Jesus and the Divine Name

Series Introduction 

Relationships are a peculiar thing. A person’s commitment to another often leads them to take on the hobbies, interests, and passions of those they love. To give an example: my love for my wife has led me to enjoy the television show The Bachelorette and the music of Taylor Swift in a way I certainly would not on my own. 

For many today, their relationship to Jesus of Nazareth is no exception. Most of Jesus’ present-day disciples are not the sort of people naturally inclined to devote time to the Pentateuch1—the first five books of the Bible, traditionally attributed to Moses.2 And yet, those who take Jesus seriously cannot ignore him when he says, “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me.”3 Elsewhere, the risen Jesus claims his life, death, and resurrection fulfills “…everything… that is written about me in the Law of Moses…”4 

These bold claims compel Christ’s followers to read and wrestle with the Torah and “…refuse to let go of the text until it blesses us,”5 and reveals Jesus to us. Frustratingly, a disciple may have to wrestle with the text until the break of day. But eventually, daylight will come and she will see: Jesus—sometimes in more explicit ways than others—permeates the Pentateuch.

Part I: Jesus and the Divine Name

In the Bible, God (Hebrew el [singular]6 or elohim [plural]7) is not a name but rather a title.8 The Creator—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—is one of many elohim, though he alone is el elyown, “God Most High.”9 In one particularly enigmatic story, this deity appears to Moses as a fire upon a bush.10 At Moses’ request, the God of the Hebrews11 reveals “…an ontological divine mystery of the most daunting character”12—his personal name, YHWH, meaning, “I am who I am” 13

The Gospels take this Divine Name and apply it to Jesus. In their narratives about John the baptizer, all four Gospels quote Isaiah: “A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of [YHWH]; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’”14 Each Evangelist goes on to describe John, in the wilderness, preparing the way for Jesus. This is a subtle way of saying, “Jesus is the embodiment of Israel’s God, whom Moses and the prophets wrote about.” 

In the fourth Gospel, Jesus is even more explicit in identifying himself with the Divine Name. The Johannine Jesus makes seven key “I am” statements.15 And in a tense debate with the Judean leadership about his identity, Jesus boldly declares: “Before Abraham was, I am.”16 With these words, Jesus affirms his eternal preexistence as the as One who is God and is with God,17 and “…echoes divine speech in the Old Testament,”18 where God reveals himself with these same words.19

Part I in our series Where is Jesus in the Pentateuch?

Notes

1. Skye Jethani wisely notes: “…every Christian has at least two Bibles. First, there is the actual Bible… Then there is the Bible we read… This functional Bible is different for each person, but it contains some familiar gospel stories and parables, some of Paul’s letters, and a handful of psalms,” but usually not the bulk of the Old Testament. Christians often dismiss it, saying things like “…[the Old Testament] doesn’t apply to us anymore,” and, “All we need is what we have from Jesus and the apostles.” Jethani, S. (2020). What if Jesus Was Serious?: A Visual Guide to the Teachings of Jesus We Love to Ignore, 50-51. Chicago, IL: Moody.

2. Alter, R. (2008 [2004]). The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary, ix. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company; cf. Ndjerareou, A. (2010). In Africa Bible Commentary: A One-Volume Commentary Written by 70 African Scholars, 85. (T. Adeyemo, Ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

3. John 5:46 NIV; cf. John 1:45

4. Luke 24:44 NIV

5. McCaulley, E. (2020). Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope, 21. Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic.

6. Strong’s Hebrew: 410. אֵל (el) — God. (n.d.). Retrieved March 23, 2021.

7. Strong’s Hebrew: 430. אֱלֹהִים (elohim) — God, god, gods. (n.d.). Retrieved March 23, 2021.

8. Imes, C.J. (2019). Bearing God’s Name: Why Sinai Still Matters, 6. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.

9. cf. Genesis 14:20, 22; Genesis 14:20 Interlinear. (n.d.). Retrieved March 23, 2021; Genesis 14:22 Interlinear. (n.d.). Retrieved March 23, 2021.

10. Exodus 3

11. Exodus 3:18

12. Alter, The Five Books of Moses, 321. 

13. Exodus 3:14 ESV. We must note: many scholars argue “I will be who I will be” is perhaps a more precise translation of the Divine Name. See, for example: Alter, The Five Books of Moses, 321; and Brown, T.S. (2016). The Burning Bush and True Being: A Comparative Analysis of Gregory of Nyssa’s Interpretation of Exodus 3:14 in The Life of Moses, 6. Wilmore, KY: Asbury Theological Seminary. However, the more traditional rendering, “I am who I am,” is not entirely dismissed by these same scholars. I agree with Alter that the traditional translation better captures the name-disclosure as an “…affirmation with emphasis, not just a declaration” (The Five Books of Moses, 321). 

14. Isaiah 40:3 ESV; cf. Matthew 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4; John 1:23

15. John 6:35; 8:12; 10:7, 9; 10:11, 14; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1).Thompson, M.M. (2015). John: A Commentary (The New Testament Library), 157. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

16. John 8:58 ESV

17. John 1:1

18. Thompson, John, 197. 

19. cf. Exodus 3:14; see esp. LXX

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