In one of the amazing “call narratives” in the Bible, Moses is out tending sheep when he comes upon a bush that burns, but is not burnt up. Working as I do in a profession that is perhaps more prone to burnout and breakdown than any other, there’s a sermon in that image all by itself! When Moses turns aside to look, he finds himself in an encounter with God – an encounter in which Moses is given his life’s work.
As he struggles with all of this, Moses asks God for God’s name: “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?” (Exodus 3:13 NRSV) God responds with something of a riddle. “I am who I am” is how most English translations put it. It could be “I am what I am” or “I will be what I will be.” It is as much an evasion of Moses’ question as it is an answer. I rather think it is both: I AM, says God, but I am not such as can be contained within a name. I am not static. I am not describable. I am not nameable.
Fast forward to the mountain in the desert, Sinai, and the ceremonial giving of the Law, the 10 commandments. What for me is the second commandment is this: “you shall not make for yourself an idol…” (Exodus 20:4). As I understand it, this is a prohibition against containing God within a particular image – especially an image that comes from the thought and imagination of human beings. So, in the Temple days, the holy of holies contained the ark of the covenant, which was essentially the throne of God – but upon the throne, nothing. When the Ark was lost, the holy of holies was, in my understanding, an empty room. God’s presence, God’s essence, was not to be confined to any image. Surely that also would include any mental image, any theological description of the nature of God. We might bear witness to what we know or understand, but we will never be able to box God in. “I will be who I will be.”
Fast forward to another favorite story of mine. In Exodus 33, Moses in the midst of a crisis asks to see God’s “glory.” God does grant Moses’ request in a sense, but says this: “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live…. See, there is a place near me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.” (Exodus 33:21-23) The story does fit my experience in this sense: I tend only to be able to see God in hindsight; in the heat of the moment God is somehow always, at best, a bit in the shadows. I can sometimes sense where God has been, but never do I see God working in real time with clarity.
God remained shrouded in mystery, even for the prophet who, it was said, knew God “face to face.” It is our privilege and perhaps even the duty of some to seek for God, to bear witness to our experience of God, to discuss our beliefs about God and our understanding of God. But through it all, I think we must remember that God will be who God will be. We can never take an image or a description or a name of God and say, “this is correct, this is sufficient, this encapsulates all that is important.”
So when I enter into the multi-faith world, it seems to me that there is a certain humility that is required of me. Whatever I may believe to be true about God, whatever my own religion teaches about God, whatever is encompassed in my own experience, is not the last word, is not the complete story. “I will be who I will be.” I will never have the whole picture, the definitive word. If God is God, how could I? So absolutely I can bear witness to what I believe and have experienced. But I am also called to listen and learn, and to never confuse my understanding of God with the reality of God. Whatever reality means, when applied to God.
I will be who I will be.