Monday, March 8, 2010

03-07-2010: Third Sunday of Lent

Third Sunday of Lent
Exodus 3:1-8,13-15 / Psalm 103 / 1 Corinthians 10:1-6,10-12 / Luke 13:1-9
Sigmund Freud, ever curious about personal motivations – especially for behaving out of the ordinary - might have stretched out on his well-worn couch and undergone some of his own psychoanalytic technique after he wrote Moses and Monotheism in the 1930s. Freud was taking a clue from the scholarship of his day when he suggested, as the thesis of his work, that Moses was Egyptian and not Hebrew; in other words Moses was not adopted as the biblical tale tells, but born to Egyptian nobility. This assertion would not be especially striking had it not been for the fact that Freud himself was a Jew (albeit non-believing) and, more poignantly, writing all this while the Nazis were beginning their horrific legacy and sending other Jews off to the death camps (Freud would flee Vienna and live out his remaining months in London). All this in sharp contrast to today’s passage from Exodus where Moses encounters the burning bush and has a conversation about identity and destiny with a voice that, simultaneously, both terrified and mesmerized. A voice which, if we read the text carefully, makes a double disclosure: revealing not only who God is, but who Moses really was as well.

Part of Freud’s argument, and one that is generally accepted by scripture scholars today, is the problem of names we encounter in the passage. Remember this is the place where God reveals his personal name for the first time. So sacred do Jews hold the divine name, the sacred tetragrammaton (YHWH), that no one is permitted to utter the personal name of God. The second commandment reiterates the prohibition: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain” (a commandment which has absolutely nothing to do with our modern notion of cursing). Just last year, in seeming deference to this ancient prohibition, Pope Benedict XVI issued a directive to the universal church prohibiting the utterance of the sacred name of God during the Mass.

The name Moses is problematic as well. Some would suggest that the name comes from the Hebrew word meaning “to draw water.” But most would argue that the name Moses is the result of redaction – some severe editing on the part of the biblical writer. Why edit? From embarrassment, it seems. Moses is of Egyptian origin, merely a suffix, meaning “born of.” You don’t have to be an Egyptologist to understand: just think of some of those Pharaohs’ names: Tuthmose(s) “born of the god Tuth,” Ram(o)ses “born of the god Ra,” and you can see that our Moses was most probably named for one of those Egyptian gods. That’s why it is so intriguing that in the Hebrew Bible, after Moses asks the voice “who are you,” and the voice responds “I am the God of your fathers,” there’s a grammatical pause (in Hebrew, the athnach) – as if to give the reader a chance to realize that what would follow next – the names of Moses’ forefathers – would be the key to his identity and his destiny. I am the God of your fathers – not of Thutmose and Ramses, but of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. A double disclosure: revealing not only who the true God is - but who the real Moses was as well.

The lesson today from the Book of Exodus (in Hebrew, called the Book of Names) concerns the import of names and how names symbolize, sacramentalize if you will, our very identity and our ultimate destiny. In what will probably be an everlasting irony, save for the discovery of some very ancient text, the names of those whose names are the subject of the biblical passage will never be fully known or understood (neither YHWH nor Moses), continuing to convey a mystery or, at least, a riddle. Because the Jews were forbidden to utter the sacred name of God, they would employ what would become a standard circumlocution: the God of your fathers – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But of course it was the circumlocution, the euphemism, the substitute for the actual name that was the real revelation – at least for Moses - who had been wandering, lost, confused about where he came from, where he belonged. He found his answers – he found his life - by asking the questions, directed simultaneously at the mysterious voice and at his own self: who are you, what is your name?

In the end, we’re all Moseses, aren’t we? Searching to unravel the mystery, solve the riddle, fill in the blanks of identity and destiny – by asking those very same questions. Lent helps us listen ever more carefully for the answers which will come, somehow; disclosed, revealed in some fashion, sooner or later - by a nuanced insight, perhaps some Freudian slip, or an occasional circumlocution.

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