The Westminster Shorter Catechism #44 asks “What doth the preface to the ten commandments teach us?” It answers by saying, “The preface to the ten commandments teacheth us, that because God is the Lord, and our God, and Redeemer, therefore we are bound to keep all his commandments.” A better answer could not be given. The preface that the Shorter Catechism speaks of is found in Ex. 20:2, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” This opening statement has often been overlooked in favor of the ten commandments that follow. This is understandable. After all, it is so short and thus easy to overlook. The Westminster Standards is wiser than most and does not neglect this very important opening statement. Within it is a richness of spiritual blessings. I will focus my thoughts on only one, the revelation of the name of God (you will have to wait for my future posts to read about the others).
The preface is in two parts. The first is the revelation of the name of Israel’s God, “I am the LORD.” It is common in English translations to have the word “LORD” in capital letters. Behind this is the divine name “YHWH,” possibly pronounced as “YaHWeH” (Yahweh). The name was revealed to Moses in Ex. 3:14 when the Lord commissioned him to return to Egypt to free His people from Egyptian suppression. One of the many objections that Moses raised was that the people would ask for His name (Ex. 3:13), which Moses admitted he did not know. The Lord’s answer is well-known, I Am. He instructed Moses to inform the Israelites that “I Am has sent me to you” (Ex. 3:14b). If this is His name, then why was His immediate response to say, “I am who I am.” What did the Lord mean by this?
In the ancient world the name of deities often reflected the domain in which they (allegedly) controlled. For example, the Canaanite word for “sun” is shamash, thus the Canaanite sun god was called Shamash; the word for “sea” is yamm, thus the god of the sea was called Yamm. As these examples show, these ancient deities had a close association with things rooted in nature. This background reveals what Moses was asking. He didn’t want to know the name of God per se, but rather what is He the god of—are you the god of the storm (like Marduk or Baal), are you the god of grain (like Dagon)? Recall that the task the Lord gave to Moses would require him to combat pharaoh, possibly even the Egyptian pantheon. It was a mountainous task that was given to him with many obstacles. Before he began, it was understandable for Moses to wonder who this god is who is sending him, what is the extent of his power and authority, and what assurances does he have that he is not merely sacrificing himself for nothing.
By revealing His “I Am” name, in essence the Lord was saying, “I AM the sovereign, I AM the highest power, I AM the greatest authority. Any attempt to comprehend Me by comparing Me to other deities would only depreciate My supremacy because I AM incomparable. You want to know what is the domain in which I sovereignly rule in creation, but you do not understand. I AM not merely the god of one realm of creation. I AM the God of Creation. If a comparison is what will help, then the only way in which I can even begin to explain who I Am is to compare Myself to Myself….I AM who I AM.”
And yet, it was the transcendent I AM, “who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Israel’s God—who is so far beyond any pagan notions of deity—was not so far off that He did not care for the interests of His covenant people. He was close, very close. In fact, He was the One who redeemed them from the harsh oppression of life in a foreign land under the despotism of a ruthless leader. This should remind us of yet another wondrous thing about this divine name. It is His name. In a similar passage in Ex. 6:3, the Lord says that He revealed Himself to the Israelite forefathers as ʾēl šaddāy (“God Almighty,” better “God the Mountain-Dweller”; cf. Gen. 17:1; 28:3; 35:11; 43:14; 48:3; ask Dr. Redd for a defense). The ʾēl element is the Hebrew word for “God,” which means this is more a title/designation than an actual name. Throughout the patriarchal narratives (Gen. 12-50), God is referred by similar titles: ʾělōhîm (God, Gen. 1:1); ʾēl ʿelyôn (God Most-High, Gen. 14:18-20, 22; cf. Ps. 57:2; 78:35); ʾēl ʿôlām (Eternal God, Gen. 21:33; cf. Isa. 26:4; Jer. 10:10); ʾēl rŏʾî (God who sees, Gen. 16:13). That may have been how He made Himself known in the past, but no longer. To this generation in bondage, they are now permitted to refer to their Sovereign God in intimacy and love. They can call Him by His name. To illustrate this, I think of my own life. To those who do not know me well I am called by various designations: Mr. Lee, Dr. Lee, Professor Lee (possibly even “Oh captain my captain” if one is so bold). Yet to those close to me, such titles are not only unnecessary, they are inappropriate. They love me and I love them. They call me by my name, Peter. A title would give a sense of a separation and distance that does not exist. My wife does not call me “Dr. Lee” (unless she is upset with me). She calls me by my name (along with other terms of endearment) because she is my wife.
Thus in the revelation of the divine name I AM, the Lord says that He is both transcendent and imminent. He is the Omnipotent God who is above all creation, but He also dwells with His people and even redeems them from the bondage of enslavement. In this name is a picture of a coming day in the history of salvation when the I AM God would “empty himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:7). He would come to free us from the penalty of sin (Rom. 6:23) and powers of sin (John 8:32, 36) so that we might live for righteousness (Rom. 6:16-18; look for my future posts on “Covenant Sanctification”). When the New Testament describes the heavenly departure of Jesus from His eternal throne room to dwell with us to save us from the dominion of sin (Phil. 2:5-11), it is reiterating in fullness what the book of Exodus already revealed in shadow when the Lord shared His name to Moses. Jesus is the I AM God in the flesh and He gave Himself as a ransom for many. If that does not cause you to want to sing a song of praise, then I simply do not know what will. Praise God for the coming of I AM, our Savior and King.
Peter Lee, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Old Testament
Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C.