-haired, in jeans, etc. It’s so I can go to a library and look for Master and Margarita or for Imago out of millions of books. Names circumscribe and differentiate – remember? – but not from just anything, from other things of the same kind. We call it Sol because there are other stars. We need only one word for the thing of which there is only one. For an idea. And we don’t call it a “name.”

When a biblical character Moses tried to differentiate his god from other gods and asked for a name, and his biblical God said, “Tell your people that I AM,” is that what God was trying to communicate? That God has no name? That He/She/It cannot be circumscribed or differentiated because there is nothing in existence He can be compared to? That He is existence itself – the Alpha and Omega, they will later say? “I AM that which is” is another possible translation of the tetragrammaton.

I AMThis is what I like and what I think about Exodus 3:14. In the midst of a story still very henotheistic (where the God of Israel is the mightiest but not the only god), on the eve of a great battle of the gods, which the Bible treats as very real, an ineffable voice makes what I take as an absolutely, utterly monotheistic statement – an existential statement of total ontological unity. “I AM all things.” “I AM always.” “I embrace reality such that I am indivisible from any of it.” “There is no divinity apart from what I AM.” This is what God says, and God the Ultimate Reality, still coalescing its way into human consciousness, refuses to take the final step into a pigeonhole and be named. The Hebrew Bible, the patchwork of myth and the ages and folktale and hindsight and inspiration and gut feeling and politics that it is, refuses to name God.

I like that.

To be continued into the Decalogue and Christianity. Next time.

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