I am Who May Be – Pt 1

My aim is to identify and address the hidden crux of this enigma: the extraordinary phenomenon of a deity which appears and disappears in a fire that burns without burning out, that ignites without consuming, that names itself, paradoxically, as that which cannot be named, and that presents itself in the moment as that which is still to come. (20)

Kearney invites us to creatively re-imagine the familiar story of Moses at the Burning Bush in light of his understanding of persona and eschatology.

In Exodus 3.14 Moses meets his maker. Leading his flock to the desert mountain of Horeb, he happens upon a voice speaking from the midst of a flaming thornbush. From this transfiguring fire which flares up without being extinguished, the voice of an angel calls and Moses answers ‘Here I am.’ The voice bids him to stand back and remove his sandals. And revealing himself as the Lord of his ancestors–of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob–God says he has heard the cry of his people and has come to deliver them from bondage.

But it’s not enough for Moses. Standing there under the midday sun, he wonders if this is not some mirage, some hoax. Perhaps the voice is an inner demon prompting him to a fit of madness. After all, wasn’t it just such a strange angel who appeared to Jacob late one night and shattered his hip, before disclosing the name of Israel? And wasn’t it another elusive voice which summoned Abraham to Mount Moriah to murder his own son? That was a cruel command. A trick of course. Only a test of faith. He must tread carefully. Moses wasn’t quite sure he wanted to do business with such a mercurial God: one who sent visitors to maim you in the middle of the night and command blood sacrifice (even if he wasn’t really serious). Every angel was terrible in a way wasn’t it? (20-21)

Moses approaches the Burning Bush and asks two questions. First, likely afraid of angering this unknown divine presence in the bush, Moses asks “Who am I…that I should go unto Pharaoh and lead the children of Israel out of Egypt?”

God responds: “I will be with Thee.” Take note of the word ‘will’ which in general usage, expresses a strong intention or assertion about the future (Dictionary). Kearney imagines Moses thinking that this Other he is encountering in the bush is unlike any Other he has encountered, unlike any of the Egyptian deities or tribal deities. Perhaps this is a “God of advent: a promise for the future.” (21)

Moses then asks a second question: “When I come unto the children of Israel and shall say unto them, The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me, What is his name? What shall I say to them?”

“I am he who is…I am has sent me to you”

God names himself by not naming himself. God names himself by, Kearney remarks, a riddle. This ‘name’ of God is rooted in the Hebrew word for ‘to be.’ However, Kearney seeks a mi-lieu between ontological and  eschatological interpretations. The ontological interpretation, the traditional rendering of the words of God as “I am who I am” or “I am he who is,” is strongly influenced by Greek concepts of the One being the fullness of being. The eschatological interpretation is a postmodern interpretation, “I am he who is not,” pushes God beyond being, to the point of no-being. Kearney asserts that both interpretations are extreme and as such, he desires to render God’s words as “I am who may be.” (22)

Ontological Interpretation of God’s response

Traditionally, Christian theologians have held to an ontological interpretation of God’s response to Moses which would render his words “I am he who is.” This has led many to conflate the God of the Exodus with the God of Greek metaphysics which argues for Being-itself as the Ultimate Reality, a “timeless, immutable, incorporeal” self-subsisting ground of all being. Augustine writes, “…he is Is, that is to say God is Being itself, ipsum esse, in its most absolute and full sense…” (23) Augustine easily unites the God of Abraham and Isaac with the ousia (substance) of Platonism, a substance that is not bound by time or space, a substance that is unchangeable. For Aquinas, the ‘name’ of God in Exodus “is the principal name of GOd and the highest formulation fo being.” (23) Being (with a capital B), for Aquinas, “is being that is eternal, immutable, simple self-sufficient, and the cause and principle of everything.” (23) Being is God’s essence. God is “without movement, change, desire, or possibility” Kearney writes. (23)

The significance of the ontological interpretation is its heavy reliance on Greek thought. “Without the encounter of Greek metaphysics with biblical religious thought, philosophers ‘would have never reached the idea that Being is the proper name of God and that this name designates God’s very essence.'” (Kearney quoting Ricouer; 24) Kearney and others have called this conflation onto-theology. Others might call it the analogy of being. The difficulty faced, however, is to associate God with some vague, unknown, and universal Being who never changes and at the same time, affirm the personal God of the biblical narrative. A close companion of onto-theology is mystical ontologism, which Kearney believes collapses the universal Being into human consciousness.

Eschatological Interpretation of God’s response

Onto-theology, though it is the dominant interpretative tradition, is critiqued by eschatological interpretation (‘E’ for short). The E-interpretation posits a different interpretation of God’s response to Moses with a specific focus on the “ethical and dynamic character of God.” (25) One of the initial differences between the O-interpretation and the E-interpretation is that the second interpretation renders God’s words as “I shall be what I shall be.” (Kearney quoting the Jewish commentator Rashi; 25) And when God repeats himself again, he says “I will be has sent you [ Moses].” Kearney argues that “Rashi interprets the ‘name’ in terms of mandate and mission.” (25) Rashi writes, creatively imagining the words of God

…the vision that you have seen at the thornbush is the sign for you that I have sent you–and that you will succeed in My mission, and that I have the wherewithal to save you. Just as you saw the thornbush performing My mission without being consumed, so too, you will go on My mission and you will not be harmed…(25)

The significance of Rashi’s interpretation is that God is offering himself as a promise of constant co-operation with Moses and ultimately with the children of Israel. The future is of as much concern to God as the present. But this future is “wide open–nothing is predetermined. It is up to us to remain as faithful to God as God promises to remain faithful to us.” (26) The reason for this openness can be seen, according to Rashi, in God’s instruction to Moses to tell Pharoah that God “happened upon us” (Ex 3.18) in the desert. Us, being the children of Israel represented in the person of Moses. Rashi notices that this phrase connotes a “chance occurrence.” (26)

The eschatological interpretation of God’s self-revelation, Kearney writes, “means reading the formula [of God’s ‘name’] in terms of function rather than substance, in terms of narrative rather than syllogism, in terms of relation rather than abstraction.” (26) God’s ‘name’ is less about being known as Being-itself, and more about the promise of co-operating with Moses in the liberation of Israel and the hope of the Promised Land. Kearney believes that there is a  problem that apophatic theology faces in reacting to the O-interpretation. Apophatic theology tries to affirm the unknowability of God to the point that God becomes beyond Being, a no-Being. The difficulty faced by apophatic theology is that “if God is devoid of all historical being, is He not then also deprived of the power to act and call and love–a God o distant as to be defunct?” Does apophatic theology result in such a negation of being that God is so distant from the world that he cannot live and act within it in any meaningful way?

In the ‘name’ of God

Kearney offers a really interesting insight into the Near Eastern religious context of Moses’ era and the effect of such a context on our interpretation of God’s ‘name.’ Near Eastern religions were grounded in the significant power of the name of particular deities. These gods had names that humans could use, but there was a final, ultimate, and hidden name that was believed to possess “enormous power.” (27) Relying on Andre LaCocque’s analysis of the Burning Bush story, Kearney sees Moses trying to obtain this secret name of God, probably because he knew that in order to free the people of Israel, he would have to duel with the Egyptian magicians who would summon their deities’ powers. God had other ideas:

Moses’ request, on this reading, is for such a name of power; and God’s response to his request may be read accordingly as a refusal of this request. The very circularity [think of a circle when you hear the words, ‘I shall be what I shall be’] and indeterminacy [ambiguity] of the nameless name…confounds the attempt to glean magical profit from it…[God] resists…being reduced to the status of an idol. (27)

God is thus seeking to not be co-opted into some religious scheme that sees the Divine as a means to an end.

Others have translated the ‘name’ of God in similar ways:

  • Martin Buber – “As the one who will always be there, so shall I be present in every time.” (27)
  • Rosenzweig – “I will be there as I will be there.”

Kearney comments:

These commentators share the view that what the suffering Hebrews needed from Moses was not some metaphysical proof about the existence of GOd as ipsum esse [Being-itself] but an assurance that He would remain close to them. The promise of the speaking GOd which begins with the word ‘ehyeh, ‘I shall be,’ means a pledge to his people that he will not abandon them. It is not, Buber observes, the self-exposure of some occult magical power but a clarification of the kind of GOd he is, an indication of the eschatological ‘meaning and character of a name (YHVH).’

The Israelites were not looking for some ‘five-proofs’ for the existence of God. In some way, God’s existence of was no concern to them. Whether God was Being-itself or some other metaphysical reality was of no concern to them. What was of concern was knowing that God cared about them, and that God had a special intention for their liberation from injustice. The Israelites were looking for assurance, promise, presence, justice, love, and hope. God’s promise is also a promise of return. For it is likely that the Israelites believed they had been abandoned. God’s initial promise to Abraham and their forefathers seemed to have been broken. But Moses’ encounter signaled a reaffirmation, a renewal, of that promise.

I do notice two glaring issues with the E-interpretation. Kearney argues that

the God revealed in Exodus is more, however, than a demystification of pagan tendencies to invoke divine names as mythical powers. It also marks a step beyond the capricious deity inherited by the Hebrews themselves from certain ancestral narratives recorded in Genesis–in particular the ‘sacrificial’ account of Abraham and Isaac on Mount Moriah in Genesis 22 or the burnt sacrifices performed by Abraham in Genesis 15. Exodus 3.14 may be read accordingly not only as a biblical critique of other mystery-rite religions but as a self-critique of such traces in biblical religion itself! (27)

The first problem is Kearney’s argument that God’s ‘name’ is an attempt to co-opt any use of his ‘name’ as a means to an end. Moses repeatedly invokes the name of God, Yahweh, in he and Aaron’s battles against Pharoah and the Egyptian sorcerers. The second problem I see is that Moses’ encounter with the ‘nameless’ God is some how a critique of the “capricious” deity that commanded sacrifice. What do we see in Exodus? Plagues. The sacrifice of the Egyptian first-born for the Israelites’ freedom. Moreover, the ‘nameless’ God of the Burning Bush, which Kearney believes to be different from the God who called Abraham to sacrifice Isaac on the altar, is also the same God who returns to make a covenant with Israel giving law after law after law with clear-cut definitions of what sort of punishment will happen if someone breaks a law. And this is later the God who, upon entering with the Hebrews into the Promised Land finds it necessary to purify the land of all who oppose the Israelites.

In other words, Kearney seems to be applying his E-interpretation to this one narrative event and I see a lack of interest in what extends beyond the meeting of God and Moses at the bush.

More on this later.

5 thoughts on “I am Who May Be – Pt 1

  1. This quotation is a response to your mention of apophatic (negative) theology…a concept most people do not understand. What we know about God is far exceeded by what we do not know.

    Scriptures, theologians and many religious leaders tell us what the divine is by listing grandiose attributes. Most mystics worship personal aspects of the divine, but they also speak of what it is not. Many of them said that the divine essence is nothing, i.e. no thing, that it is immanent in all things, yet it is transcendent to everything. Mystics consider this seeming paradox to be a positive negation.

    Avidya, non-knowledge in Sanskrit, is used in Buddhism for our “spiritual ignorance” of the true nature of Reality. Bila kaif, without knowing how in Arabic, is Islam’s term for “without comparison” to describe Allah. Ein Sof, without end in Hebrew, is the “infinite beyond description” in the Kabbalah. Neti, neti, not this, not this in Sanskrit, refers to “unreality of appearances” to define Brahman. In via negativa, the way of negation in Latin, God is “not open to observation or description.”

    Mysticism emphasizes spiritual knowing, which is not rational and is independent of reason, logic or images. Da`at is Hebrew for “the secret sphere of knowledge on the cosmic tree.” Gnosis is Greek for the “intuitive apprehension of spiritual truths.” Jnana is Sanskrit for “knowledge of the way” to approach Brahman. Ma`rifa in Arabic is “knowledge of the inner truth.” Panna in Pali is “direct awareness”; perfect wisdom. These modes of suprarational knowing, perhaps described as complete intuitive insight, are not divine oneness; they are actualizing our inherent abilities to come closer to the goal.

    (quoted from “the greatest achievement in life,” my free ebook on comparative mysticism)

    • Hey Ron,

      Thanks for the comment! (You’re the first!) Thanks for the quick overview of the different religious/philosophical traditions’ different concepts of apophatic theology. The only ones I was familiar with was neti-neti and the practise of brahmodya.

      Do you know of any primary sources that are written within these different traditions that talk about these? I’ve had a hard time finding them.


  2. Ryan, I cannot readily give you primary sources, but their are many secondary books listed in my bibliography which discuss these concepts. Click on my profile and download my website. An excellent quick reference is the Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, edited by John Bowker (published by Oxford University Press 2005)

    • Hi Ron, Thanks for the reply. For some reason WordPress comments thought your comment was spam so I didn’t see this until now.

      Thanks for the tip, I will check it out.


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