Like you, I want to understand Scripture better, so we can live it well. It matters, because we’re living in God’s story. One way to learn is to watch how Scripture handles Scripture (i.e. intertextuality informs hermeneutics).
For example, in Matthew 22:31 Jesus quotes this text to convince his opponents about the resurrection:
Exodus 3:6 I am the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.
Huh? How does that verse prove the resurrection? I might have gone for something like this:
Isaiah 26:19 (NIV)
But your dead will live, Lord; their bodies will rise—
let those who dwell in the dust wake up and shout for joy—
your dew is like the dew of the morning;
the earth will give birth to her dead.
Regardless of why Jesus chose Exodus 3:6 (remembering he wasn’t carrying a smartphone with a Bible app), or why he choose the Torah over the later prophets and writings (since the Sadducees gave the Torah a special place), what we’re interested in is how Jesus understood this text. What was Jesus seeing in Exodus 3 that we don’t?
The key difference is how we approach the text. We think Exodus 3 was about “Moses and the burning bush.” That’s the heading the NIV places over the chapter. But Jesus had a different focus. He thought it was about God revealing himself. That’s why he uses it to say something about God’s nature:
Matthew 22:31–32 But regarding the resurrection of the dead, haven’t you read how God spoke to you, 32 ‘I am the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob?’ He is not the God of the dead, but of the living.
Jesus isn’t using Scripture to construct a theological argument (as we do) or a legal case (as Israel’s lawyers did). He’s using Scripture for what it is: insight into God’s nature, God’s self-revelation.
What a mind-shift! Moses’ encounter with God in Exodus 3–6 is the foundational revelation of who God is. Let’s revisit the story from Jesus’ angle, to see what he made of it.
Exodus begins with a human (Pharaoh) who lays claim to sovereignty, but whose power actually rests on death. His wisdom was to intimidate and kill any perceived threat to his power — infant (1:22) or adult (2:15). Moses escaped his clutches to hide among nomads, serving the priest of a people with foreign gods. In this forsaken place, far from the seats of power, earth’s true sovereign shows himself to this fugitive (3:1).
The shimmering flame that left the bush unburnt was the sovereign’s messenger sent to gain Moses’ attention (3:2). When Moses responded, the sovereign addressed him. In an inversion of how power normally works on earth, Moses did not know the sovereign’s name, but the sovereign knew Moses’ name (3:4). Without really understanding the summons, Moses has entered the house of the great king who is in residence on this mountain (3:5).
The sovereign reveals his identity:
I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob (3:6).
The sovereign’s identity is important. It’s repeated in verse 15. And in verse 16. And again in 4:5.
When Moses asks for clarification, God reveals himself as the Ever-being, the Being who always is:
Exodus 3:13–16 (NIV)
13 Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”
14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’ ”
15 God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘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.’”
The I AM revelation
I AM. That’s quite a name! The Being. The ground of all being. Everything that is originates in I AM.
Previously, Moses defined himself in relation to the most powerful being he knew. By that measure, he’s nothing but a fugitive asking: Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh? (3:11).
Moses asks, Who am I? God lifts Moses’ eyes to I AM. Moses finds himself in a new light: “I am because I AM.”
That’s what humans are: God-mirrors on earth (Genesis 1:26). When the God-Being (YHWH Elohim) shaped us and breathed his life into our nostrils, the human became a living being (Genesis 2:7). That’s why disconnecting from Being returns us to dust (Genesis 3:19).
That’s our life-and-death struggle. Pharaoh reveals how death rules. Life emanates from the Being, the I AM. That’s how God revealed himself to Moses.
I AM is forever. Death’s agents cannot compete (Exodus 2:23).
That’s why the I AM did not say, “I was the God of Abraham. Then I was Isaac’s God. And after him I was Jacob’s God.” I was means something has been lost. Nothing is lost in I AM. Abraham is, because I AM. Isaac is, because I AM. Jacob is, because I AM. Death cannot devour them if they are with the God revealed as I AM.
Jesus isn’t playing with words. This is his faith, as he faces the cross. Death will not hold him. Why? I AM. No one in I AM is dead.
Hermeneutics is the art of interpreting Scripture. Jesus’ hermeneutic is relational — living in I AM.
Hermeneutics cannot be reduced to a formula, codified like artificial intelligence. AI perceives only pixels in a portrait. Scripture reveals the face of God. We live in that image. Our hope is the Ever-being.
What others are saying
Ulrich Luz, Matthew 21–28: A Commentary, Hermeneia (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 2005), 72:
Especially impressive here were the Eighteen Benedictions, whose first berakah is to “Yhwh, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob,” and whose second berakah praises Yhwh, “who makes the dead alive.” The God of the patriarchs is for Israel the covenant God who accompanies and will redeem Israel. The idea that Israel’s covenant God is a living God provides the continuum of meaning between the original sense of Exod 3:6 and its New Testament application. That God will raise the dead is for Jesus the Jew as well as for the Eighteen Benedictions a central article of faith that results directly from the belief in the living God of the patriarchs. Therefore, it is based in Scripture on the central text Exod 3:6.
R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 840–841:
It is sometimes suggested that Jesus’ argument depends on the tense of the verb, “I am” rather than “I was,” and that this argument must therefore depend on the LXX since there is no verb expressed in the Hebrew. But that is too superficial an account of Jesus’ reasoning. The argument is not linguistic: “I am the God of Abraham” would be a perfectly intelligible way for God to identify himself as the God whom Abraham worshiped long ago. The argument is based rather on the nature of God’s relationship with his human followers: the covenant by which he binds himself to them is too strong to be terminated by their death. To be associated with the living God is to be taken beyond the temporary life of earth into a relationship which lasts as long as God lasts. Those with whom the living God identifies himself cannot be truly dead, and therefore they must be alive with him after their earthly life is finished. It is an argument of faith rather than of strict logic, and Sadducean theology, with its distant God and human autonomy, would probably not find it convincing. But for those who give more weight to “the power of God” (v. 29) it provides an assurance that life after death was not just an innovative theology of the inter-testamental period, but finds its root in the essential nature of the living, covenant-making God himself. “God of the dead” is not a title appropriate to the God revealed in the Pentateuch.
Ronald Youngblood, “A New Occurrence of the Divine Name ‘I Am,’” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 15:3 (1972): 146–147:
The writer of the Exodus 3 passage related the Hebrew divine name, “Ehyeh,” meaning “I AM,” to the divine name “Yahweh.” He states in Exodus 3:15 that “God also said to Moses, ‘Say this to the people of Israel, “The LORD…has sent me to you”: this is my name for ever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.’” In this passage the divine name “I AM” and the divine name “LORD” are equated: “I AM has sent me to you” (3:14), “The LORD…has sent me to you” (3:15). Although the word “Yahweh” is generally translated “LORD” in the English versions, the original root of the word seems to bear a close relationship to the divine name “I AM.” Much has been written in recent years about the grammatical form, about the pronunciation, about the meaning, about the theological significance of the word “Yahweh,” all of which is intensely interesting in its own right. The Biblical author would probably have translated “Yahweh” as “HE is” since he dearly understood it as being related to “Ehyeh,” “I AM.” The original concept behind this strange phenomenon would then be that when God’s people spoke of Him they would call Him “Yahweh,” HE is,” whereas when God spoke of Himself He would use the name “Ehyeh,” “I AM.”
- Can there be a resurrection when our relationships are so messy? (Mt 22:23-33)
- A royal encounter (Ex 3:1-10)