Light from the Sidra

Shemot (Names). 21 December 2013. 18 Tevet 5774

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

Please note that unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from Tanach (The Artscroll™ Series/Stone Edition, April 2013. Published and Distributed by Mesorah Publications, Ltd, 4401 Second Avenue / Brooklyn, New York 11232)

What’s in a shem?

In the Bible names mean something and throughout the book of Genesis people were given names by God and had their names changed by him in order to reflect their character and their place in his purposes.

Abram, the ‘exalted father’ becomes Abraham, the ‘father of a multitude’ to rival the stars of heaven. Sarai, ‘my princess’ becomes Sarah, ‘the Princess’ of all. After wrestling with and overcoming the Angel of the Lord, Jacob the ‘supplanter’ is renamed Israel, the ‘Prince with God’.

In the first chapter of Exodus we are confronted by shemot, names. But, as we read on, one name stands out above all others: haShemthe Name.

The biblical narrative flows seamlessly from Genesis to Exodus to reveal that haShem had been true to his covenant with Abraham. Abraham still had a ‘seed’, a seed that was increasing. As God had said when he established his covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15, Abraham’s descendants were now ‘strangers in a land that is not theirs’. But haShem was still the God of Israel’s fathers (3:6) and would continue to keep the word he established by covenant (6:2-8).

But when we open the book of Exodus, we discover that the promises of God were under threat. Israel was still not in the land God covenanted to give them, and the tyrant who ruled over them had embarked on a programme of ethnic cleansing in order to protect Egypt’s interests. Pharaoh also regarded Israel as his property when, in reality, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were the people of God. So long as they remained under the taskmasters of Egypt and in servitude to Pharaoh, the children of Jacob were under the rule of gods other than haShem. It was time for God to step in.

Just as at the end of Genesis God raised up Joseph as a saviour in a time of famine, Exodus begins with God raising up a deliverer in the person of Moses. Someone summed up the life of Moses in this way: he spent forty years as a somebody, then forty years as a nobody and, finally, forty years learning that God can make a somebody out of a nobody. God did not call Moses when he was skilled in the wisdom of Egypt. At the age of forty Moses attempted to save his people by his own hand, killing an Egyptian taskmaster. The result was that he spent the next forty years as a humble shepherd in the back of beyond. Only after he lost all confidence in his own abilities, only when he felt utterly powerless and unable to even speak, did God call him to free the Israelites.

The call of Moses was accompanied by a new revelation of the name of God. If Moses was to confront the most powerful man on earth he needed to know the Name – the character – of the God who was calling him. Biblical scholar Christopher J H Wright says, ‘In the process of this great story of deliverance, God acquires a new name alongside this fresh dimension of his character: “YHWH”, the God who acts out of faithfulness to his promise, in liberating justice for the oppressed. The exodus thus becomes the primary model of what redemption means in the Bible, and gives substance to what an Israelite would have meant by calling God “Redeemer”.’

HaShem revealed himself as YHWH – ‘I am’, ‘I am who I am’, ‘I will be what I will be’ – the eternal, unchangeable, covenant-keeping God whose ways are always consistent with his holy character. God never acts unpredictably. We are surprised by the way God works only because we do not know him sufficiently. If we knew him as he is – YHWH – nothing he did would ever surprise us; it might amaze us but it would not surprise us!

Biblical scholar Mark Strom comments, ‘The Lord staked the meaning of his name [shem], and therefore his reputation, on what he was about to do. So forever after the name suggested the idea of the Lord who brought Israel out of Egypt, the Lord who is totally different to every other god.’

Centuries later, the prophets of Israel would look back to the exodus from Egypt as the prototype and model of God’s way of redemption and salvation. For prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah, the exodus was the fundamental motif to describe the redemption Messiah would achieve for Israel.

In the Haftarah God promises that he will once again punish Israel’s oppressors. But, as we read on, in Isaiah 28, we discover that the people redeemed by YHWH have become proud and idle, and have no knowledge of God. The prophets and priests in Ephraim stagger around in a drunken stupor and the people are like little children ignorant of the most elementary principles of God’s word.

Israel needs to be redeemed all over again! Not from a foreign oppressor but from themselves, from their own sins so the entire nation will one day ‘sanctify the Holy One of Jacob, and shall stand in awe of the God of Israel.’

It is a mistake to imagine that the Era of Redemption is only about the material wellbeing of Israel and the world. The prophets envisaged a redemption that would overshadow the exodus from Egypt in its magnitude; a redemption that would get to the heart of the matter, a redemption that would deal with what is really wrong with Israel and the nations – our sin and rebellion. Such deliverance could come only by a saviour who was greater than Moses himself.

More than 1,500 years after Moses, God raised up a shepherd for his people Israel. A Saviour who grew up in obscurity but has become loved and revered throughout the world. But just as Israel rejected Moses and rebelled against his leadership, so the nation refused the true Messiah.

Jesus of Nazareth was born at a time when a non-Jewish tyrant – Herod the Great –was prepared to put Jewish children to death in order to ensure his own position. Jesus spent time as an exile in Egypt only to lead his people into a far greater land of promise. The Letter to the Colossians in the New Testament describes the new exodus in this way, ‘[God] has delivered us from the power of darkness [as Israel was delivered from the dark power of Pharaoh] and translated us into the kingdom of the Son of his love [as Israel was taken into the Promised Land], in whom we have redemption through his blood [as Israel was redeemed through the blood of the Passover lamb], the forgiveness of sins.’

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