The story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt is famous for good reason—a burning bush, a transforming staff, 10 plagues, and the Passover. The exodus is also the story that defines God’s personal name, Yahweh. What does this narrative show us about Yahweh? And why does God care so much that people know his name? In this episode, Tim and Jon talk about God’s character revealed through his acts of deliverance and judgment.
The exodus is [like a monument to or statue commemorating] the name Yahweh in the Bible. God’s action to liberate from oppressive structures so that people can worship and image God in freedom—that is the name of Yahweh. … To know the name of Yahweh means to understand this God’s character, what this God cares about. If you don’t know the name, it means you’re like Pharaoh—you don’t care.
In part one (00:00-12:15), Tim and Jon pick up where they left off in our last episode, with Moses at the burning bush, conversing with Yahweh. This is a crucial moment in the opening movement of the Exodus scroll.
In this encounter, Yahweh elects Moses as the liberator of the Israelites who are enslaved in Egypt. However, Moses is a reluctant revolutionary. Of course, he didn’t start off that way—in his youth, he murdered an Egyptian who was beating an Israelite. But after 40 years in exile, Yahweh wants him to go back and do things differently. Moses will have to completely trust Yahweh instead of his own means and timing.
Moses makes excuse after excuse, begging God to send someone else to confront Pharaoh. He even asks God, “Who even are you? What’s your name?” And for the first time in the Hebrew Bible, God introduces himself by name, Yahweh. Yahweh means “I am/I will be” or “he is/he will be.”
In part two (12:15-39:45), Tim and Jon discuss Moses’ next objection: “What if the Israelites don’t believe me?” (Exod. 4:1). In response, Yahweh tells Moses to throw his staff on the ground, and it becomes a snake. This sign compels belief, and it reveals something important about Moses’ identity. Yahweh makes Moses a snake handler who can overcome the serpent-like Pharaoh.
However, Moses and Aaron bring God’s message to Pharaoh, and it doesn’t seem to go as smoothly as the miracle with Moses’ staff. Pharaoh sneers at Yahweh’s name.
Pharaoh said, “Who is Yahweh that I should obey his voice to let Israel go? I do not know Yahweh, and besides, I will not let Israel go.”
Although Moses and Pharaoh technically ask almost identical questions (Who is Yahweh?), they do it in completely different ways. Moses is scared but genuinely curious; he asks with reverence. Pharaoh talks to Yahweh as if they’re on even footing, and he refuses to acknowledge Yahweh’s power and authority or obey him. Ancient Egyptians worshiped pharaohs as gods, so this pharaoh likely saw himself as Yahweh’s equal.
Because the ancient Near East was an honor/shame culture, a person or group’s reputation was of utmost importance. Pharaoh’s obstinate response to Yahweh sets up a competition between their names, their nations, and their reputations. Yahweh has attached his reputation to Israel’s, so he commits to protecting them at all costs. Here, Yahweh meets the serpent all over again in the form of a pharaoh who won’t acknowledge him as the true God. This is part of why his response of sending the 10 plagues can seem so harsh.
The Israelite exodus from Egypt becomes the foundational narrative for describing God’s character. In Exodus 6, Yahweh and Moses have another important conversation that brings further nuance to Yahweh’s name.
God spoke further to Moses and said to him, “I am Yahweh; and I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as El Shaddai, but by my name, Yahweh, I did not make myself known to them.”
Hebrew linguist Francis Andersen suggests translating these sentences a little differently, as a four line poem.
I am Yahweh.
I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai.
My name is Yahweh.
Didn’t I make myself known to them?
(Andersen, The Sentence in Biblical Hebrew)
This makes sense within the storyline of Genesis and Exodus, since Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob did know God as Yahweh. It seems that the Israelites have since forgotten his name. This also changes the emphasis of what Yahweh is saying from what he didn’t do in the past to what he did do, connecting his name to the promise he makes next.
I also established my covenant with them … I have heard the groaning of the sons of Israel, because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered my covenant. Say, therefore, to the sons of Israel, “I am Yahweh, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage … I will take you for my people, and I will be your God; and you shall know that I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.”
In part three (39:45-50:30), Tim and Jon talk about the 10 plagues Yahweh sends against Egypt to compel them to let the Israelites go. Yahweh tells Moses and Aaron that Moses will represent Yahweh to Pharaoh, and Aaron will be like Moses’ prophet. (Moses will speak on behalf of Yahweh, and Aaron will speak on behalf of Moses.)
Before Moses and Aaron announce the impending plagues, we know Pharaoh has already made his decision to reject Yahweh. So when Yahweh says he is going to harden Pharaoh’s heart (Exod. 7:3), he’s not hardening the heart of an innocent man who would have chosen to repent. (Generations of pharaohs have oppressed Israel and others and done incredible evil at this point.) Rather, Yahweh is accelerating the path of an empire that has already chosen its way forward in the world.
After each of the first five plagues, the narrator tells us that Pharaoh hardened his heart. In the second set of five plagues, the narrator instead says that Yahweh hardened Pharaoh’s heart. It’s as if the narrator is telling us we’ve hit a point of no return in Pharaoh’s evil, so Yahweh steps in to accelerate the process and bring judgment.
Yahweh intends all of these events to communicate his nature both to the Israelites and the Egyptians. He is known by his acts of deliverance and by his acts of decreation.
In part four (50:30-1:05:45), Tim and Jon explore Paul’s reference to the Exodus story in Romans 9.
What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth.” So then he has mercy on whom he desires, and he hardens whom he desires.
In context, Paul is talking about how even out of Abraham’s descendants, he chooses some and not others (e.g., Jacob versus Esau). But just because someone is chosen by God doesn’t make them any better than anyone else. (Think about Jacob and the choices he made throughout his life.) As it applies to Pharaoh, the principle is the same. The Egyptians were descendants of Noah’s son Ham, one of the non-chosen lines of people. But in Joseph’s day, that pharaoh lived in harmony with Joseph and his family. The pharaoh of the exodus story chose to practice evil, and everyone suffered as a result.
God responds to each person and people group based on their choices, and his responses reveal his character. Whether chosen or not, God is always more merciful to people than they deserve. Moreover, Romans 9 and this pattern of God’s chosen ones doesn’t have anything to do with people’s eternal destinies. Paul is simply trying to make sense of how, through God’s chosen ones, his blessing is still going out to all nations in Paul’s day—this time through the Gospel of Jesus.
Bottom line: God wants to have a covenant relationship with all of humanity. To further that mission, he starts with a select few who carry his message and blessing to others. Proclaiming his name is how Yahweh casts a wider net for his blessing upon humanity.
Show produced by Cooper Peltz. Edited by Dan Gummel and Zach McKinley. Show notes by Lindsey Ponder.
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