There are a lot of good stories in Exodus, but this one is pivotal to me because it seems to show the roots of ethical monotheism. At this point in the history of the people that would one day become the Jews, the idea that there was only one god hadn’t really caught on, even among those who identified themselves as Abraham’s descendants. There was a god for the Israelite people, and different gods for the Egyptian and Canaanite peoples. Different gods controlled different territories, so if you moved to a different location you might find your god less powerful than the god that was native to that territory.
Furthermore, the Israelite god had been seemingly inactive for quite a while. 400 years had elapsed between the time of Joseph and the time of Moses, and the children of Israel had languished in slavery for most of that time. They’d heard stories, sure, but God seemed awfully silent. Maybe he didn’t come with them into Egypt? Maybe the Egyptian gods were more powerful? Nerd that I am, I imagine Moses’s encounter with the burning bush to feel a bit like the scene in “The Force Awakens” where Han Solo shows up and tells an incredulous Rey: “There were stories of what happened.” “It’s true, all of it.”
What’s most interesting to me in this story is God’s seemingly cryptic answer when Moses asks him to identify himself. God responds “I am who I am”. God can’t be named because he can’t be constrained by the limits of the human mind. God can’t be defined; he just is. God refuses to be confined to any kind of box we might want to put him in for purposes of understanding and/or control. That includes the Bible, which points us to God but is not God.
For the children of Abraham, this concept of monotheism took quite a few more years to sink in to the point where they would proclaim their core statement of faith in the Shema as “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one”. It’s fascinating to watch their understanding of God grow through the centuries, from a tribal god who fought for Team Israel when they were good and against them when they were bad, to a universal God who is not limited to space or time and cares about all people.
When I hear some religious figures today saying “Muslims, Christians, and Jews don’t worship the same God” I have to wonder if we still don’t understand the concept of monotheism. If there is one God, there is one God. Different people may have different understandings of what that God is like, but that doesn’t change the one “I Am”. It’s rather like the old parable of the blind men and the elephant, who touched different parts of the elephant and “saw” it quite differently. The fact that they perceived it as a wall, a tree, a snake, or a rope did not mean there were many elephants. A finite mind has trouble with the concept of an infinite God.
In God’s speech to Moses, he reveals himself not only as an undefinable “I am”, but as concerned for those who are powerless, mistreated, and oppressed. An ethical God was a relatively novel concept at this time, as any student of ancient mythologies can attest. The gods might be immortal and omnipotent, but their morality was severely lacking. They remind me of the character “Q” in Star Trek…powerful but self-centered beings who meddle in the affairs of humanity for their own entertainment. In the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, for example, the gods destroy the world with a flood because they are bothered by how noisy humans are.
It’s also fascinating that God, who I would suppose could miraculously transport the enslaved Israelites from Egypt to Canaan if he chose to do so, enlists Moses to help him accomplish his goals. That’s interesting to me, because that’s the way I think God works most of the time: he works through and with people. He enlists us as his partners in accomplishing his vision for the world, even though we are flawed and finite and will invariably make mistakes. If you read the rest of the Exodus story, you’ll see how imperfect Moses was, from his initial reluctance to get involved to his famous temper. God is like a parent who enlists their child for help in some household chore, knowing that they could accomplish the task more quickly and efficiently alone. The person is more important than the task
God is one, and won’t be confined to the boxes of our thinking. God is ethical, and desires the well-being of all creation. Yet, this God invites us to be his partners. God changes us, and we change the world for the better. And that’s good news.