Part 2 – God the Father – Week 2

Part 2 – God the Father – Week 2

Last week we began our reflection on what Christian belief in God means by outlining the first part of Ratzinger’s analysis on God’s conversation with Moses in Ex 3, on the fact that He identifies Himself as the ‘God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,’ and thus as a personal – as opposed to a local, spatial – God who wants to enter into an I-You relationship with man. Today we continue that discussion by focusing on what the significance of God calling Himself ‘I am who I am’ is within this personalistic framework. In concrete, we outline Ratzinger’s explanation of the ‘negative aspect’ of this name, of the fact that even though God identifies Himself as a ‘You’ in relation to man, He is also telling Him that He cannot be placed at the level of other things, other people, and other ‘gods’ with names. For despite His closeness, He remains the ‘Almighty,’ the ‘Eternal One,’ the ‘Absolute’ who is essentially different, who is the Lord of All…


“Since Yahweh, as we have seen, is explained as the “God of our fathers”, the Yahweh-faith automatically absorbs the whole context of the faith of Israel’s fathers, though this context at the same time acquires a new element and a new look. But what is the specifically new element expressed by the name “Yahweh”? The answers to this question are numerous; the precise meaning of the formulas in Exodus 3 can no longer be ascertained with certainty. Nevertheless, two aspects emerge clearly. We have already established that to our way of thinking the mere fact that God bears a name, and thereby appears as a kind of individual, is a scandal. But if we look more closely at the text which we are considering the question arises, is it, properly speaking, really a name? This question may at first seem nonsensical, for it is indisputable that Israel knew the word Yahweh as a name for God. Yet a careful reading shows that the thorn-bush scene expounds this name in such a way that as a name it seems to be absolutely cancelled out; in any case it moves out of the series of appellations of divinities to which it at first seems to belong.

Let us listen once again carefully. Moses says: “The children of Israel, to whom you send me, will ask, ‘Who is the God who sends you? What is he called?’ What shall I then say to them ?” We are next told that God replied: “I am who I am”. The words could also be translated, “I am what I am”. This really looks like a rebuff; it seems much more like a refusal to give a name than the announcement of a name. In the whole scene there is a sense of  displeasure at such importunity: I am just who I am.

The idea that here no name is really given and that the question is rejected acquires additional probability when a comparison is made with the two passages which could be adduced as the best parallels to our text: Judges 13:18 and Genesis 32:30. In Judges 13:18 a certain Manoah asks the God who meets him for his name. The answer which he is given is: “Why do you ask my name, seeing it is a secret ?” (Another possible translation is “seeing it is wonderful”.) A name is not given. In Genesis 32:30 it is Jacob who, after his nocturnal struggle with the stranger, asks his name and receives only the discouraging answer, “Why is it that you ask my name?” Both passages are linguistically and in general construction very closely related to our text, so that it is hardly disputable that there is also an affinity in the thought. Here again we have the gesture of repulse. The God with whom Moses deals in the burning bush cannot give his name in the same way as the gods round about, who are individual gods alongside other similar gods and therefore need a name. The God of the burning bush will not put himself on a level with them.

In the gesture of rebuff which we have come upon here there is a hint of a God who is entirely different from “the gods”. The explanation of the name Yahweh by the little word “am” thus serves as a kind of negative theology. It cancels out the significance of the name as a name; it effects a sort of withdrawal from the only too well known, which the name seems to be, into the unknown, the hidden. It dissolves the name into the mystery, so that the familiarity and unfamiliarity of God, concealment and revelation, are indicated simultaneously. The name, a sign of acquaintance, becomes the cipher for the perpetually unknown and unnamed quality of God. Contrary to the view that God can here be grasped, so to speak, the persistence of an infinite distance is in this way made quite clear. To this extent it was in the last analysis a legitimate development which led people in Israel more and more to avoid pronouncing this name, to use some sort of periphrasis, so that in the Greek Bible it no longer occurs at all but is simply replaced by the word “Lord.””


Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, Ignatius Press, San Francisco 2004 [20002], 126-128.




Do I have a holy reverence for God when I think about Him, speak to Him, enter into contact with Him? Do I remember that He is the ‘Almighty,’ the ‘Lord of Heaven and Earth,’ the ‘Creator of all things seen and unseen’? Or have I allowed His closeness and love toward me to degenerate into taking Him for granted, to putting Him on the level of – or perhaps giving Him even less importance than – other things, other persons, other ‘gods’?

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