In one of my favorite Peanuts cartoon strips, Snoopy discovers his water bowl is empty. As he clamps it between his teeth and saunters over to the faucet he eventually realizes he has only one set of teeth. He can’t simultaneously turn on the faucet and hold the bowl. He stands there for a while wondering what to do when the heavens open and a sudden cloudburst fills his bowl. Walking toward his dog house in the last frame, the bubble over his head simply reads, “I’m going to have to think about this one for a long time.”
Our sacred authors presume we also experience things we can’t explain, things we’re destined to think about for a long time.
Those of us who were taught, “If you can’t explain it, you don’t know it,” might find this difficult to accept. Yet when it comes to experiencing God in our lives, there’s an awful lot we can’t explain. Besides, once we do receive some sort of explanation of our experiences, we often stop reflecting on them. The late Anthony de Mello frequently reminded his audiences, “After you learn the name of the bird, you stop looking at the bird.” There’s nothing else to see, you know all about it.
It’s very significant that Israel’s God actually shared his name with his people. As we hear in today’s Exodus passage, “Yahweh stood with Moses there and proclaimed his name, ‘Yahweh.’ Thus Yahweh passed before him and cried out, ‘Yahweh, Yahweh, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity.’” How do we explain that name?
Our Exodus author mentioned in chapter 3’s burning bush narrative, the name Yahweh means either “I am who am,” or “I am who cause to be.” In this case, God’s name doesn’t end reflection, it starts it. Just what does it mean to be or cause to be? We’ve been trying to figure that out for over 3,000 years.
In our sacred authors’ Semitic culture, someone’s name isn’t just a bunch of letters which, put in the proper order, help us distinguish one individual from another. Someone’s name actually stands for that person, revealing the characteristics which belong to that individual alone. Knowing someone’s name gives you a certain amount of power over her or him in the same way that knowing someone’s most intimate secrets gives you an advantage. That’s why, a few centuries before Jesus’ birth, some overly-pious Jews actually stopped using the name Yahweh and replaced it with Adonai – the Almighty or All Powerful One – a name we commonly translate simply as Lord.
In a well-known scene from the classic movie Lawrence of Arabia, Omar Sharif, who has just killed Peter O’Toole’s desert guide, demands to know, “Englishman, what is your name?” Lawrence angrily replies, “My name is for my friends!” Rooted in Bedouin culture, Lawrence knew a Semite would never reveal his or her name to an enemy.
I presume no one broke into Yahweh’s apartment one night, rifled his desk and found his name and Social Security number hidden in a side drawer under a bunch of papers. Yahweh freely gives us his/her name because Yahweh regards us as friends; friends who are trusted with something we could easily use against God. (Thus the commandment not to use the name Yahweh in vain.)
We Christians believe Jesus added to the meaning of that name by revealing the presence of a Son and a Holy Spirit. Yet not even these two divine persons end our understanding of who God is in our daily lives. Like our ancestors in the faith, we’re continuing to experience a God whom we’ve yet to explain, a God who permits us to continually surface new dimensions of him/her. After all, we’re friends.