Today our lectionary launches us on a nine-week long series of readings from the book of Exodus, which recounts the epic story of the Israelites’ liberation from slavery in Egypt. This story serves as a central and foundational narrative for Judaism and Christianity and even for Islam. These next nine weeks in Exodus will serve as a countdown to the 60th anniversary of this church, which met for the first time in November of 1957. And it is most appropriate that this story prepares us for the anniversary since the primary theme of Exodus is redemption, God as Redeemer. The invitation is for us to find our redemption, liberation and deepest freedom in our belovedness. We are all God’s beloved and we are all unique expressions of God’s redeeming and liberating love. God our Redeemer has given us each different gifts, experiences, knowledge and expertise in order to share with the world the great height and depth and breadth and rainbow diversity of God’s unconditional and healing love. That is why we say in our mission statement that “Our church is a sacred space for sharing individual gifts as we seek to embody the redemptive and liberating love of God in San Rafael and the world.” And one way that we can discover and claim our individual gifts is by contemplating and meditating upon not only the meaning of the name of our community but also upon our own individual names. How is your name calling you to embody God’s love?
In the Hebrew Bible (the TaNaK), the book of Exodus is not called “Exodus.” Like other books in the Jewish TaNaK, it is named after the first word in the book. The book of Genesis is called “Bereshit” which is Hebrew for “In the beginning.” The book of Exodus is called “Shemoth” and if you look at the first verse in Exodus in your pew Bibles, you can probably guess what Shemoth means. The first verse reads, “These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob.” Shemoth means “Names;” and names are profoundly important in Judaism and in Christianity and especially significant in the book of Exodus or the Book of “Names.” So as we read through portions of Exodus, let us pay special attention to the Names.
The names listed in the beginning of the book remind us of how the book of Genesis ended, with Joseph and his brothers reconciled in Egypt. They continued to live together in Egypt with their father Jacob, and then as verse 6 and 7 read, “Joseph died, and all his brothers [whom are all named], and that whole generation. But the Israelites were fruitful and prolific; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.” And so we arrive at our reading portion this morning: “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph…” Although historians suggest that this new king was the Pharaoh Ramses II, that is really only a guess because the pharaoh remains nameless in the Book of Names. However, the book of Names (Shemoth) does name the two feisty God-fearing Hebrew midwives (Shiphrah and Puah) who disobey the pharaoh. Also, the parents of Moses are not named; however, they are associated with the name of Levi, which is important because Levi later becomes the priestly tribe, thus the name Levi legitimates Moses’s role as an intercessor and mediator between God and God’s people.
At the end of our Exodus reading we arrive at one of the most important names of all: Moses. Now Moses is actually an Egyptian name that means “son” (s – o – n). Egyptian pharaohs had names like Thothmosis which means “son of Thoth” (the Egyptian god of wisdom and the moon) and Ramses which means “son of Ra” (the Egyptian sun God). The fact that Moses is an Egyptian name has actually inspired all kinds of creative and bizarre historical claims about Moses’s true identity. Perhaps the most famous or infamous of these claims are those of Jewish psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud who basically conflates Moses with a Pharaoh named Akhenaton, who abandoned the traditional pantheon of Egyptian gods and introduced the worship of only one God: Aten. You can read more about these imaginative claims in his book Moses and Monotheism, which Rowan Williams called “painfully absurd” and which ultimately reveals more about Freud than it does about Moses. But I highlight it because so much of Freud’s argument hinges on the fact that the name Moses can indeed be understood as an Egyptian name. Names can hold tremendous meaning.
The Book of Names, however, seems to dismiss the fact that Moses can be an Egyptian name and instead gives Moses a Hebrew meaning. Verse 10 of Chapter 2: “The Pharaoh’s daughter took him as her son. She named him Moses “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.” Now the author of the Torah [who has traditionally been considered Moses but is most likely several different authors] loves to use puns. I pointed this out a few weeks ago when we read about Sarah’s laughter in response to God’s promise. That whole story was one long pun on the Hebrew word for “laughter,” which is Yitzhak, Isaac. We miss most of the poetry and playful puns of the Bible when we only read the translation. That is partly why I continue to highlight the original Hebrew. So she named him Moshe because ki min hamayim mishitihu; mishitihu from the verb mashah, which means to “draw out” or “to rescue from danger” or “to deliver,” “to liberate” or even “to redeem.” So the author of the Torah takes the Egyptian name “Moses” which means “son” and re-imagines it and re-interprets it to associate it with deliverance, freedom and redemption. Moses lives up to his name when he delivers the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt and draws them out from the waters of the Red Sea. This drawing out from the waters can remind us of our own experience of being drawn out from the waters of baptism, a sacrament that has historically been connected to the naming of a child.
Jewish scholar Jerome M. Segal sees the author of the Torah connecting Moses’s name not only with this liberation from slavery and the waters of the Red Sea but also with another earlier biblical figure who was delivered from the treacherous waters of a flood. Segal associates the name of Moses with the story of Noah, specifically with the end of the story when God draws Noah out of the waters and then promises to never again destroy the earth with a flood, a promise for us to hold onto most tenaciouly in the midst of the current Hurricane Harvey in Texas and catastrophic climate change in general. God gives Noah a sign as a physical, visual reminder of his promise of love and protection, a sign which he also seems to draw out of the water and into the clouds. The sign is the rainbow and God says, “When the rainbow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between me and all flesh that is on the earth” (Gen 9:17). Joseph Segal writes, “Moses, named by Pharaoh’s daughter to signify ‘I drew him out of the water,’ is to function as God’s rainbow. God knows that he needs a buffer between himself and humanity, and he has chosen Moses precisely because Moses has the courage and wit to play this role.” God chooses Moses to serve as a living reminder of the promise he made to Noah and humanity, to be a reminder of God’s rainbow.
And Moses lives up to this aspect of his name when he intercedes on behalf of God’s people on Mount Sinai, stepping into the breach between God’s wrath and God’s disobedient children. When the Israelites revert to idol worship and cast for themselves a golden calf, God says to Moses, “I’m done with them. I’m going to destroy them. I want start over with you, Moses, and make a great nation out of you.” Moses then reminds God of how much he loves his people. Moses says, “Remember you are a God of love. Yes, your people have messed up royally. We are selfish, stupid creatures, but remember, your property is always to have mercy. Remember your love. Remember your rainbow.”
In this way, Moses lives up to his name as a deliverer, as a priestly descendant of Levi, an intercessor and mediator, as a prophet, as a redeemer, as God’s rainbow memento, reminding us of God’s love for us and by reminding God of God’s love for us. The Hebrew prophets continue to do this. They continue to remind God of His love for us, even though we can be hateful, violent and greedy people; and they continue to remind God’s people (us) of God’s love for us even when all the evidence points to the contrary; when it appears that God has abandoned us. If a Hebrew prophet wants to be effective, he or she must believe firmly and resolutely in God’s love, in the divine promise of the rainbow. Each of the prophets do this in their own unique ways because they each have their own unique names. There’s the chutzpah of Habakkuk, the jeremiads of Jeremiah, the hymns of Isaiah and the kvetching of Jonah. And each of our names points to our own unique calling to be reminders of God’s love, to each be colorful expressions of God’s rainbow.
Paul says, “We, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.” We are all different expressions of God’s colorful rainbow promise. How does your name call you to embody God’s rainbow?
The key is to believe resolutely in God’s love as expressed fully in Christ. Simon Peter claimed this key when he understood that the healing, nourishing and liberating power of Jesus was an incarnation of God’s love; that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. Jesus responded by telling Simon Peter that he lived up to his name—Peter, the Rock—because there is nothing more rock-solid for a person to believe in than God’s love. It is through faith in God’s love that we can live up to our names and fulfill our true callings as beautiful and colorful expressions of the divine rainbow. Amen.
 Jerome M. Segal, Joseph’s Bones: Understanding the Struggle Between God and Mankind in the Bible (New York: Riverhead Books, 2007), 124.