The Divine Name

Moses Before the Burning Thornbush
Gebhard Fugel ca. 1920.

I’ve been reading Martin Buber’s book Moses, with the result that the encounter Moses has with God at the burning bush – the one that burns but is not consumed – comes frequently to my mind.

I don’t know if any of us would want to be in Moses’s sandals (which he’s told to take off) right then and there – but anyway he has enough presence of mind to ask God, “By what Name should I tell my enslaved people to call You?”  

And God answers. It’s Yod Hey Waw Hey –


the tetragrammaton, and it’s not to be pronounced lightly. Since a proper name can be interpreted to signify a defining characteristic, the question has often been asked, 

What was the meaning of God’s Name?

Some theologians have interpreted the Name to mean, “I Am That I Am” or “I Will Be What I Will Be.” One can regard that as speculative soaring to the highest level – or as vacuous redundancy. Those who regard it in the former way, speak of Necessary Being – the Being on which all contingent beings depend. But it’s kinda hard to picture, unless one could at the same time imagine an alternative – say Nothingness or Nonbeing.

Any imagined alternative to Being, such as Nothingness, runs the risk of having some kind of being or reality as well. In sum, if God’s defining Name is just to Be the Being-that-Is – it’s not very filled out. Seems a bit thin. Maybe that’s why they call God “ineffable.”

In fact, the opening verses of Genesis don’t describe creation as a process of the Creator’s drawing-things-into-being out of Nothingness. Rather, the acquisition of definite characteristics is contrasted with a prior state where it’s all real enough, but it’s chaos – 

tohu va bohu –

void and unformed.

That’s much easier to picture. I go through what feels like chaos as I put myself together every morning. Or when I recover from a shock. Or try to control panic. Or pull my socks up and consult my to-do list. Tohu va bohu meets Abigail every day and we certainly hope that, by day’s end, she’ll be at least one step ahead of the beast.  

For some people it’s easier than for others, but our daily struggle against tohu va bohu is one key reason to stay truthful during our waking hours. Untruth comports memory-suppression, followed by construction of artefacts to layer over whatever-really-happened … At some point, further down the road, people may decide to join up with their enemies just to stave off the chaos that threatens to return from underfoot or overhead.  

So, if the Name is not to be invoked in contrast to Nothingness – but rather in tension with chaos – how should the tetragrammaton be translated? Here is what Buber and his co-translator Rosenzweig proposed:

I will be there,

howsoever I will be there.

To me, this interpretation seems quite loaded with meaning. To the speaking God who meets Moses in the fire, it gives two defining characteristics. First, God is providential, will stand by, will intervene, will not leave you stranded. Second, God is unpredictable. That trait is signified by the “howsoever,” and it’s just as identifying as the first trait.

But don’t the two traits contradict each other? God will helpfully intervene but you’ll never know when? God will helpfully be present but you’ll never know where?

Well, let’s set up a thought experiment where God is present predictably and is helpful whenever needed. Doesn’t that sound more like magic? A God capable of creating the universe – who nevertheless comes and goes at our beck and call? Goodness! You wouldn’t even want a husband you could manipulate like that – much less a God!  

So ends our thought experiment. Prayer doesn’t work like magic and, oddly enough, we don’t want it to really

That said, in what sense is God providential? If we can’t know whether God will be there, why does the Name tell us that God will be there?

There are theologians who assure us that our hope and faith counts with God, even when it’s going to be disappointed. We get more credit if we can sustain it even through all the refuting instances.  

But for what are we getting credit in the cases where hope is dashed? For actually believing, or for continuing to assume the posture of a believer? 

I raised the question – about the times when Providence doesn’t come through for us – in Saturday’s Bible Study class. The study Leader responded that, in his own life experience, even the most disappointing instances could be seen – in retrospect – as having worked out for the best.

Well I wasn’t there to argue, but the thought passed rapidly through my mind: yeah, how ‘bout if someone is being marched at gunpoint into a gas chamber? How does that work out for the best?

At this point, the truly faithful come up to the bar to testify about the next world. The next world is reported to be very nice. Be even nicer, I should think, if you didn’t have to step into it through a gas chamber. 

God gives us one assurance: the world we must walk through will be real. And, in the real world, as the Israeli mother said when – after the whole country prayed for her kidnapped son and, a week later, he was found murdered –

“God doesn’t work for us.”

She was not saying that faith in God is useless. She was reminding the nation that we are not God’s employers. Nor are we God’s magicians. 

Why then keep faith? Without intelligent hope, chaos would reign. Without hard reality, hope and faith would be vaporous. We come back to the burning bush and God’s enigmatic answer:

I will be there;

howsoever I will be there.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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2 Responses to The Divine Name

  1. Romola Chrzanowski says:

    I used to study with/listen to a Sufi teacher, Bawa Muhaiyyaddeen ( He described the 99 names of Allah in Islam as being the qualities (virtues) of God. The 100th name would be ineffable and so cannot be “named”. A recent sermon at a primarily Black (Presbyterian) church taught that we don’t always receive from God. We are grateful and appreciative for what we get (help, blessings, etc.). But, we don’t just receive rewards. I think the point was similar to the quote in your story that we are not God’s employers. Thanks for getting me thinking about this.

    • Abigail says:

      Thanks Romola. It’s really helpful to be reminded that serious people have been busy with topics like the Names of God and the uncertainties of providence. We aren’t the first to get to these steep cliffs. We are in good company.

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