The name of God

Bible Study in Tent This was our theme for the week. Our leader, Br. John, a former New Yorker who had lived in Taize for most of his adult life proclaimed, “God tells Moses that “I AM WHAT I AM” (Exodus 3:14). So He is always alive in the moment— always faithful and always changing. God, my friends, is never boring, so if you’re bored in your life, you know that God is not there.” Everyone laughed and we took a few minutes to break into sections by languages, with volunteers stepping into translate. John, who like all the brothers dressed like preppy European professors— khakis, collared shirts, v-neck sweaters— lectured in English with frequent pepperings of Hebrew.

We turned to Exodus 34:5-6, where the LORD descends from a cloud and begins to tell Moses what kind of God He is. “Yahweh is a ___________________ God….” Br. John stopped us here and asked what word or phrase was used to fill in the blank in our various translations. I knew that even a roomful of people with English language bibles would have a range of different words. Now voices shouted out in many languages, “Compassionate,” “Tenderness,” “Merciful.”

Rahhum, Br. John said, pressing his fist to his diaphragm. Rahhum means that feeling straight from the gut, a deep belly-rooted connection. “It comes from the word rahamim. Literally, a mother’s womb. So, when you are trying to understand who God is, what the name of God means, what qualities He possesses, the first image to picture is a mother holding her baby.” This connection he said is primal, pre-rational.

“So God is compassionate and _________________ What? What word do you show next?” “Gracious,” “Clemency,” “Benevolent,” And for this he gave us the Hebrew Hamun. “It means a gift that is not deserved or earned.” Picture a wealthy king to whom a poor beggar comes asking for a favor, and the king grants it joyfully.

I found myself falling in love with the Hebrew translations and the way they gave new life to the texts. Started thinking about the Master’s degree I planned to begin in the coming year and if I could add Hebrew to the mix of courses or if that was reserved for seminarians. “So we are starting to form a picture of who God is, of what his name is. He is compassionate and gracious and now we come to third thing, the part where people who want to jump can find their out,” he said smiling. “What is the third thing God tells us about who He is?”

“Patient,” “Long-suffering,” Slow to anger.”

“Aaahh! There it is. That big bad word. Anger. People love to tell you that they don’t believe in God because he’s so angry and judgmental. Modern man is ashamed of anger, but in the Hebrew culture if was simply a part of life— not good, not bad. Of course, the text does not say that God is angry, or easily angered, or quick to anger, but rather that He is SLOW to anger. Patient, long-suffering. He gives us a lot of rope before he steps in.”

He then said something that I think will stick with me for the rest of my life. “Anger is the psychological expression of the word NO!” I thought about my frustration at the valuables counter (Money changes everything) the night before: how much I resented her not allowing me to take the process casually. I did not want to consider the master plan that was put in place for the ultimate good of all the visitors. I wanted my laziness and my sense of entitlement to be indulged and that brave young girl had said No.

We turned to 1 John 1:5 and read, “God is light, and there is absolutely no darkness in Him.”

“So what is it that God, by the very definition of who He is, must say No to?” Br. John asked. “Evil.”

We went on to learn that the next words were from the Hebrew Hesed— in essence, “steadfast love,” — and Emet, or truth, the foundation of God’s covenant. And finally, the most beautiful and gracious passage of all, “maintaining faithful love to a thousand generations, forgiving wrongdoing, rebellion and sin…” (Exodus 34:7)

An hour and half had passed like a blink. I could have stayed in that tent all day and taken feverish notes, but found instead that Br. John was wrapping up. Pointing now to the final passage from our Exodus section he spoke of moral responsibility, and of why God needs to say No sometimes. “….But He will not leave the guilty unpunished, bringing the consequences of the father’s wrongdoing on the children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation.”

I had written about the challenges of this very passage in the book I had just finished writing, “Elijah & the SATs.” Felt affirmed to hear him make the same two points: 1) notice how much more generous the rewards are for doing good than the punishment is for doing evil: thousands of generations of blessing vs only three or four of punishment, and 2) that the notion of the father (or mother’s) wrongdoing impacting the children and grandchildren is— far from some ancient vindication— simply what we see revealed every single day in a culture where even kindergartners know the terms “dysfunctional family.”

Brother John

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