I AM WHO I AM… BUT WHO IS GOD?

Rev. Phil Dieke
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Having finished two weeks in the Prologue, setting the stage by discussing the power of story, we now move into Chapter 1. And what better place to begin than with God?

God.

Could there be a more loaded word? Countless books have been written, ideas debated, heresies created, wars fought over… God.

If you are like me, your understanding of God has changed over the course of your life. As good United Methodists we lean on four areas of focus when it comes to understanding God: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. The more I study the Scriptures the more my understanding of God changes. The more I study the history and traditions of the church and Christian faith, the more my understanding of God changes. The more I apply reason through the study of philosophy, science, the humanities, the more my understanding of God changes. And, quite possibly most importantly (at least in my opinion), the more experiences I have with God, the more my understanding of God changes. 

God.
This single word has the ability to stir all kinds of emotions within us. Those emotions might cause us to cower in fear of an authoritative deity. Or maybe they elicit great joy – feelings of security, compassion, and connection to the Source of all creation. The feeling of deep love. 

What emotions does the word “God” stir in you?

The reality is, we all come to theology – the study of God – with preconceived notions, ideas we have picked up (and often left behind) along the way, and experiences that are both deeply personal and collectively shared.

We are beginning our Unfold story with God, but where do we begin as we explore the complexities of this word “God,” and the mysteries of who God is?

Exodus 3 is as good a place as any to begin. The story of Moses “meeting” God in the burning bush is probably one of the most familiar stories in the Bible. One need not be a practicing Jew or Christian to be familiar with this story. But let us not confuse familiarity with understanding. The interpretations of this text reach far and wide. And rightfully so, because this is a complex text. It invites us to consider who God is, who Moses is as a mortal, flawed human-being, and ultimately consider the relationship between God and humanity.

Though I love a deep dive into the wide array of interpretations surrounding this text, I’ll stick to a few observations that will hopefully lead you to ask better questions of the text about the character and nature of God.

God meets Moses on Mount Horeb in a bush that is inflamed, yet that doesn’t burn up. Obviously this is a unique way to show up. I have previously written about this burning bush, if you’re curious you can read a bit more about that here. For the sake of our story I’m more interested in the conversation between Moses and God. When Moses approaches the bush God calls out to him from the bush saying, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” (Ex 3:6). God identifies with the tradition of Moses, letting him know this is indeed the God Moses’ ancestors have worshiped. Clearly this tradition associates fear with God, as Moses hides his face. Is it a reverent fear or sheer terror? We can only speculate… or is it resonate? 

God’s statements in verses 7 through 9 are some of the foundational verses for a branch of theology known as Liberation Theology: a theology that emphasizes God’s preferential option for the poor and oppressed. God says, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt,” communicating to Moses, and us the readers, that God is aware of their situation – a situation that Moses successfully fled from due to his privilege (but that’s for another time). “I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings.” 

I know their sufferings. God, the creator of the cosmos, knows the suffering of the poor, the oppressed? Is God simply aware of this suffering, or does God know it, feel it, experience it along with them?

However we interpret God’s knowing, this suffering urges God to action, “I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians,” (Ex. 3:8). The God we meet in Exodus 3 not only hears, not only knows, but also acts in response to suffering and oppression. This God sides not with the powerful, but with those who have been stripped of their power, those who suffer at the hands of oppressive leaders and oppressive systems.

THIS GOD IS A LIBERATING GOD! 



And yet, God doesn’t work alone. God doesn’t simply wipe out the Egyptians or teleport the Israelites out of Egypt (though that would have been cool). In fact, some theological views argue that God can’t act alone, for God is relational by nature and thus constantly giving and receiving. In this view, we affect God and God affects us. God can’t liberate without the cooperation of those whom God is in relationship with. God is influenced by the suffering of the oppressed and God influences in return. God invites Moses, a mere mortal, to play a role in this liberation. For more on this view of Open and Relational Theology, check out our Tiny Desk Theology interview with Rev. Dr. Thomas Jay Oord.
A liberating God.
An open and relational God.
And finally, a God who is the very ground of being.

Hesitant to accept the invitation to join the work of this liberating God, Moses asks a question in verse 13, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God’s response:

“I AM WHO I AM.”

Well, that clears it up. In Hebrew this name is four letters yud-hey-vav-hey, also known as the Tetragrammaton, or the “unpronounceable four-letter name of God.” These four letters form the root of the verb “to be.” Thus, some have interpreted this name to mean God is who God is (almost a “so deal with it” mentality). Others interpret it as the God who brings being into being, and still others as being itself. From this four-letter name a wide array of theologies have arisen, from an authoritative, controlling deity to a pantheistic view that says God is literally everything and everything is God, as well as a multitude of views in between. 

How can so many views of God emerge from a few verses?
How can such differing understandings of God come from the same scripture?
How does the God of Exodus 3 match up with the God of Genesis, the Prophets, the Gospels, the writers of the Epistles?
How does the God of Exodus 3 influence and affect you?

My understanding of God has indeed evolved quite a lot over the years. My guess is that that evolution will be an ongoing process. As I continue to read scripture together with you, as we study the tradition, grow in our understanding of science, philosophy, and the arts, and especially as we continue to share spiritual experiences, God will influence us. We will be drawn ever closer to the “uncontrolling love of God,” as Thomas Oord says. Our understanding of God will change, and that will change us, which will change our relationship with God… which will change God.

“I Am Who I Am.” What a curious name. What a curious God. What a curious creation.

What questions do you have about God? 
How has your understanding of God evolved over time?
What has led to this evolution? 
What are your hopes for Chapter 1 of Unfold?
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