Exodus 3:14 again (long)

Stoney Breyer stoney at touchwood.net
Fri Jul 20 16:44:07 EDT 2001


Some weeks ago I promised a more detailed justification of my reading of Ex 
3:14 as a flash of divine irritation.  It took longer than I expected 
(among other things, my library finally got hold of a copy of Propp's 
piquant and informative commentary, which I had to absorb), but here it is, 
with my apologies for the delay.

This reading grows out of an effort-in-progress to produce a version of the 
Exodus tale presentable in what I take to have been its original form as a 
heard rather than a read work. (Please note that it's oral *delivery* I'm 
assuming, not oral composition.)  Consequently, some caveats are in order:

1) My project focuses on subtext, not text or supertext.  This essentially 
inferential and intuitive approach will not commend itself to readers who 
require rigorously documented analysis of grammatical categories.

2) My project seeks to reconstruct an Ur-text.  This source-critical 
approach can only distress readers convinced of Torah's historical unity.

3) My project dwells on the interplay of conflicting intentions and 
actions.  This dramatistic approach exposes me to the charge raised (and, 
thank you Peter, mitigated) by Peter Kirk:

 >> PETER KIRK: . . . and your whole approach can be accused of excessive 
anthropomorphism of the deity. But I think it could reasonably be argued 
that this would fit well with the original genre of this exchange and the 
theology of its author, cf. the very anthropomorphic YHWH of Genesis 3:8-13 
and 18:16-33. <<

Exactly so.  I don't merely concede, I insist on an anthropomorphic YHWH: 
without anthropomorphism there's no story.   But it will annoy readers who 
insist upon a God without body, parts or passions.

I'll respond first to some specific objections that have been raised; then 
lay out my contextual argument; and conclude with my source-critical 
speculations.

A.  SOME OBJECTIONS
Trevor appears to be arguing (I may still misunderstand him) that since the 
Deity commands Moses to "tell the Israelites that _)HYH_ sent you", we must 
regard this as a serious self-identification.  Against this I urged the 
uniqueness of _)HYH_:

 >> SB: But surely the fact that the designation is never used again 
suggests very strongly that we should NOT take seriously the implication 
that His name is 'ehyeh? <<

 >> TREVOR PETERSON: Actually, a number of names for God in the Hebrew 
Bible are specific to the occasion, and in this case obviously it would be 
highly context-driven.  <<

 >> DAN WAGNER: Several other divine names are singularly revealed, e.g., 
"Jehovah-Jireh," Yahweh-Is-There, Yahweh-Rophe, Yahweh-Zidkenu come to mind 
but many more. Each is contextually relevant to the needs of the moment, 
and the one in Ex. 3 is no exception. <<

Trevor and Dan are quite right; I "very strongly" overstated my case.  On 
the other hand: those nonce-names are compounds which combine a 
"context-driven" epithet with either _YHWH_ or _)L_  real names which are 
used independently and repeatedly.  _)HYH_, by contrast, is

a) never used before this occurrence, which suggests that it couldn't 
satisfy Moses' "contextually relevant" need for a recognized divine name 
which might provide him credentials.  Note that in the parallel P passage 
at 6:2, the Deity ties YHWH, the new name he is introducing, to a known old 
name, 'El Shaddai,  which establishes his identity.

b) never used after this occurrence, which suggests that in the event it's 
*not* offered to the sons of Israel as a symbolic standard for the 
liberation movement.  Within a dozen verses, in fact, at 4:1, it is as an 
emissary of "YHWH" that Moses projects presenting himself, with no mention 
of "_)HYH_" .

The evidence thus seems clear to me that the name by which Moses is to 
identify his commissioner is *not* _)HYH_ but _YHWH_, as instructed in 3:15.

Then why does YHWH give Moses two different names and two different 
instructions? Dan appears to argue that in fact it's a single, continuous 
instruction:

 >> DAN WAGNER: _YHWH_ is likely related to, or at least an intentional 
allusion to, _)HYH_, which would explain the follow-up here. <<

"Related," possibly.  "An intentional allusion," very likely. But is the 
wordplay subtextual or supertextual  is it YHWH's allusion, or the 
author's?  At any rate, the argument for continuous instruction seem to me 
to founder on the interposed _WY)MR (WD )LHYM )L-MSH_.  A quick survey of 
Exodus shows no other instance where _WY)MR_ interrupts a continuous speech 
by the Deity.

         6:2, 7:19 and 8:5 are generally held to mark editorial junctures 
between P and JE material.
         30:11,17,22 & 34 and 31:1 & 12 mark distinct changes of subject, 
and may also mark editorial junctures.
         24:1 and 34:27 mark resumption of the action after the Deity's 
recitation of detailed codes; 34:1 marks a new action
         32:9 marks a narrative digression (which may also be an interpolation)
33:19,20, 21, which at first glance appear to challenge my contention, in 
fact provide the clearest parallel.  Each new _WY)MR_ , I suggest, marks a 
pause for reconsideration: *I'll make My goodness pass before you . . . *[ 
BUT:]You can't see My face . . . *[ SO:]Here's a place . . ."

The obvious narrative form for a single and continuous instruction would 
have been a single and continuous speech.  Unless you want to take v.14 as 
an interpolation (in which case ALL bets are off), the speech heading here 
has to mark *something*.  Even if you read it as "and the Deity kept on 
speaking to Moses," I see no way to avoid taking it as breaking the speech 
in two and distinguishing the two instructions as belonging to distinct beats.

In fairness, I must mention a mediaeval reading cited by Propp which 
accommodates both the break and the continuity: that the Deity, having 
Himself defined His name in the first person, interrupts himself to provide 
a third-person equivalent which Moses and the Israelites may use with 
propriety.  This is very sensible reading, however, doesn't contribute much 
to the dramatic context.

B.  A DRAMATIC READING
I thank Dan in particular for reading my argument in the story-centered 
dramatic context I intended:

 >> DAN WAGNER: In isolation this may be possible, but what contextual 
evidence is there that Moses was asking a frustrating question? Granted, 
there was plenty about Moses' responses in his calling dialogue that 
"annoyed" God, if i could use that term.  But it seems to be a progression, 
and the anger comes in chapter 4:14. Your view that it comes so early in 
the progression seems unusual and out-of-order in the narrative to me. <<

Well, frustration is the basic premise of the story:  YHWH sends Moses to 
bring out the Israelites, and Moses resists the commission.  Any objection 
or obstacle or delay is, by definition, frustrating; the mere fact of the 
question frustrates, quite apart from its content.  Granted, there are 
frustrations and frustrations  arguments presented with a becoming humility 
will mollify YHWH's displeasure, as for instance Abraham, in Gen 18, 
successfully persuades YHWH to mitigate His judgments.  But we see nothing 
of that here.  On the contrary, Moses repeatedly interrupts, bluntly and 
shamelessly.  And I believe we see YHWH replying appropriately.  Note, for 
instance, that He never gives Moses a simple, straightforward answer; 
hostile wordplay and rhetoric betray His growing impatience.

Look at it from YHWH's point of view.  He's conceived a dandy plan for 
rescuing the sons of Israel from the strong arm of Egypt.  To recruit Moses 
He prepares what anyone in my line of business would recognize as a classic 
Client Proposal (an exciting mulitimedia Attractor . . . a sonorous 
recitation of Credentials leaning particularly on the past relationship 
with the Client  . . . a disturbing analysis of Project Needs . . . an 
alluring description of Project Benefits . . . and a stirring Call to 
Action).  But before He gets beyond the Executive Summary Moses interrupts 
with a distinctly negative "Who, me?"

YHWH has blundered.  Moses' last attempt to intervene between Israel and 
Egypt has cost him long days of exile; he is the very last Hebrew to 
respond with the eager and indeed grateful acquiescence YHWH expects.  YHWH 
hastens to assure him that this time it will be different because Moses 
will enjoy divine support; but His phrasing betrays his pique: not just 
_)HYH (MT_ but _KY )HYH (MT_.   I don't see any translation for that 
particle  quotation marks, "certainly," or "because"  which so materially 
modifies the sense of the clause it introduces that its inclusion must be 
regarded as obligatory.  It's a stylistic choice by the author, and the 
strict syntactic parallel with Moses' question cannot be accidental: _KY 
)LK_ . . . _WKY )WCY_ . . . _KY  )HYH_.  There has to be at least a whiff 
of this meaning:

         "Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and that I should bring out 
the sons of Israel from Egypt?"
         " that I should be with you?" . . .

It's a little joke at Moses' expense, not exactly hostile, but not exactly 
warm, either  a verbal lift of the divine eyebrow, so to speak, which 
should warn Moses to watch his step and his manner.

(And by the way: if anybody can come up with an idiomatic English 
translation that will preserve that balance between the indicative and the 
subjuntive senses of _)HYH_ I'd be very grateful to hear it.)

At 3:13 Moses puts forward a demand for his interlocutor's identity.  If he 
knows Who it is he's talking with, he's being extraordinarily insolent, and 
the suggestion that YHWH's reply reflects His aversion to being asked His 
name is correct.  I suspect that Moses is genuinely ignorant; he knows his 
interlocutor is *a* deity but not *which*, and he's being politely 
circumspect in asking. (That suspicion, however, is partly grounded on my 
belief that this is a J text: it explains why the author for these few 
lines (3:11-15) use _)LHYM_.)

At any rate, the question annoys YHWH: it's not just an interruption, it in 
effect points out that He hasn't thought His plan through.  As I said 
before, he barks "I'll be who I'll be!" and follows this with a sarcastic 
invitation to "Tell the sons of Israel I'll-be sent you!" He then gets hold 
of Himself and answers Moses' question by correcting His earlier 
instruction: "Tell the sons of Israel that *YHWH,* god of their fathers ... 
sent you," explaining with pointedly patient emphasis that "*This* is my 
name forever, *this* is my designation age after age."

He then resumes His presentation: "Go and collect the elders of Israel and 
tell them that YHWH . . . appeared to you. . . . "  When He's done, Moses 
ignores the good parts  even the really nifty scheme for providing Israel 
with startup capital  and starts carping about practical details 
again  "What if they don't listen . . . and don't believe that YHWH 
appeared to me?"  This time YHWH doesn't bother to answer; He offers Moses 
a demonstration.  His practical joke sends Moses running in terror, and 
YHWH remarks "so they'll believe that YHWH . . . has appeared to you."  The 
hanging clause here, like that in 3:12, suggests at least a certain 
wryness; I find it hard not to hear "That'll teach you!" in the subtext.

Moses raises yet another objection, and YHWH's patience is wearing thin; He 
responds with a barrage of rhetorical questions before renewing His promise 
of assistance.  Moses continues to dig in his heels. . . It's not at all 
clear what his next remark means; the plain sense is obviously incompatible 
with YHWH's anger, but I don't see how translators find "Send somebody 
else" in it.  Perhaps YHWH interrupts before Moses finishes saying  "Send 
whom you please but *I'm* not going." . . . At any rate, YHWH's irritation 
finally flares into open rage.

SOME HIGHER-CRITICAL SPECULATIONS
Until now I've dealt with the text as we've received it; to advance my 
argument beyond this point I have to venture onto the shakier ground of 
source analysis.  This post is getting far too long, so I'll hold off on 
detailed argument until somebody evinces an interest. Briefly, I see in the 
numerous narrative anomalies throughout Chapters 3 and 4 signs not of the 
combination of two distinct versions but of a single original text 
augmented and rearranged, probably by more than one hand, to reflect 
theological and theopolitical rather than narrative values.

1) The initial call (4:19-20a) has been moved here from its natural place 
following Pharaoh's death at 2:23b; a new introduction has replaced it 
(3:1-2a, 4b-5,6b); and the "sign" (3:12b) and the return to Jethro (4:18) 
have been interpolated, all in order to locate the calling at Horeb.

2) Aaron's appointment (4:14b-16) and introduction (4:27-28) have been 
added - probably in the first instance to bring him into the story for the 
Golden Calf and Cushite Wife episodes, but with subsequent 
additions/revisions reflecting Aaron's later standing.

3) Wonders, instructions and explanations have been interpolated at the end 
of Chapter 3 (3:19-22), after the prank (4:4,6-9), and at 4:20b-23(or maybe 
-22a, see below), and the sequence of speeches appears to have been altered 
(Moses' objection at 3:13 presupposes some such instruction as 3:15, but 
without the name YHWH, his objection at 4:1 catches up YHWH's words at 
3:16-17 (or -18a), and his plea at 4:10 follows the instruction to speak at 
3:18 (or 18b) more naturally than the signs in 4:1-9)  all in order to 
focus the narrative on YHWH's power and majesty rather than His very 
undignified and, yes, anthropomorphic squabbling with Moses.

If I'm correct in these conjectures, then in the story as originally 
composed it is Moses' whining which provokes YHWH to homicidal fury.

If I may suppose the redactor to have altered the text, as well as 
rearranging and augmenting it, we might find YHWH saying "Israel's My 
firstborn son, and I keep telling you to BRING My son out so he can serve 
Me, and you won't BRING him out  look, I'm going to kill *your* son, *your* 
firstborn!" and proceeding to try to do so.

And if these conjectures aren't wild enough: suppose, as Propp speculates, 
that there has been a systematic effort to replace a Mosaic succession 
through Gershom and Eliezer with an Aaronic succession through Gershon and 
Eleazer; and that as he also speculates a XOTEN denotes a 
bridegroom/circumcisee placed under "blood protection" by marriage to the 
daughter of his XATAN, father-in-law/circumcisor; then perhaps it is 
*YHWH's* feet Zipporah smears with blood, YHWH whom she calls XOTEN, and 
YHWH's service to whom the child is dedicated  and 4:26b has been censored 
by the Aaronides, having originally read something like "And she called his 
name Eliezer, saying 'Now God must protect him, because of the circumcision.'"

Or perhaps not.

But it makes a good story!

A final note: The rhythm of this reconstruction mirrors that of the major 
narrative it introduces: Pharaoh constantly trying to wriggle out of doing 
what he's commanded, the Deity threatening, relenting, and threatening 
again on a rising scale rising from the humorous to the frightening to the 
homicidal.  The wilderness narrative, too, appears to echo this rhythm in 
the relationship between YHWH and Israel, which although the dynamic 
progression (if there ever was any) has been obscured, perhaps hopelessly, 
by subsequent redaction.

I welcome your comments.


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