As we take a look at Exodus 3:1-15 where Moses is at the burning bush, I want to attempt to give clarity to the passages from a historical and theological framework.
Most of us know the story well. “Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.” (Exodus 3:1,2)
“Moses! Moses! “God called out to him from the burning bush and tells Moses to remove his sandals because this the ground upon Moses stood on was holy and then introduces Himself as, “I AM WHO I AM”, or YHWH, יְהֹוָה.
However, before Moses knows God as יְהֹוָה, what did Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob know the God of the Universe to be?
Let’s take a historical and geographical look at the text. Several components separate Abraham’s knowledge of God from that of Moses’. Abraham and Sarah are coming from Mesopotamia which is particularly rooted in polytheism. Yes, Abraham and Sarah and their family are leaving the cities of Ur and Haran geographically, but what is their theology upon worshiping within a monotheistic spiritual context?
The Almighty is known in three main categories to the patriarchs: (1) The God of Abraham, (2) The God of Isaac (called “the Fear of Isaac” in Genesis 31:42,53); and (3), the Mighty One of Jacob in Genesis 49:24. When the tribal groups from the East arrive in Canaan they start associating the word El with a holy place or a characteristic of God. We see that with El Roi, “the God Who Sees”,” El Olam associated with Beer-sheba, “The Eternal God”, El Elohe Israel, El Bethel associated with Bethel El Shaddai, El Elyon; all of which are found in Genesis.
The distinction of El most likely has to do with locality- differentiating with the gods of the Canaanites who usually used to term Baal for God. We see the distinction with the use of names with both the Canaanites with their use of aal at the end of many names, and the Patriarchs use of el in the ending of many of their names.
But in Exodus 6:3, God specifically states, “by my Name YHWH, I did not make myself known to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Moses knows God by a new name: “I AM WHO I AM”, God answered Moses. “Tell them I AM has sent you to them” (Exodus 3:13-14). YHWH (I AM suggests the awesome meaning: “HE WHO IS” or “HE WHO IS WHAT HE IS. YHWH incomparably IS. He IS the ONE who will speak to Moses face-to-face unlike all the other prophets, and is about to move in a terribly mighty way before all of Egypt to deliver the Children of Israel in order to keep is covenant with Abraham.
1.Hamilton, Victor P, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17:The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI. 1990.
2. Oden, Thomas, Classical Christianity: A Systematic Theology, Harper Collins Publishers, New York NY. 1992.