- Exodus 3:1-15 & Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45b (or Jeremiah 15:15-21 & Psalm 26:1-8)
- Romans 12:9-21
- Matthew 16:21-28
First Reading: Theophany at Sinai
The story of Moses and the burning bush is one of the great religious classics of humanity. This quintessential “I-thou” story of encounter with the Sacred Other captures themes that lie at the heart of the religious experience.
Within the traditional Hebrew narrative structures that run through this part of the Pentateuch, this episode is a key part of the Moses narrative. The encounter with God in the burning bush epiphany is a revelation of the identity of the One who will redeem the Hebrew slaves and also the divine call for Moses to play his part in the drama of salvation. Both the prophetic character of Moses and also the special nature of his relationship with God are established in this episode.
While there is no historical value to this tradition as an account of ancient Israel’s historical origins, this is a powerful story about the origins of the religious quest that became Israel’s great contribution to human culture and which is today expressed in all three biblical religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
At the heart of this story lies the mysterious dialogue in which God reveals the divine name, using a formula that evades precise translation.
For one especially famous exposition of the religious significance of the Sinai theophany the writings of the Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber (1878-1965): extract
The following commentary comes from the JPS Torah Commentary edited by Nahum Sarna:
Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh This phrase has variously been translated, “I Am That I Am,” “I Am Who I Am,” and “I Will Be What I Will Be.” It clearly evokes YHVH, the specific proper name of Israel’s God, known in English as the Tetragrammaton, that is, “the four consonants.” The phrase also indicates that the earliest recorded understanding of the divine name was as a verb derived from the stem h-v-h, taken as an earlier form of h-y-h, “to be.” Either it expresses the quality of absolute Being, the eternal, unchanging, dynamic presence, or it means, “He causes to be.” YHVH is the third person masculine singular; ehyeh is the corresponding first person singular. This latter is used here because name-giving in the ancient world implied the wielding of power over the one named; hence, the divine name can only proceed from God Himself.
In the course of the Second Temple period the Tetragrammaton came to be regarded as charged with metaphysical potency and therefore ceased to be pronounced. It was replaced in speech by ’adonai, “Lord,” rendered into Greek Kyrios. Often the vowels of ’adonai would later accompany YHVH in written texts. This gave rise to the mistaken form Jehovah. The original pronunciation was eventually lost; modern attempts at recovery are conjectural.
God’s response to Moses’ query cannot be the disclosure of a hitherto unknown name, for that would be unintelligible to the people and would not resolve Moses’ dilemma. However, taken together with the statement in 6:3, the implication is that the name YHVH only came into prominence as the characteristic personal name of the God of Israel in the time of Moses. This tradition accords with the facts that the various divine names found in Genesis are no longer used, except occasionally in poetic texts; that of all the personal names listed hitherto, none is constructed of the prefixed yeho-/yo- or the suffixed -yahu/yah contractions of YHVH; that the first name of this type is yokheved (Jochebed), that of Moses’ mother. Ibn Ezra points out that Moses, in his direct speech, invariably uses the name YHVH, not ’elohim, “God.” Without doubt, the revelation of the divine name YHVH to Moses registers a new stage in the history of Israelite monotheism.
W. G. Plaut
The following extracts from W.G. Plaut, The Torah. A Modern Commentary provide some further examples of Jewish interpretation of this tradition:
In this first theophany, the divine Presence is called by three names: “God” (Elohim), “Lord” (YHVH), and a name not translated in our English text, “Ehyeh.” Of these, only the last name is new to Moses, the other two are familiar to him and are not explained: Elohim is the basic generic name for any god and hence also for the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (verse 6); and “Lord” or YHVH is God’s own, personal name, known to him, but — as chapter 6 will show — not yet understood in its full meaning. Here it is merely restated that, whatever the additional and newly revealed name Ehyeh betokens, God’s own name YHVH will not be affected, it will remain the same (verse 15).
The name Elohim is known to the reader from the story of Creation on. It is an expansion or variant of the name El, which generally describes the godhead in Semitic languages (Ugaritic El; Babylonian Ilu; Arabic Allah). Prevailing scholarly opinion connects it with a root meaning “to be strong.” In the Hebrew Bible, Elohim is used both for the God of Israel and generically for the gods of the nations, and, in the Torah, Elohim is the name preferred by the tradition called Elohist (or E; in contrast to J which prefers YHVH).
YHVH (“Lord”) is the distinguishing name by which Israelites called their God. After the theophany related here, in chapter 3, Moses will bring the message of salvation to Israel as well as to Egypt, and the result of this mission will necessitate a further revelation of God, who (in chapter 6) will give to the old name YHVH a new dimension. …
In the first meeting with God, Moses is satisfied that his knowledge of the divine Name, that is, his knowledge of God’s nature, will be sufficient to arm him for the mission ahead, though we are not told how a knowledge of the Name, if it were unknown to the people, would validate Moses’ claim. But, in any case, upon his inquiry he is not given the clear answer he seeks; instead he is told that the Lord may, in addition to being and continuing to be YHVH, also be known as Ehyeh or Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh. This revelation only deepens the mystery, for the new name is not further explained. Still, Moses makes no additional inquiry, and we may therefore assume that the name was meaningful to him, or at least that he believed he understood its import. What then was it? Over the centuries a number of answers have been attempted, though none has won universal acceptance.
Ehyeh is quite evidently the first person singular of the word “to be.” One problem is that the tense is not clear; it could mean “I am” or “I will be” (or “I shall be”). This uncertainty is multiplied in the name Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, for the first Ehyeh might be of one tense (for instance, “I am”) and the second another (for instance, “I will be”), or they might both be the same tense (“I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be”). To add to the difficulty, Asher could mean either “who” or “what.”
The majority of the commentators have understood both occurrences of Ehyeh to convey the future tense and to mean: “I will be what tomorrow demands,” that is, God emphasizes that He is capable of responding to human need. This was the message, they say, Moses was to take back to the enslaved people and thereby assure them that the God whom they called YHVH was also “Ehyeh,” who would be ready in the near future to redeem them. A variant interpretation was offered by S.R. Hirsch who saw a philosophical meaning in Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh: “I will be what I want to be,” that is, God stresses His own freedom to act as He wills, in contrast to earthly creatures who are never totally free. But is it likely that Moses could take such an opaque message to the people and satisfy their thirst for the knowledge that God was still their God?
It appears therefore that the impact of this story lies elsewhere. The most important factor to be taken into consideration is that, though Moses is given the new name to take back to Israel, not a single instance is reported in the Torah where he is shown to have actually used it. From this we can conclude that the revelation was never meant for the people at all, nor did Moses really inquire for the sake of the people: Moses had asked for himself, and the answer he receives is also meant for him — for God understands what Moses wants, and the very vagueness of His answer is purposeful. When Moses asks, “What shall I say to them” he is asking to satisfy his own needs and does so by pretending to ask for the sake of others. This view alone makes it possible to arrive at a satisfactory interpretation of God’s mysterious self-revelation. Moses wants to know the nature of God by inquiring about the inner meaning of His name, but God will not be fully known and therefore evades a clear answer. His response is intentionally vague, for it is a response to Moses only, and not a name suitable for communication. “You ask to know My name,” God says, “and I will tell you: I am what I am, I will be what I will be. And when you tell your people of this experience, tell them it is the same YHVH they know about.” God reveals Himself to Moses as He does to no other human being (Deut. 34:10), but even to Moses He shows himself wrapped in mystery. It is an aspect of God’s freedom to conceal his essence, and hence Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh must remain elusive. Therefore it is well to keep the divine response in its original form and, as our English translation does, convey it, untranslated and inexplicable, as Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh. The Midrash conveys a similar interpretation: while God is called by many names, He is what he is by virtue of His deeds. That is to say, you cannot really know Him until you experience Him in your own life. (pp. 404-406)
The Gospel: Intimations of suffering and glory
The Gospel passage follows on from last week’s confession of faith by Peter, located by Mark in Caesarea Philippi in the far north of the Jordan catchment area. Matthew has drawn together material from Mark:
Predictions of death and resurrection
Matt 16:21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Matthew has adopted, with minimal adjustment, the series of three prophecies in which Jesus predicts his own demise in Jerusalem as well as his resurrection. The series of predictions can be found at:
- Mark 8:31-33 = Matt 16:21-23 = Luke 9:22
- Mark 9:30-32= Matt 17:22-23 = Luke 9:43b-45
- Mark 10:32-34 = Matt 20:17-19 = Luke 18:31-34
Robert Fortna [The Gospel of Matthew, 145f] observes:
I believe it is most unlikely that Jesus foresaw this early his eventual arrest and execution, still less his resurrection, or that he solemnly predicted them to this disciples. Rather, the three episdoes were introduced later in the story, perhaps not until the writing of Mark, to justify Jesus’ fate: If he had predicted it, it was acceptable, much as the Old Testament prophecy made an event inevitable (see … 27:27-66).
The way of the cross
At the heart of this week’s Gospel is the theme of the cross: a fate embraced by Jesus (as the gospel writers tell the story) and the benchmark for Christian discipleship.
We have an ancient Greek reference crucifixion as the test of integrity [cited in Crossan, Historical Jesus (353)]:
If you want to be crucified, just wait.
The cross will come.
If it seems reasonable to comply, and the circumstances are right,
then it’s to be carried through, and your integrity maintained.
(Epictetus, Discourses 2.2.20; Oldfather, 1.228-231)
Lachs [Rabbinic Commentary on the New Testament, 187] notes that there are no rabbinic parallels to this saying but that there are many rabbinic passages that share the idea that the faithful should be willing to face martyrdom for their beliefs, for instance:
The words of the Law are only established in a man who would die for them. [B.Ber. 63b]
John Dominic Crossan, [Historical Jesus 353] observes:
The complex Carrying Ones Cross [1/3] could be dismissed almost immediately as a retrojection of Jesus’ death back onto his own prophetic lips. This would be especially persuasive if it were found only in Mark 8:34, but it is found in both Gospel of Thomas 55:2b and the Sayings Gospel Q at Luke 14:27 = Matthew 10:38, neither of which show any great interest in the historical crucifixion of Jesus.
After citing the passage from Epictetus (see above), Crossan continues:
There is, therefore, no need to take Jesus’ saying as either retrojected or projected prophecy. Jesus “was discussing,” as Leif Vaage put it about Epictetus, “the (possible) consequences of following a certain philosophy … The cost of adopting a particular way of life is … graphically imagined … The fate portrayed … certainly seems a conceivable outcome of the kind of social challenge and outrageous behavior” (1989:173) seen so often throughout this chapter.
Note: The Vaage reference is to “Q1 and the Historical Jesus: Some Peculiar Sayings (7:33-34; 9:57-58,59-60; 14:26-27)” Forum 5/2, 1989, 159-76.
Unlike its co-chair, the Jesus Seminar was more sceptical of this saying’s authenticity. This saying is deeply embedded in the early traditions appearing in three independent sources and in two different forms: as a negative saying in Q/Thom and as a positive saying in Mark. In the end, and only after a second consideration of the question, the Fellows rejected the saying from the database of authentic Jesus sayings on the grounds that its post-Easter understanding of the cross as the defining symbol for Jesus.
Gerd Lüdemann [Jesus, 57], agrees with the final view of the Jesus Seminar and considers Mark 8:34b “a saying of post-Easter prophet.”
John P. Meier [Marginal Jew, III, 64-66], discusses this saying as part of his treatment of the disciples. He considers that the “shocking imagery” and the multiple attestation both support the case that Jesus created this saying. Meier suggests that the saying would not have spoken of carrying one’s own cross (rather than Jesus’ cross) had it been a post-Easter creation, and he also cites the parallel from Epictetus (c. 55-135 CE) in support of a wide dissemination of the crucifixion metaphor in the early Roman period.
Some standing here
Matt 16:27 “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28 Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
Belief in Jesus’ return (parousia) is one of the most strongly attested items in the historical Jesus tradition, and continues to be a core belief in some modern Christian communities. In every generation there have been Christians who expected to see the end of the world before they died, but in the Synoptic tradition such a statement perhaps indicates this saying is circulating within the range of living memory deriving from the late 20s of the first century; not later than 90 CE or thereabouts.
- 240 Passion Resurrection Prophecy – (1a) Mark 8:31-33 = Matt 16:2l-23 = Luke 9:22; (1b) Mark 9:9b = Matt 17:9b; (1c) Mark 9:12b = Matt 17:12b; (1d) Mark 9:30-32= Matt 17:22-23 = Luke 9:43b-45; (1e) Luke 17:25; (1f) Mark 10:32-34 = Matt 20:17-19 = Luke 18:31-34; (1g) Matt 26:1-2; (1h) Mark 14:21 = Matt 26:24 = Luke 22:22; (1i) Mark 14:41= Matt 26:45b; (1j) Luke 24:7.
- 044 Carrying Ones Cross – (1) GThom. 55:2b; (2) 1Q: Luke 14:27 = Matt 10:38; (3) Mark 8:34 = Matt 16:24 = Luke 9:23.
- 063 Saving Ones Life – (1) 1Q: Luke 17:33 = Matt 10:39; (2) Mark 8:35 = Matt 16:25 = Luke 9:24; (3) John 12:25-26.
- 241 What Profit – (1a) Mark 8:36 = Matt 16:26a = Luke 9:25; (1b) 2 Clem. 6:2.
- 242 Lifes Price – (1) Mark 8:37 = Matt 16:26b.
- 028 Before the Angels – (1a) 2Q: Luke 12:8-9 = Matt 10:32-33; (1b) 2 Clem. 3:2 [from Matt 10:32]; (2) Mark 8:38 = Matt 16:27 = Luke 9:26; (3) Rev 3:5; (4) 2 Tim 2:12b.
- 243 Some Standing Here – (1) Mark 9:1 = Matt 16:28 = Luke 9:27.
Liturgies and Prayers
For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site
Other recommended sites include:
See the following sites for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre:
- Richard Bruxvoort-Colligan’s WorldMaking Music site
- David MacGregor’s Together to Celebrate site
- Brenton Prigge’s New Hymn site