I have a friend who I’ve known for a long time. We went to seminary together in Indianapolis; before that we were both students at Chapman University; and before that we both attended summer camp together at Loch Leven, as well as at a camp that our church doesn’t use much anymore, a place called Bethany Pines. I don’t see her much anymore – she lives way back east – but we do occasionally connect on the internet and through facebook.
One thing I’ve noticed in her online communication is that she has taken to writing the word “God” by substituting a hyphen in place of the “o”, so that it appears g-hyphen-d [“G-d”]. It looks strange to see it written that way. You can’t really pronounce it.
I haven’t asked her about this, but I think the fact that you can’t pronounce a word with the vowels taken out is, in fact, why she does it. It would be easy to dismiss this habit of hers as one of those unique traits that we all have, the quirky little habits of our friends and family members that we can’t explain but put up with because we love them.
For example, I had another friend in college who was organized to the point of plain ridiculousness. Everyone on his desk had an exact spot where it belonged. Some of us took to moving items around when he would step out of the room; switch the pencil and the stapler, or move a picture frame just 3 inches to the left. When he returned to the room, he’d walk over to the desk and, without saying a word – perhaps without even thinking about it – and return the items to their proper places.
When I was young child, we always had a glass of milk with dinner. And we’d all drink our cups of milk gradually, taking a few bites of food, then washing it down with a swallow of milk. Except Dad. He never took a drink of milk until he was all done with his food. It seemed kind of strange to us kids, but hey, to each his own. It was okay. Just different.
However, my friend who writes God in an unpronounceable way is not alone. Brian McLaren, who preached at this year’s General Assembly in Nashville, does the same thing in his most recent book, Naked Spirituality. He does this, he says, because when God appeared to Moses at the burning bush, Moses tried several times to get God to identify and name himself, but the closest God came to naming himself was to say something that translators still have a hard time figuring out, but which is usually translated: “I AM WHO I AM,” although it could also mean, “I AM WHAT I AM” or “I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE.” The base word here means “to be,” and it is from this word that we get the divine name for God: Yahweh. Yahweh means I am or I will be or he will be or he causes to be.
In identifying himself this way, God seems to be saying (as Brian McLaren points out): “I will be whoever I will be, Moses, so get used to the fact that you can’t wrestle my identity down.” Or maybe God is saying, “I am the essence of being itself. Everything that is, is me.” And that’s as close as we get to a name for God.
Well, this ancient name for God was rarely spoken. It was written Y-H-W-H, with no vowels, and even though it was based on the verb “to be,” it was considered too holy to say out loud.
Modern translators of scripture continue to honor this ancient tradition. Whenever Yahweh – Y-H-W-H – appears in the ancient texts, modern translators render that name as “the LORD,” with “LORD” written in all capital letters. Whenever you read your Bible and you see “the LORD” written in all capital letters, it refers back to here, to the name that means “I AM WHO I AM.”
Of course, most of us are in the practice of using the word “God” as if it were a proper name itself. And “God” is defined many ways. Most of those definitions – all of them, actually – do limit God in some way. But God will not be limited by our definitions. There is always more to God than we can imagine.
This is why my friend – along with Brian McLaren – writes God with a hyphen: to remind herself that God is essentially unnamed-able undefined-able, and bigger than we can possibly imagine.
Nevertheless, even though scripture refuses to name of define God definitively, and even though the tradition of not naming God continues today in our Bible translations and even among some of our friends, scripture does paint a very clear picture of what God’s character is like. From scripture we see very clearly what is important to God, and what God is passionate about.
Ironically, it is this very same scripture passage that refuses to name or define God that shows us God’s character and God’s passion, what God is like.
It’s all very complex, deep, and full of meaning. No wonder this was, for the Jewish people, the defining story of their faith: the story of Moses, a Hebrew who, as a baby, was in danger of being killed by Pharaoh, that ruthless oppressor who had enslaved the Hebrew people. Desperate, Moses’s mother placed him in a basket and floated him down the river, where, as fate would have it, the daughter of Pharaoh found him, adopted him, and raised him as her own.
When he was older, Moses killed an Egyptian, then ran away to the land of Midian. There he married a woman named Zipporah, and he lived with Zipporah’s family, keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro.
Moses was a fugitive, but Midian was far enough away, and he had found a family, a community, a place to belong. Life was, for the most part, simple, peaceful, good.
However, back in Egypt, the Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Their cry for help rose up to God; God heard their groaning. God remembered his covenant with the children of Abraham; God looked up on the Israelites. And God took notice of them.
So God called out to Moses. Out of the burning bush God called to Moses, and God said: “I have observed the misery of my people; I have heard their cry; I know their sufferings; I have seen how the Egyptians oppress them; and so I will deliver them from the Egyptians. I will deliver them from oppression, bondage, and suffering. I will save them.”
My friends, this is it. This is what it’s all about. God may be bigger than we can comprehend or imagine, unnamed-able and undefine-able, but right here we see who God is by seeing what God is like, what God’s character is, and what is of ultimate importance to God.
Who is God? What is God like? God is the one who observes the misery of his people, who hears their cry, who knows their suffering, and who sees how they are oppressed.
What is God’s priority, God’s passion? To save people from their suffering and deliver them from oppression; to rescue them from brokenness and restore them to wholeness.
This is it. This is what it’s all about.
When Jesus began his ministry, he announced that God’s Spirit had anointed him to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed. He saved people from their suffering and oppression. He rescued them from brokenness and restored them to wholeness.
This is it. This is what it’s all about.
Scripture uses the word “salvation” when speaking of both the deliverance of God’s people from Egypt and the ministry and teaching of Jesus. God saved the Israelites from their suffering by delivering them from Egypt. Jesus saved people from their suffering by restoring to them lives of wholeness.
Unfortunately, in modern times the definition of salvation – as well as the words saved and savior – has been limited to referring only to life after death. That is one meaning, but more often, when these words appear in scripture, they refer to the transformation of life this side of death, the transformation of ourselves and the world.
Saving people from their oppression is so important to God that once the Israelites finally made it to the promised land, God gave them a whole long list of rules and instructions which make up the bulk of the Torah, the Law. Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy – these books and others go on and on with teachings about how God’s people are to treat one another. Many of these laws involved economics, and they were quite radical.
Money lent out was not to be charged interest. Debts were to be completely forgiven every seven years. Indentured slaves were to be set free after seven years. And every 50 years, there was to be a jubilee in which all land was to be returned to its original family without compensation.
Keeping in mind the high number of foreclosures in our current economy, imagine if after 50 years all homes and property were to be returned to the families from which they were taken.
All these laws were to prevent the establishment of a permanently impoverished underclass. They were to prevent the Israelites from creating another Egypt in the promised land, where wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of a few, and where the disparity between the rich and the poor is too extreme.
It’s hard not to get “political” when you realize that this is it, this is what’s important to God. In later generations, when wealth and power was concentrated in and abused by a few elite, God raised up prophets to challenge kings and nations concerning this oppression of the poor.
Needless to say, the prophets were not always very popular, and rarely were they welcomed into palaces with open arms.
In our own time, it is hard for those who take seriously “the law and the prophets” to keep silent when debates rage about how governments should balance their budgets and reduce their deficits. Should taxes be raised on the rich, or should services be cut for the poor?
What do you think God would say, the God who hears the cries of his people and who knows the suffering of those who are oppressed?
What do you think the prophets would say, those who, like Amos, criticized the rich for “buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals,” and like Micah, who condemned the rulers of Israel for ignoring the demands of justice and “tearing the skin off God’s people and the flesh off their bones, eating the poor, breaking their bones in pieces, chopping them up like meat in a kettle, like flesh in a cauldron?”
What do you think Jesus would say, he who was anointed by God to bring good news to the poor?
This is it. This is what is important to God. Overcoming oppression. Bringing an end to suffering.
And if you are looking, wondering, what the church should be about, well, this is it. This is what we are called to do. We are called to hear the cries of the oppressed. We are called to know their suffering, and to work to end it. We are called to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed.
To put it another way, we are called to be a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.
…Because the God we worship is a God who hears the cries of the oppressed. God knows the suffering of God’s people. There is a tender spot in God’s heart for those who are poor, those who mourn, those whose lives are filled with grief, those who are worn out with tears that do not end. God’s compassion is beyond measure. God’s concern for God’s people is boundless.
Because of this, the psalmist can proclaim with confidence: “When I am in distress, when my eye wastes away from grief … when my strength fails because of my misery and my bones waste away … I will trust in you, O LORD; I say, ‘You are my God,’ … How abundant is your goodness, for you have wondrously shown your steadfast love to me.” [Psalm 31]