Light from the Sidra


Torah: Exodus 1:1-6:1. Haftarah: Isaiah 27:6-28:13;29:22-23

All’s well that starts bad

‘What’s in a name?’ Shakespeare’s Juliet asks rhetorically. Her own answer is, basically, not a lot: ‘That which we call a rose,’ she says, ‘by any other name would smell as sweet.’ A name, Juliet tells Romeo, is an artificial and meaningless convention. She loves the person called Romeo Montague not the name, and asks Romeo to ‘deny [his] father’ and be ‘new baptized’ as her lover. That one short line encapsulates the central struggle and tragedy of Shakespeare’s play.

The Hebrew title of Exodus is Shemot: ‘Names’. Had Juliet lived in Bible times, her answer to her own question would have been far different. In the Tanakh, names are not inconsequential; they have meaning. God changed the names of Abram and Sarai to make them more meaningful and expressive of their places in his plan and purpose for the world. Abram means ‘Exalted Father’ but God changed it to Abraham, ‘Father of a Multitude’, and his wife’s name was changed to the more appropriate Sarah, meaning Princess. At the heart of the Exodus event is the revelation of the name of God to Moses and to Israel.

And Moses said to God, Behold, when I come to the people of Israel, and shall say to them, The God of your fathers has sent me to you; and they shall say to me, What is his name, what shall I say to them? And God said to Moses, I AM THAT I AM; and he said, Thus shall you say to the people of Israel, I AM has sent me to you. And God said moreover to Moses, Thus shall you say to the people of Israel, The Lord God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you; this is my name forever, and this is my memorial to all generations. (Exodus 3:13-15)


The ancient Egyptians magicians believed that to know the true name of a person or a god was to have the power of coercion over them. When God reveals himself to Moses at the burning bush and commissions him to liberate Israel from Egypt, he fears that the people who have assimilated the Egyptian worldview may want to know the name of God in order to call on his power. God responds that his name is Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh; ‘I am that I am’. In one sense, God’s answer is enigmatic but in another it reveals the majestic nature of the God of Israel: He is. He is the Eternal God, who is, who was and who is to come; he is the God who in the beginning created heaven and earth out of nothing with nothing but his word.

Religious Jews, out of respect for God, refuse to speak or write his name, preferring instead to speak of HaShem, ‘The Name’. But it is important to know God’s name, which is why he revealed it to Moses. The name is revealed to Israel not so the people can control him but so they may have confidence in him. He controls them, not vice versa. And, as we shall see, he controls the greatest superpower in the ancient world and even the natural world.

The creator of the cosmos, however, is no distant, aloof deity. His people cry out to him and he not only hears their cry, he also ‘comes down. The great ‘I Am’ steps down from his throne to confront Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt. And such will be the case through the rest of Israel’s history; in order to create, God speaks from his throne of glory; in order to redeem his people, he leaves his throne and comes down into the mess the world has become in order to sort it out.

The Haftarah sees Israel in need of an even greater redemption. The picture of Israel in Isaiah 27 and 28 is that of a ‘people of no understanding’, a nation of drunkards. God will have to redeem his people once again.

Therefore thus saith the Lord, who redeemed Abraham, concerning the house of Jacob, Jacob shall not now be ashamed, nor shall his face now become pale. But when he sees his children, the work of my hands, in the midst of him, they shall sanctify my name, and sanctify the Holy One of Jacob, and shall fear the God of Israel. (Isaiah 29:22-23)

If God had to ‘come down’ to redeem Israel from their Egyptian overlords, will it require anything less if he is to redeem his people from bondage to their own sins?

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