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Breaking Open the Ordinary

Sandy Prather

What's in a name?



Without a doubt, it is an irreverent juxtaposition: whatever could Popeye the sailor man and the Old Testament God of Moses have in common? Or, in other words, what’s in a name? The answer it seems is, a lot.

The irreligious connection between Popeye and God arose for me recently when reading Cardinal Walter Kasper’s book Mercy: the Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life. This is the book of which Pope Francis remarked, “(It) has done me so much good.” Arguing that traditional theology hasn’t paid enough attention to the divine virtue of mercy, Kasper revisits Scripture and tradition to provide a compelling argument that mercy is a defining feature of God, not simply one descriptor among many. Pope Francis, clearly influenced by Kasper’s reasoning, has made mercy a defining feature of his papacy. For me, a particularly attractive argument from Kasper’s book concerns the understanding of one of God’s names.

I first learned about the variety and importance of God’s names when studying the Old Testament years ago. Among the most prominent was God’s name as revealed to Moses in the book of Exodus, chapter 3. We all know the story: God appears to Moses in the form of a burning bush and recruits Moses to free the enslaved Israelites from Egypt. In reluctantly accepting the mission, Moses pauses to ask God’s name. “Whom shall I say has sent me?” he inquires politely. Barefoot before the burning bush, Moses hears God’s reply: “I Am who I Am” (Ex 3:14).

It’s a great answer, I Am who I Am, but, for persons of a certain age, it irreverently calls up a certain tattooed cartoon character with enormous arms and an ever-present can of spinach. This character responds to questions about his identity with the quip, “I yam who I yam,” and Popeye the sailor man thus entered the imaginations of children everywhere.

Popeye notwithstanding, I Am who I Am is not only a good answer, it’s a wonderfully transcendent one, reflecting a certain philosophical worldview which, while not likely in the minds of the cartoon illustrators, certainly was in the minds of the original biblical translators and subsequent commentators.

The answer comes to us from the Greek Septuagint (circa 200 BC) as a translation of the four-letter Hebrew tetragrammaton for God’s Holy Name, a name so sacred that in the Jewish tradition, it is not pronounced aloud or even spelled completely. Christian commentators translated the tetragrammaton variously as, “I Am who I Am,” or, “I Am the One who Is.” In doing so, they drew on the Greek philosophy of the time: God is best named and described as pure and essential Being, whole and complete within God’s very self.

Theologically, over time, describing God within these metaphysical categories came to dominate the tradition and other attributes of God, including that of mercy, were relegated to secondary positions.

As Kasper points out, though, describing God exclusively in philosophical terms has its problems. Witness Tertullian, early on, questioning it: “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” he famously asked. Modern biblical scholarship, having revisited Hebrew thought, points to a different understanding of “being” than that found in classical Greek philosophy. In biblical thought, “being” is essentially relational and means, “concrete, active and powerfully effective presence” (Mercy, 48).

Thus, we have new insight into understanding God’s name as revealed to Moses. Rather than a wholly self-sufficient I Am, God’s name must convey this “concrete, active and powerfully effective presence.” It has been translated variously as, “I am ‘the One who I am there,’ ” (as the keeper of God’s promises) or, in existentialist Martin Buber’s words, as, “I will be present as the One who is there” (47-48).

What these names have in common is the promise of God’s active and powerful presence. The context, after all, is the enslavement of God’s people and God stating to Moses, “I have heard their cries; I am with them, and I will deliver them.” The subsequent actions of God in what we call salvation history confirm the revelation of a God whose heart is moved with compassion, who does not remain indifferent to people’s suffering but who moves powerfully to remedy it. This is God’s mercy: God’s loving-kindness and care, God’s misericordia, heart for the poor. For Israel, it is a defining trait, not simply one attribute among many. It is revealed in God’s name and then in God’s actions.

To know that God is first and foremost a God of mercy has important implications. It comes first as great comfort, challenging all our mistaken images of God as fearsome judge, punishing avenger or even indifferent observer. It answers our questions when, in the midst of suffering and distress, we call out, “Where are you, God?” The answer comes swift and sure, as it did to Moses: “I am the One present to you; I am the one turned to you in compassion.” It allows us to trust that we may always turn to this God, knowing we will be welcomed with mercy and kindness, knowing that God is always God-with-us.

It has implications for the way we understand the church’s mission. If God looks with mercy and loving-kindness, are we not to do the same? Pope Francis has called upon the church’s ministers and members to be the face of mercy within the world, to be a church that heals wounds, warms the hearts of the faithful and reaches out in compassion to everyone, especially those in deepest need. We are, indeed, to be merciful as our heavenly Father is merciful.

What’s in a name? As Popeye and God can attest, Greek philosophy gives us one answer, and biblical Hebraic thought, another. I favour the latter: God, thy name is mercy. Praise be to God.

Prather, BEd, MTh, is a teacher and facilitator in the areas of faith and spirituality. She was executive director at Star of the North Retreat Centre in St. Albert, Alta., for 21 years and resides in Sherwood Park with her husband, Bob. They are blessed with four children and 10 grandchildren.