In the famous story in Exodus 3, God calls to Moses out of a bush that is on fire but is not being consumed. God introduces himself as “the God of your father—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” He then commissions Moses to return to Egypt and deliver the Israelites from their slavery. Moses feels overwhelmed and tries to get God to change his mind by asking a series of questions that are intended to show God just how inadequate Moses is to the task. One of those questions is, “Indeed, when I come to the children of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they say to me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?” (Exod. 3:13).
God’s answer is, “I AM WHO I AM.” Then he tells Moses to say to the children of Israel that “I AM has sent me to you.” The words “I AM” in Hebrew is ‘ehyeh. The third person form of the word is yahweh, which is the name God chose for himself.
The problem with Moses’ question is that it seems to imply that Moses and the Israelites do not know God’s name. Yet Genesis makes it clear that Moses’ ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, knew that God’s name was Yahweh. Surely this name would have been passed down through the generations to Moses and the Israelites of his time. So why is Moses asking for God’s name?
The answer is to be found in the Israelites’ propensity to fall into idolatry on a moment’s notice. Jacob buried the idols of his children under a tree on his way to meet God at Bethel, which shows that the Israelites practiced idolatry before they went into Egypt. The Israelites had Aaron make a golden calf which they worshiped simply because Moses had been gone for a long time, which shows that they practiced idolatry after they came out of Egypt. It is not surprising, therefore, to find they practiced idolatry while in Egypt. Near the end of his life, Joshua says to the Israelites, “Now therefore, fear Yahweh, serve Him in sincerity and in truth, and put away the gods which your fathers served on the other side of the River and in Egypt. Serve Yahweh!” (Josh. 24:14). Ezekiel pictures Yahweh as commanding the Israelites who were living in Egypt before the exodus to avoid defiling themselves with the idols of Egypt, but they refused (Ezek. 20:7-8). Indeed, Ezekiel says the Israelites of his day will go into exile to break the influence that the idolatry their ancestors had learned in Egypt still had over them (Ezek. 23). Since the Israelites had lived among the Egyptians for over four hundred years, they had plenty of time to learn and adopt the Egyptian system of beliefs.
The Israelites had also spent most of those four hundred years crying out to Yahweh to free them from their slavery, and by Moses’ day they had become impatient with him. Asking him to deliver them was not producing the desired results, so they were looking for some way to force him to deliver them. The Egyptian belief in the secret name seemed to offer them exactly what they wanted.