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The Inscrutable Reality of YHWH, the God of Israel


The four consonants that constitute the name of the God of Israel remain unpronounced in Hebrew because they lack the vowels to permit vocalization.  There is no physical representation of the Hebrew God and to fashion one is to directly contradict his instructions and incur his wrath.  How was Israel to understand this God? How are we?

Our study begins in the desert with Moses standing before a burning bush that is not consumed by the fire. This unusual sight has caught his attention and it is from the burning bush that God calls to him by name.

Moses responds, “Here am I.”

Then God warns him against coming any closer—Moses is on holy ground—and should take off his shoes. Moses does as he is told plus he hides his face, because he was afraid to look at God.

God identifies himself in a very personal way. “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”

The family connection made, God gives Moses a family assignment: he is to go back to Egypt, where Moses is wanted for murder, and free the Israelites from the Egyptians.

“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” he asks.

God, the great “I am” assures Moses that he will be with him. “And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you. When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.”

Worshipping God is the sign. It is also the request that Moses gives to Pharaoh to bring the people out of Egypt—to worship their God. 

Thus the Exodus, the journey that is to refine and define Israel is all about worship, because it is in worship that the community will be constructed, their relationship to God cemented. Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggemann says, “Worship in Israel was not only reflective of theological conviction about YHWH, but was also generative of that conviction.”

This is a point that is often missed, according to Bruggemann. “Protestant Church traditions—both liberal and conservative—seldom recognize that worship is precisely where energy, insight, and resolve are generated for an alternative life in the world. While the profoundly personal element is evident in Israel’s worship, that personal articulation is fully lodged in the generative processes of the community.”

Israel’s worship consisted of six pivotal practices, Brugggemann says:

  • exuberant acts of praise,
  • lament and complaint,
  • attentiveness to requirements for purity and holiness,
  • attentiveness to the neighbor,
  • vigorous, disciplined remembering,
  • vigorous imagination about the future.

Our study closes with the element of lament and complaint–the account of the Golden Calf, the worship event that angered both Moses and God, because it contradicted all the things that God had asked of his people.

As Moses walks into the scene of dancing celebration around the calf, he is so angry that he smashes the tablets of stone that he is carrying from his conversation with God. He burns the golden calf, sprinkles the ashes on the water and makes the people drink the water. The people who had persuaded Aaron to create the calf are killed. And then Moses goes back to God and begs for forgiveness for the people.

Forgiveness given, work can begin on the explicit instructions God has given Moses for the construction of a wilderness sanctuary.

The desire of the great YHWH is to dwell with his people. Worship is how and when that happens.

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