The Bible’s second book, Exodus, seems to me to have three broad sections. Part 1: God prepares to redeem his people from slavery. Part 2: God redeems his people and brings them to himself. Part 3: God deals with his oh-so-fallible people.
The salvation won by the Passover is the big-deal, nation-forming event for Israel. That’s why Passover feast is still celebrated so many centuries later.
In each section, there’s some important development based on God’s name, the Lord. That is, Exodus is not only about the people. Without downplaying the people, the name and character of God are more important.
In Part 1
Moses is not too willing, when first asked, to be God’s representative. He conjures an objector’s question, ‘When I tell them God sent me, they’ll ask “What’s his name?”‘ God’s answer (Exodus 3:14-15):
God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.'” God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.
The great ‘I am’ is the Lord (in Bible editions, LORD shows the use of the personal name of God). God will be ‘named’ in what he does. To know his name and character, watch him act. My rough approximation of ‘I am who I am’ is ‘Watch this space.’ God is about to act – decisively and conclusively, and then the people will know.
In Part 2
There’s a confrontation between the Lord and Pharaoh. The Lord defeats the murderous and heard-hearted Pharaoh, as well as freeing the Hebrew people. This, too, is to reveal the name of God. God told Pharaoh this was the case (Exodus 9:16): For this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.
In Part 3
The new nation has a clear responsibility, to not take the name of the Lord in vain (Exodus 20:7). They fail, spectacularly. The worship of mere gold statues places doubt on the whole relationship between God and people.
After Moses’ mediation, God proves his determination to work even with such a people as this – he proves it by a renewed declaration of his name (Exodus 34:5-7):
The LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”
This name-saying is notably different from that of chapter 3. It’s not, now, ‘Watch this space.’ God has already saved a people, punished the enslaving nation, and confronted sin in his own people. God’s actions have revealed his name and character. So God chooses to specify aspects of that character: mercy, grace, forgiveness, just punishment, …
The whole shape of Exodus suggests that reflection on God’s character must always be tied to the works of God. Theology can never (truly) happen in a vacuum, or as a thought-exercise. There are deep thoughts! Thoughts, however, that follow close observation of God’s saving action.
There’s so much story in the Bible. It’s so we can get to know the Lord who speaks his name to us. To be ignorant of the biblical drama – especially its high points in the four-fold gospel account – is to be ignorant of God himself.