Light from the Sidra

Shemot ('Names'). 10th January 2015. 19th Tevet 5775

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

What's in a name?

You can see I didn’t have a very cultured upbringing when I tell you that my introduction to the line from Shakespeare, ‘O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?’ came at about the age of ten, when I was on holiday and furtively scanning the saucy postcards outside a sweet shop. On one of the cards was a tearful Juliet, heavy with child, calling from her balcony one of Shakespeare’s best known quotes. For years after that, like many others, I thought, ‘Wherefore art thou Romeo?’ meant, ‘Where are you Romeo?’ But Juliet is actually asking why her lover was Romeo – a member of the Montagues, a family at war with her family – rather than someone else. After all, she says, ‘What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet.’

So, what is in a name? Quite a lot, according the Bible. Throughout the book of Genesis people are given names by God and have their names changed by him in order to reflect their character and their place in his purposes. God renames Abram – the ‘Exalted Father’ – Abraham, the ‘Father of a Multitude,’ as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sand on the seashore. Sarai – ‘My Princess’ – becomes Sarah, ‘the Princess’ of all and, after wrestling and overcoming the Angel of HaShem, Jacob the ‘Supplanter’ is renamed Israel, the ‘Prince with God.’

The biblical narrative flows seamlessly from Genesis to Exodus, in which we see that God has been true to his covenant with Abraham. Abraham has a seed that is becoming ever numerous, as God promised when he established his covenant with him. But as foretold in Genesis 15, Abraham’s descendants are now ‘strangers in a land that is not theirs.’ Nevertheless, he remains the God of Israel’s fathers (3:6) and will keep the word he established by covenant (6:2-8). So at the start of Exodus we are confronted by a number of shemot, ‘names,’ but one name stands out supremely above the others: Yahweh. Orthodox Jews refuse to utter or write the holy name, preferring to refer to their God as HaShem: ‘The Name.’

Although HASHEM’s prophecy about Israel being like the sand and the stars has come to pass, Israel is also in a land not theirs and the king has embarked on a programme of ethnic cleansing that threatens to bring God’s plans for Israel and the world to a screeching halt. Pharaoh regards Israel as his property when, in reality, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are the people of God. So long as they remain under the taskmasters of Egypt and in servitude to Pharaoh, the children of Jacob are under the rule of gods other than HASHEM. It is time for him to intervene.

Just as God raised up Joseph as a saviour in a time of famine, he now raises up a deliverer in the person of Moses. Someone has summed up the life of Moses in this way: he spent forty years as a somebody, forty years as a nobody and forty years learning that God can make 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. After he had lost all confidence in his own abilities, when he felt utterly powerless and unable to even speak, God called him.

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: “Yahweh,” 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,”’

God revealed himself as Yahweh – a name that means ‘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. HASHEM never acts unpredictably. The reason we are often surprised by the way God works because we do not know him well enough. If we knew him as he is – Yahweh – nothing he did would surprise us. It would amaze us but it would not surprise us.

Biblical scholar Mark Strom comments, ‘The Lord staked the meaning of his name, 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 that Messiah would achieve for Israel.

In our Haftarah God promises that he will once again punish Israel’s oppressors. But in Isaiah 28 the redeemed people have become proud and idle with 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 – sin and rebellion. Such a deliverance could come only through a Saviour who was greater than Moses himself.

More than 1500 years after Moses, God raised up a shepherd for his people Israel. A saviour who grew up in obscurity but became 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 tyrant was prepared to put Israelite children to death in order to ensure his own security. 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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