The Judeo-Christian tradition includes upwards of 80 books of scripture (depending on whose cannon you’re following), but I think a strong case can be made that the core theological insight, the insight that turned the intellectual history of the Western World upside down…and still does so today…can be found in just 16 verses, the first 16 verses of the third book of Exodus.
No where else does the Bible tell us so clearly and succinctly who God is…and by extension, who we are. These 16 verses constitute a fully formed and thoroughly radical theology which by implication leads to a fully formed and equally radical ontology.
It begins with Moses “tending the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian…There an angel (manifestation) of the Lord appeared to him as fire flaming out of a bush…although the bush was on fire, it was not being consumed…’I must turn aside to look at this remarkable site. Why does the bush not burn up?’ When the Lord saw that he turned aside to look, God called out to him from the bush: ‘Moses! Moses!’ ‘Here I am’, he answered. ’”
God then commissions Moses to go to Pharaoh to secure the release of the Israelites from their captivity in Egypt. “But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ God answered: ‘I will be with you; and this will be your sign that I have sent you.’”
Moses then asks God his name. “God replied to Moses, ‘I am who am’. Then he added: ‘This is what you will tell the Israelites: I AM has sent me to you.’ God spoke further to Moses: ‘This is what you will say to the Israelites: The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is my name forever, this is my title for all generations.’”
In these 16 verses, God’s nature is revealed to Moses 4 times in 4 very different ways. Begin with God’s self-manifestation to Moses as “fire flaming out of a bush…not being consumed.” Moses turns “aside to look at this remarkable site”. Why? Because everything Moses, or any of us, has ever encountered conforms to the principle of entropy; the burning bush does not.
Of course, Moses did not know the Second Law of Thermodynamics, but according to that law, all process leads to an increase in disorder. Here we would expect the process of fire to transform the relatively ordered bush into a relatively disordered pile of ashes; but it does not happen! That’s what catches Moses’ attention, and at the same time, that’s what reveals God’s nature.
Other early thinkers, Parmenides for example, were puzzled by the ‘perpetual perishing’ that seems to be associated with time. However, they tended to rely on a ‘changeless realm’ to solve the problem (e.g. Parmenides’ Aletheia). The brilliance of Exodus is that it avoids entropy without eliminating process. The fire burns; process occurs. But there is no increase in disorder. Exodus liberates process from entropy…and time.
The burning bush is a manifestation of God. It shows us that God is processional as well as eternal. This first revelation of God’s nature takes place via the modality of direct (visual) experience and reveals God in his function as the Kingdom of Heaven (eternal present).
Next, Moses asks God for his name. At first God seems a bit miffed at Moses; he replies, “I am who am”.
In ancient cultures, names meant a great deal more than they do today (“What’s in a name?”). Names conveyed role and function as well as identity. The modern idea that who you are is separate from what you are and what you do was not current in Moses’ time. So Moses’ question at first appears to challenge God’s identity.
But God also sees that this was not Moses’ intent. He is merely concerned with the practical problem of explaining all this to his neighbors. So God goes on, “Tell the Israelites I AM has sent me to you.” In giving Moses this name, he is not just telling Moses what to call him; he is revealing who he is and what he does.
AM is God’s nature and his function. Wherever there is an ‘am’, that ‘am’ is a participation in the nature of God. God is what makes ‘am’ possible; he is what ‘am’ is. For that reason, it is not possible to predicate anything of God. God has no predicates but he is the substructure of all predicates. (Note: ‘Good’ is not a predicate when applied to God; it is synonymous with ‘Being’.) He is pure being, pure AM…and that is Good.
God reveals his nature to Moses this second time through the modality of language (aka reason) and reveals his function as Creator.
Then, “God spoke further to Moses: ‘This is what you will say to the Israelites: The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is my name forever, this is my title for all generations.’”
So God has two names, “I am” and “The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”. The former links God with the eternal present but the later appears to link God with history (time). Houston, do we have a problem?
Not if we pay attention to what the text says: “I am the God of your father…the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Am not was!
“I am…the God of Abraham…” I am the God of Abraham now and “forever…for all generations”. But if God is the God of Abraham now, then Abraham too must be now…and Isaac and Jacob and Moses’ father and everyone else as well. Exodus not only projects God into history but history into God.
In the New Testament Gospel of Matthew, Jesus offers a gloss on Exodus 3: “And concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.” (Mt. 22: 31-32)
Following the resurrection of Jesus, the apostle Peter is quoted as using this same formula in a new context: “The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors, has glorified his servant Jesus…God raised him from the dead; of this we are witnesses.” (Acts 3: 13a, 15b)
God is the eternal presence that underlies everything that is; whatever says “I am” says it eternally. So God’s nature is revealed to Moses a third time, this time through the modality of history (time), and it reveals God in his function as Savior/Redeemer.
There is yet a 4th revelation of God’s nature to Moses, this time through the modality of relationship (aka dialog, love). This may be the most challenging revelation for us to grasp.
First, note the importance of reciprocity between God and Moses:
o God (angel) manifests himself to Moses. He is not an endlessly burning bush that Moses just happens to accidentally encounter. “The Lord appeared to him as fire flaming from a bush.”
o “I must turn aside to look at this remarkable site.” Moses does not ignore God; he engages with God.
o “When the Lord saw that he turned aside to look, he called out to him,” and Moses answers. God and Moses enter into dialogue.
o Moses queries God about his mission and about God’s identity and God answers him, “I will be with you; and this will be the sign that I have sent you.”
Now this last line is pivotal, but controversial. What exactly is the “sign”? Some think it is the fact that the Israelites will one day worship God on the very same spot, a retroactive sign. Some think it refers to the burning bush itself. But I think the sign is in fact God’s on-going relationship with Moses, a relationship that will be incredibly important to Moses throughout the trials that are to come. That relationship and the power and charisma it gives to Moses are the sign that Moses is sent by God.
Moses’ relationship with God is not the passive, one dimensional relationship of creature and creator. This is a living, breathing relationship that allows Moses to ‘be all that he can be’. Moses’ success testifies to his relationship with God and that is the sign.
Our language is a language of nouns, subject and object, and verbs, active and passive. Within the confines of our linguistic habits, we struggle to understand how God’s identity could be relationship itself. We speak of subjects (nouns) and predicates (verbs); in general we assume that the subject (and perhaps the object as well) precede the predicate. For example:
Peter hit Paul; Paul was hit by Peter. Peter and Paul are the ‘necessary’ subjects, hitting is something that more or less ‘accidentally’ takes place between them. The assumption is that Peter would be Peter and Paul would be Paul regardless of whether anyone hit anyone else.
But not all languages make such an assumption. Some American Indian languages (Hopi, for example) make the verb the necessary subject of the sentence and nouns the accidental predicates. It is the hitting itself that makes Peter Peter and Paul Paul. The relationship between Peter and Paul is what defines (dare I say “creates”?) Peter and Paul.
Ancient languages often included a ‘middle voice’ which is the voice of relation. In the middle voice, it is the relationship that is primary; the things that are related (the ‘relata’) are secondary.
The pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, Anaximander (c. 500 BCE), built an entire ontology on this concept. For him, being only arises when two proto-beings “give each other reck”, in other words, let each other develop without interference or judgment. Relation precedes relata. The granting of ‘reck’ constitutes auto-genesis, but it can only take place mutually and in the context of a relationship. Anaximander offers us an early version of ‘bootstrapping’.
Relationship is also primary in the ontology of Jesus’ apostle John. The Gospel of John begins, “In the beginning (or at the foundation) was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God…all things came to be through him.”
John’s prologue is undoubtedly intended to remind the reader of the opening words of Genesis, “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth…God said: Let there be light, and there was light.”
The author of Genesis is drawing on God’s nature as reveled to Moses in the burning bush while John seems to be drawing on God’s nature as revealed to Moses through relationship.
John is also laying the groundwork for the Christian doctrine of Trinity which emphasizes God’s nature as relationship or love. First, the Trinity is the relationship among its three persons. Second, one of those persons, the Holy Spirit, is relationship per se.
The foundational document of Christian doctrine, the Nicene Creed, specifically points out that God’s nature as Relationship (Spirit) is just as important and fundamental as his nature as Creator (Father) and his nature as Incarnation (Son): “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son and together with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified.”
So in just 16 verses, God reveals a fourfold nature to Moses using 4 different modalities: once through direct visual experience, once through language (reason), once through history (memory), and once through relationship (love).
But God can have only one nature! So somehow all four of these revealed natures must point toward a single nature. This insight allows us to extrapolate the theology of Exodus 3 into a complete ontology: Being, Presence, Redemption and Love are denotatively synonymous, if connotatively different. They reveal to us four aspects on a single, simple nature, the divine nature.
God is Being and as such necessarily underlies everything that is. He is the presence of everything that ever is and that presence is eternal. But God is not a passive ontological category; God is process, relationship. love. God is in an ongoing, dialectical relationship with everything that is, a relationship that allows entities to evolve, perfect themselves and harmonize. This is the world we live in.
Pretty cool, huh?