When a couple finds out they are pregnant, one of the first things they do is to start looking for a strong name that will define and shape their child’s life.
For example, my name Matthew comes from the Hebrew name “Mattiyahu,” which means “Gift of Yahweh.” By naming me Matthew my parents were declaring that my life had value and purpose; it wasn’t random or accidental.
In some ways, a name is the most intimate way of expressing someone’s identity. Names can be so powerful because they say who a person is.
As the world faces this unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, I think we can find comfort in the meaning of one name in particular: Yahweh.
Although we tend to call the God of the Bible simply “God,” he has a personal name. You may find this name, Yahweh, translated in your Bible as Jehovah or the LORD in all caps.
This name is unique not only because it distinguishes the God of the Bible from all other deities and gods, but because of its meaning. God reveals it for the first time in Exodus 3 when he calls Moses to free the people of Israel from captivity in Egypt:
Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers 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.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I am has sent me to you.’”
That’s an odd way to introduce yourself. If you and I were meeting and I said, “Hi, I am …” and stopped there, you would think something was wrong with me, right? I have to fill in the blank: I am Matt, or I am a pastor, husband, father. So what is God trying to communicate by saying “I am who I am”?
God is doing something here to deliberately blow up our categories for how we’ve learned to think about who he is. “I am who I am” means that God is indefinable; you cannot put him in a box or fit him into some man-made category.
Really, a better translation here would be, “I be who I be.” He is who he is: circumstances and situations do not shape his nature or character. He is saying, “I am consistent; I do not vary. I am not one thing on this day and another thing the next day. I am who I have always been, and I will be the same forever.”
The first thing we observe in God’s personal name is that he is transcendent, meaning he is above us. While we are finite and frail, God is infinite and all-powerful. While to us it may seem like the world is spinning out of control, God doesn’t panic. There’s no triage in heaven.
That’s why in Exodus 3:16-22, God is able to tell Moses exactly what is about to happen. A collision was coming between “I am Pharaoh” and “I am who I am.” “I am Pharaoh,” was the leader of the most powerful nation the world had ever seen. Egypt had the largest army, the most complex technology and the best architecture. The Egyptians saw Pharaoh as a living god. But in this battle, there was only going to be one winner: “I am who I am.”
Now, when you’re face to face with “I am who I am” — a God so powerful that pharaohs and kings don’t stand a chance against him — the natural question that comes to mind is, “Who am I?”
That’s a question we ask ourselves a lot, especially when we’re facing adverse circumstances.
In Exodus 3:11, Moses asked God this question and once again got an unexpected response: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?”
If we were to judge by human standards, there was nobody better suited for leading God’s people out of Egypt than Moses. Just look at Moses’s résumé: fluent in Egyptian language, raised by the best tutors in Pharaoh’s household, an expert on Egypt’s culture and religion, and connected to the most powerful people in the land. He even had the blueprints of Pharaoh’s house!
But God does not mention any of this. He doesn’t give Moses a pep talk or assuage his fears with platitudes, “You’re great Moses! You’re a winner!” Instead, God tells Moses one thing: “I will be with you.” (Exod. 3:12)
God is not only transcendent, high above us; he is also immanent, among us.
Earlier in the chapter, God told Moses he had “seen the affliction of my people,” “heard their cry” and “know their sufferings,” and he had “come down to deliver them” (Exodus 3:7-8).
The great promise of Exodus is that “I am who I am” is with us. His presence is the answer to our anxieties and fears amid the chaos of COVID-19. He does not change, and he will not forsake us.
Matt Chandler is the lead pastor of teaching at the Village Church and the President of the Acts 29 Network. This article was adapted from a recent talk at Leader Check-In, an event hosted by Pulse and Year of the Bible.