Religious Freedom Under the First Amendment: Three Supreme Court Cases and the Ambiguous Term “Religion”

Throughout the years, and in various Supreme Court cases, the distinction between “religious/sectarian” and “nonreligious/secular” has been rather ambiguous. In this essay, I will examine three separate Court cases in which the Court had to defend its verdict by employing what I deem “ambiguous” uses of the term “religion.” Moreover, I will argue that “religion” as a phenomenon is virtually impossible to define in any concrete, rigid manner. Given this reality, the Court’s decisions, when attempting to demarcate the line between that which is religious and nonreligious, will always remain blurry. Hence, it is my position that ambiguity will remain ever present in the their decisions so long as the Court continues to deal with an ambiguous phenomenon[1] known as “religion.”

Before examining the three cases, I will first begin by looking at the First Amendment and the surrounding historical context in which it was shaped, a context, as we shall later see, that set the trend for the Court’s various positions on “religion.”

The First Amendment was shaped in the 18th century during a time when several principles were deemed essentially conducive to a peaceful, well-governed society. The principles were: (1) liberty of conscience; (2) free exercise of religion; (3) religious pluralism; (4) religious equality; (5) separation of church and state; and (6) disestablishment. “While many of these terms carried multiple meanings in the later eighteenth century and several other terms were under discussion, these six principles were foundational for the American founders.”[2] The First Amendment—an amendment originally governing only Congress—was first applied to states and local governments via the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause in the pioneering case of Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940).[3] “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”[4] The Founding Fathers initially feared a particular religious institution so close to the State that it would use the State to persecute any dissenting voices.[5] However, in their attempts to articulate a form of government that allowed the flourishing of religion, the Fathers left one fatal void: they failed to define “religion.” What constitutes a religion? Witte writes, “Nowhere is the word ‘religion’ defined in the Constitution or Bill of Rights…”[6] In fact, if “original intent” is observed, it becomes relatively clear that by employing the term “religion” the Fathers meant “a plurality of Protestant Christian faiths.”[7] That is, they probably did not mean to defend the religious freedom rights of Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, or even Catholics. Nonetheless, a few scattered remarks from this time period do exist which help us understand what “religion” was thought to be. In 1802, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “[R]eligion is a matter which lies solely between a man and his God.”[8] Here “religion” was thought to be (a) a private affair and (b) involving a person and some deity. On June 26, 1788, during the Virginia convention on the Constitution, the authors wrote revealingly: “Religion, or the duty which we owe our creator, and the manner of discharging it…”[9] Here it can be seen that “religion” was thought to be something between a person and his or her deity/Creator. What is alarming in these two remarks is the lack of precise terminology. As we shall see, the modern day Court—from the 1940s onwards—has continued to wrestle with its definition of “religion,” having inherited this ambiguous legacy. I now turn my attention to three modern-day cases in which the demarcation between religious and nonreligious has continued, as in the past, along ambiguous lines.

In Frazee v Illinois (1989), the Court decided a case that involved a certain William Frazee who refused to accept a retail position that involved work on Sundays. He claimed that, as a Christian, it was unlawful for him to work on the Lord’s Day. Frazee later applied for unemployment benefits and was denied. Consequentially, the Department of Employment Security’s Board of Review justified its refusal to grant unemployment benefits to Frazee by stating: “When a refusal of work is based on religious convictions, the refusal must be based upon some tenets or dogma accepted by the individual of some church, sect, or denomination, and such a refusal based solely on an individual’s personal belief is personal and noncompelling and does not render the work unsuitable” [489 U.S. 829, 831] App. 18-19.[10] In a rather fortunate series of events, the Supreme Court picked up this case and overturned the earlier decisions made by the lower courts. Justice White, arguing for the majority opinion, wrote:

“While membership in a sect would simplify the problem of identifying sincerely held beliefs, the notion that one must be responding to the commands of a particular religious organization to claim the protection of the Free Exercise Clause is rejected. The sincerity or religious nature of appellant’s belief was not questioned by the courts below and was conceded by the State, which offered no justification for the burden that the denial of benefits placed on appellant’s right to exercise his religion.”[11]

Essentially, the Court said that while it may be true that Frazee was not a part of any church or sect—for all they knew, he might have stayed home on Sundays only to watch Oprah and eat Bon-Bons—nonetheless, it was not the State’s job to verify the sincerity of religious beliefs, or, for that matter, to act as an arbiter in religious affairs. Put simply: if a person stated they were Christian, it was beyond the State’s power to attempt to prove or disprove the sincerity of those beliefs. The State was not a religious organization, and so could not pass judgment on the sincerity of any deeply held—or, for that matter, deeply faked—religious beliefs.

In the above case we see, once again, a continuation of ambiguity when it comes to the subject of religion. Mr. Frazee was not a part of any church or religious organization. And yet the Court overturned an earlier denial of unemployment benefits on the basis that work on Sundays, for Frazee, was an unnecessary burden on his allegedly religious conscience. Justice White wrote, regarding the difficult process of demarcation between religious and secular, “Nor do we underestimate the difficulty of distinguishing between religious and secular convictions and in determining whether a professed belief is sincerely held.” Could one create a religion out of thin air, claim a free exercise violation, and win? In the post-Frazee v Illinois world, it seems so. For here—as much as ever—the term “religion” is not clearly demarcated from the secular/nonreligious. If staying home and watching football on Sundays is, at some future point, considered to be a “religious act,” who would blame the Court for not knowing what to do? Nobody seems to know what religion/religious is to begin with. Next, I will look at yet another pesky issue: just how cozy could the secular State get with religious holiday displays?

Lynch v Donnelly (1984) was a case settled after the groundbreaking Lemon v Kurtzman (1971). In Lemon v Kurtzman the three-pronged “Lemon test,” a test used to determine whether a law had the effect of establishing a religion, was first formulated.[12] In the case we are now considering—namely, Lynch v Donnelly—the city of Pawtucket, R. I. came under fire for erecting a Christmas display on private property owned by a nonprofit organization, property located directly in the center of the city’s shopping district. Amongst the Santa Claus house, Christmas tree and other such holiday objects, there was also placed a crèche, or nativity scene. This crèche was challenged for being an “establishment clause” violation: the State, funded by diverse taxpayers, was using its funds to “promote” a single religion, Christianity. The case ended up going to the Supreme Court, where the Court concluded, “Pawtucket has not violated the Establishment Clause.”[13] What were the Court’s reasons for reaching this verdict?

The Court argued that the now-famous concept of a wall of separation between church and state was a “useful metaphor” but “not an accurate description of the practical aspects of the relationship that in fact exists.” In addition to this, the Court argued that the Constitution did not, in fact, “require complete separation of church and state”; rather, “it affirmatively mandates accommodation…”[14] The Court also recognized how ubiquitous religion was. Religion was a part of the “American life.” Because it was the Christmas season, and because the crèche alone was not the singular focus of the Christmas display, the Court—echoing the “Lemon test”—ruled that “the city has a secular purpose for including the crèche in its Christmas display and has not impermissibly advanced religion or created an excessive entanglement between religion and government.”

As can be seen, the Court argued that religion was already mixed into the American way of life, thus admitting that the line between religious and secular was to be found “in the mix” somewhere. In other words, there wasn’t much of a line to begin with. Nonetheless, the Court still attempted to make that line materialize. Somehow, because of the “national tradition” and our desire to “depict the origins of that Holiday,” Christmas had become a rather secular holiday, with displays serving “legitimate secular purposes.” While the Court was busy employing the terms “secular” and “religious” without defining them, they had also snuck in some Orwellian double-think by referring to Christmas as both a “religious” and, finally, a “secular” holiday. And so the ambiguity continues.

I now want to turn my eyes to my final case. In Employment Division v Smith (1990) the Court back peddled on the “accommodationist logic” it used in Lynch v Donnelly. In this case, the defendants were two members of the Native American Church fired from their place of employment for using peyote on religious grounds. Once fired, they applied for unemployment benefits and were denied. The Oregon Supreme Court initially ruled that denying them unemployment benefits for using peyote on religious grounds violated their right to exercise religion; however, the state refused to pay out the benefits because possession of peyote was deemed a crime—so the case went to the Supreme Court. The Court focused, citing Sherbert v Verner, on whether the employees had a “constitutional right to unemployment benefits on the part of all persons whose religious convictions are the cause of their unemployment.”[15] Smith, one of the members who appealed to the Supreme Court, argued that he was doing nothing different than what we saw done in Frazee. That is, “[i]f Frazee could get unemployment compensation for refusing to work on Sunday, his day of rest but not worship, Smith argued, surely he could get compensation for being fired for engaging in the arduous and ancient religious ritual of peyote ingestion.”[16] The Court, however, was not in agreement with Smith. On the contrary, they argued that this case should be treated not as a case dealing with unemployment per se but rather as a case dealing with “free exercise” and compliance with “criminal laws.” In fact, the Court argued that Oregon State’s law regarding the illegal use of drugs (or which peyote was one) was “neutral” and “generally applicable”; hence, differing from the prior cases such as Frazee, the Court now argued that it was possible for the State to cast a burden upon a religious person so long as it was doing so by means of a generally applicable law that did not single out any particular person or religion.[17] Using the Court’s logic in Smith and applying it to Frazee one could argue that Frazee did not deserve unemployment compensation since he refused to work on Sundays—and “mandatory Sunday-work is required of everyone, being generally applicable to all, religious or irreligious.”[18] Such a statement, however, was not made in Frazee. Why?

Returning to the second case I looked at—that is, Lynch v Donnelly—allow me to remind you that in that case that which was secular and that which was religious was comingled. In Lynch the religious became the secular by means of “tradition.” Since what was initially religious had been around so long, it was no longer really religious; it was, in fact, perfectly secular. “Christmas is not really a religious holiday; it is mostly a secular holiday with ancient, religious roots. But most of us don’t focus on the religious element, so it’s basically secular,” went the argument.

But not so in Smith. Here a couple of men, who were unquestionably religious, were not allowed to exercise their religious beliefs. Like Christians partaking of the Lord’s Supper—sipping on a toxin known as alcohol[19]—the men involved in the Smith case could not exercise their beliefs. Why? Because the state thought their use of peyote, even in what was deemed a purely religious ritual, to be illegal. The line between religious and secular was assumed throughout the Smith case; there was no question that the two men were participating in a religious act. However, the relationship the State had with their so-called “religious activities” was vastly different than its cozy relationship with the mostly Christian activities we saw in Frazee and Lynch. In these cases, whatever was found to be religious was either explained away as the mostly secular (Lynch) or deemed impossible to verify (Frazee)—in both cases the Court allowed the religious to exercise their religious beliefs, no matter how fake (Frazee) or how assimilated into the secular culture (Lynch). What we saw in Smith, however, was what appeared to be a rather concrete, underlying assumption that the Court understood what it meant for something to be “religious.” But even here the “religious” was never defined. And so, despite the dogmatic rhetoric, the Court has yet to define what it means for something to be a religious act or a religion.

In 1912, James H. Leuba published a seminal paper that included an oft-cited appendix listing more than fifty definitions of religion.[20] Today, more than ever, the religious is ubiquitous—we see it in law, in politics, in science classrooms, in our libraries, in our churches, etc. As then, so now, we don’t really know what religious really means—if anything at all. There are a multitude of definitions available to us. Some, like the Founding Fathers, may see religion as that which involves some deity/Creator. Others, like Buddhists, may argue that no such deity is required by religion. Still others may argue that no such thing as God exists. Some may think a church or synagogue plays an essential part in what it means for something to be deemed religious; others, like Frazee, argue that religious acts do not have to involve such structures. Some may argue that religion has so infiltrated our society, it is no longer possible to clearly separate the two (e.g., Lynch). Some may argue that religion is relatively straightforward, involving the use of chemical substances; practices that the State could, in theory, forbid (e.g., Smith). In all of these various cases, involving a plurality of definitions, the distinction between religious and nonreligious, sectarian and secular, remain forever indistinct to our eyes as we gaze into that abysmal sea of religious discourse “through a glass, darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12). So long as the Supreme Court continues to deal with this most notoriously difficult of issues—that is, the ambiguous phenomenon we call religion—so long will we be haunted by paradoxical court cases and unclear decision-making processes.

 

Written by Moses Y. Mikheyev

Dedicated to John Witte, Jr.

 

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] It is entirely possible to argue that my use of the term “religion” in itself is already misleading; instead, it may be argued, that what I should have written should have been the plural “religions.” However, I use the term colloquially: it encompasses all and every “religion,” whether the various religions have anything in common or not. (Even here one detects a thorough-going ambiguity: what, in fact, do all religions have in common? Or do we just group various phenomena that appear to be ceremonial as being “religious”? What, then, is “religion”?)

[2] John Witte, Jr. and Joel A. Nichols, Religion and the American Constitutional Experiment, 4th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 62-3.

[3] Ibid., 98-9.

[4] Ibid., 1.

[5] Ibid., 30-1.

[6] Ibid., 95.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 56.

[9] Ibid., 74.

[10] Frazee v. Illinois Dept. of Employment Security, 489 U.S. 829 (1989), URL= http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-supreme-court/489/829.html.

[11] Ibid.

[12] The three-pronged approach is as follows: “a challenged law must (1) have a secular purpose, (2) have a primary effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion, and (3) foster no excessive entanglement between church and state” (Witte and Nichols, Religion, 163).

[13] Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668 (1984), URL= http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-supreme-court/465/668.html.

[14] Italics mine.

[15] Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990), URL= http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-supreme-court/485/660.html.

[16] Witte and Nichols, Religion, 146.

[17] Ibid., 146-7.

[18] The words in quotation marks are theoretical, in case that was not made clear.

[19] “Respondents contend that the sacramental use of small quantities of peyote in the Native American Church is comparable to the sacramental use of small quantities of alcohol in Christian religious ceremonies” (Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 [1990], URL= http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-supreme-court/485/660.html.

[20] Jonathan Z. Smith, “Religion, Religions, Religious,” in Critical Terms for Religious Studies, ed. Mark C. Taylor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 281.

In Search of ‘The One’: Disfiguring the Myth of American Individualism

In the dramatic dialogue The Symposium, Plato placed on the lips of Aristophanes a tale about the origins of romantic love. Aristophanes recounted how it was that humans had come to search for love. In the beginning, he tells us, the gods created three sexes: male, female, and the androgynous sex. The primal humans had four legs, four arms, and one head with two faces. They used to cartwheel around, and were rather powerful. In due time, Zeus became frightened at the possibility of an invasion of the gods’ residence at the hands of the primal humans—so he sought to strike them down with lightning. But the sacrifices the primal humans rendered unto the gods were enticing, so another way of limiting their primeval power was devised instead: cut them into halves.

Having sliced every primal human into half, the gods watched the humans run around as if lost in a haze looking for their other halves. The males sliced in half went looking for their counterparts—thus explaining homosexuality. The females sliced in half went looking for their counterparts—thus explaining lesbianism. And the androgynous primal humans cut in half went looking for their counterparts likewise—thus explaining heterosexuality.

“And when one of them meets with his other half, the actual half of himself, whether he be a lover of youth or a lover of another sort, the pair are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy, and would not be out of the other’s sight, as I may say, even for a moment: these are the people who pass their whole lives together; yet they could not explain what they desire of one another. For the intense yearning which each of them has towards the other does not appear to be the desire of lover’s intercourse, but of something else which the soul of either evidently desires and cannot tell, and of which she has only a dark and doubtful presentiment.”[1]

And if ever asked what it was that these lost “halves” desired, they would readily admit they desired to be one, to be whole again. “[T]here is not a man of them who when he heard the proposal would deny or would not acknowledge that this meeting and melting into one another, this becoming one instead of two, was the very expression of his ancient need.”[2]

This Greek myth is at the center of American individualism. It pervades our culture, our religion, our romantic rendezvous, our language, our literature and our arts. There is not a single facet of American life that is not rendered absolutely helpless in the face of this myth. What, then, is our version of this Greek myth? In this essay, I will argue that American individualism is the idealized obsession that some singular individual—seen as an “autonomous self” detached from a communal reality—exists who could satisfy another individual’s universal cravings. I believe that our individualism plays a particular role when it comes to human relationships. According to our myth, there exists such a person—whom we endow with the endearing phrase “the one”—who is able to fulfill virtually all (if not all) our primal and present urges. This person, this “the one,” is predominantly seen as the end-all-be-all of our entire existence, a person who is able to make us feel “whole again” (whatever that means). In our myth, then, the community—i.e., communal reality—is almost entirely displaced by thoroughgoing individualism. The person is not seen as a part of a community of human beings that share one another’s burdens; instead, the person is seen as a detached individual who must embody the totality of his or her culture’s existence. No longer is the burden of embodying the aforementioned existence placed on the community; in our American culture—driven by the myth of individualism—the burden is shifted onto the individual: a single individual is thought to be capable of embodying an entire religion, an entire nation, and an entire culture.

When the individual is seen as separate and distinct from his or her community—when the community plays virtually no role in romantic relationships—the burden placed on individuals is exceedingly great, even impossible, in my opinion, to bear. The expectations are enormous, being intolerable to sustain. No single individual, no matter how great they may be, could possibly embody an entire community. No single individual could play the role of spouse, lover, sex symbol, parent, employee, religious cleric, food critic, arts and culture specialist, etc., etc. The myth of American individualism supports the ludicrous idea that a single individual—whom we call “the one”—is able to replace the community. In this essay, I will argue that no individual can replace communal reality—and it is detrimental to the human psyche for someone else to expect the impossible from him or her.

In the beginning was the myth, and the myth gave birth to other myths. A thousand myths sprung from this one myth, and this one myth found its way into a book we know worship and adore: the Bible. And God allegedly endorsed this myth, and he called it good. “…[A]nd the two are united into one” (Genesis 2:24).[3]

In the book of Genesis, whatever its origins may be, the idea of two becoming one is present—as it is present in Plato’s Symposium. Whatever interpretations one may conjure up in regards to Genesis, the myth, as found in Plato, would be fully and lucidly presupposed in a Jewish text called the Book of Tobit, which dates from around the second-century BCE.

In Tobit, a young man by the name of Tobias falls in love with a virgin girl named Sarah. However, despite the presumed romantic future, Tobias is made aware of a sinister rumor: Sarah had been married to seven different men—and all have been killed by a demon whenever they tried to have sex with her. The demon was thought to be madly in love with Sarah, forbidding any man to sleep with her. En route to Sarah’s house, Tobias was instructed by Raphael, an angel. In his angelic instructions, Raphael told Tobias what he was to do on the first wedding night to make the demon go away. In addition, the angel assured Tobias that Sarah was meant for him. “Do not be afraid, for she was set apart for you before the world was made” (Tobit 6:18 NRSV). The story ends on a happy note, as everything goes as planned. My interest continues, however, because of the verse cited. What the angelic instructions presuppose is the idea of romantic predestination “before the world was made.”

Many Americans today, except for the few Catholics, probably have never heard of Tobit. But that’s all beside the point. The point is that our culture continues to tell this very story using different people and different names. Our romance novels betray romantic predestination; our pop music betrays romantic predestination; even our language betrays predestination. For example, the fact that a definite article precedes “one” in the phrase “the one” assures us of the singularity of this person’s existence. The idea is that there aren’t just several “ones” out there; nay, there is merely “the one.” If we had not bought into the Greek myth, we would have, at the very least, had a language in which “a one” was a colloquial expression. Such is not the case, however. Instead, the myth is shaping our language, the very discourse governing our romantic relations.

From scattered verses in the Bible to love songs buzzing on the radio, the myth of individualism continues. It is not that individually these ideas form a coherent myth; rather, taken as a whole, the ideas shape the underlying myth governing our romantic endeavors. Somewhere in the thousand or so years in which myths such as those found in Plato’s Symposium or the Book of Tobit found their voice, we have tuned in to them along the way and have become their audience. Whether we like it or not, the myth has ruined marriages. A husband turns to his wife for psychiatric consultation when, in fact, he should probably be turning to a trained psychiatrist, one who is within the community. A wife turns to her husband for an emotional need that may only be satisfied, instead, at an all-girls night out. But the myth is there: she was predestined for you; he was predestined for you. The struggle to make an individual replace a community is an impossible struggle—but the myth sustains that very idea. The marriage fails because an ideal is held up as a kind of reality. “I want my husband to be a good parent, an excellent lover, a perfect engineer, a humorous socialite, a…” The list continues into eternity until it vanishes from human sight. It’s okay, in other words, to have a wife that doesn’t function as your psychologist. Maybe you should actually talk about psychology with your friend who is a psychologist. It’s okay, in other words, to have a husband who doesn’t write you breathtaking poems and take you on wild dates. Maybe you should let him take you to the theater and let Hollywood do the romancing on his behalf. It’s okay to be married—and remain in need of community.

The myth of American individualism needs to be disfigured for what it really is: a myth. It’s not helping anyone by implying that someone could function as your everyone.

 

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

Dedicated to Andrei Semenov–for being a good conversationalist as we sipped on Woodford bourbon and discussed the finer things in life…

 

 

[1] Plato, “Symposium,” The Internet Classics Archive, accessed December 17, 2016, http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/symposium.html.

[2] Ibid. Italics mine.

[3] New Living Translation.

The Names of God: Exodus 3:14-15 and the Answer

Thousands of years ago, so the story goes, an old man met god in a fiery bush that refused to be consumed. The god took interest in the old man—who went by the name Moses—and decided to send him so that he may help save a group of people whom the god called his own. “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians” (Ex. 3:7-8 NIV). Before Moses accepted this unknown god’s proposition, he first asked the god for its name—for if “they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” (3:13 NIV). The response this god provided Moses has continued to perplex layman and scholar alike to this very day. In this paper, I will examine various interpretations of “the answer” the god gave in the hopes of finding a syncretic approach that makes sense of the answer both within its (a) historical context and (b) its current biblical, canonical context. In my concluding reflections, I will argue that the names of God, as revealed to Moses, are as elusive now as they were then.

In the Ancient Near East, names were thought to have magical properties.[1] Cassuto, summarizing the prevailing view, writes, “[T]he designation of any entity was to be equated, as it were, with its existence: whatever is without an appellation does not exist, but whatever has a denomination has existence.”[2] Already in the second creation myth found in Genesis 2, Adam was seen giving names to the recently created animals brought into existence.[3] Existence and having a name went hand-in-hand. The “magical element” of knowing the name of an object or person was grounded in the ancient idea, as Gordis points out, that “knowing the name of any person or object is tantamount to comprehending its nature.”[4] The language of the Hebrew Bible itself—including our text from Exodus—was conducive to such magical thinking. “In Biblical Hebrew, sëm [שֵׁם, “name”] means ‘essence.’”[5] In addition to this, knowing the name of a god, and “calling on its name,” meant you were able to invoke that god’s attention.[6] But attention itself was not granted unless you knew the god’s name. The “magical element,” however, is best epitomized by the ancients’ idea that “to ‘call a name’ [was] sometimes equivalent to ‘create.’”[7] Given the ancients’ concern for knowing the correct name for a correct object, animal, or god, it should come to us as no surprise that Moses was predominantly concerned with figuring out the god’s name—who, in fact, was speaking with him?

The answer the god gave appears to be as elusive as ever:

“I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’” (Ex. 3:14-15 NIV).

At first blush, it appears that there are at least three[8] separate but related answers the god, identifying himself as YHWH, gave Moses: (1) “I am who I am”; (2) “I Am”; and (3) “The Lord” [YHWH]. Numerous theories have arisen because of the seemingly various “answers” YHWH gave Moses; the scholars usually assign the different names to different sources.[9] In this paper, however, I will focus on the canonical text at hand without dealing with the complicated theories catalyzed by source criticism.

YHWH[10] first answers Moses’ question with the cryptic phrase: “I am who I am.” In Hebrew the phrase is אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה. The first word—namely, אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה [ehyeh]—is the first-person imperfect masculine singular verb from the root הָיָה [hyh, “to be”]. Generally speaking, the word could be translated “I will be,” being an imperfect verb that conveys an incomplete action that could occur in the past, present, or future. The particle following the initial ehyeh is אֲשֶׁ֣ר, which is normally translated in this passage as “who.” What does YHWH mean by saying of himself “I will be who I will be” or, as most translations have it, “I am who I am”? Numerous answers have been given; I will present three interpretations of this enigmatic phrase.

The first interpretation I will call “the unknowable explanation.” According to this interpretation, YHWH, in fact, does not answer Moses’ question; that is, YHWH does not give Moses a “name.” What YHWH does instead is give Moses a phrase—an idem per idem[11] syntactical construction, to be exact—alluding to the impossibility of placing God in a box. Zimmerli, one such exponent of this view, writes, “In the only passage where the Old Testament itself attempts to provide an explanation of the name ‘Yahweh’ it refuses to explain the name in a way that could confine it within the cage of definition.”[12] God remains, in this view, the deus absconditus—that is, “the hidden God.” Several good reasons seem to support this interpretation. In light of the earlier comments I made regarding names and their “magical elements,” this view prevents humans from knowing God’s name “because man should not know God’s name and acquire power over him, for God is not to be man’s slave.”[13] Also, this interpretation seems to suggest that the finite human mind cannot possibly understand God and his nature. Even if a name were given, it would be an illusory shell: the name could never contain God. Since a human could not possibly understand God, God and his name must forever remain a mystery.

The second interpretation I shall call “the ontological explanation.” In this view, YHWH is essentially saying, “I am because I am.” When Moses asked YHWH his name, YHWH gave him a name, but it was made in reference to the name itself. That is, outside of the name given—which is elusive as it is, meaning simply “I will be” or “I am”—is itself not supported by anything external to it, functioning, in a sense, as the grounding of being itself. “There is no cause for God’s existence outside himself.”[14] This is a very popular view, being supported by numerous scholars, both ancient and modern.[15] The problem with this view, from a Hebrew exegesis perspective, is that it assumes the particle here should be translated as “because,” and, in addition to this, the imperfect verb should be thoroughly read as a present perfect; that is, the “I will be” (imperfect) should be translated, with certainty, as “I am” (present perfect).[16]

The third interpretation I shall call “the covenantal-loyalty explanation.” In this view, one that seems to be favored by Cassuto, YHWH, by stating the “I am who I am,” means to relate to Moses that he is a god who is. He is one who is actively present in the life of his people. Prior to Exodus 3:14, this god tells Moses: “…For I will be with you [עִמָּ֔ךְ כִּֽי־אֶֽהְיֶ֣ה]” (v.12, my trans.). He is a god who is loyal to a people he calls his own. (Later on, he will tell Moses that he is the god of his ancestors [3:15].) Interpreting this passage, Cassuto writes, regarding what Moses would say to the people, “He Himself sent me to you; although we forgot his name, He did not forget us. He remembered His covenant with our ancestors, and has sent me to you to fulfill His covenant.”[17] In support of this view is Mowinckel’s assertion that “[t]o the Hebrew ‘to be’ does not just mean to exist—as all other beings and things do exist as well—but to be active, to express oneself in active being…”[18] Noth, likewise, writes, “הָיָה [“to be”] does not express pure being but active being.”[19]

After YHWH’s first answer—“I will be who I will be” or “I am who I am”—he further tells Moses that he is simply the “I am.” In this case, the verb seems to be functioning entirely as a title. But YHWH does not stop there. He then introduces another name for himself, providing a third reply: “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord [יְהוָ֞ה], the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’” In the third reply, God has now used yet another verb from the root הָיָה [hyh, “to be”], namely, יְהוָ֞ה [yhwh, “he is”].[20] The difference between the two words being that of person: the first being in first-person, the second being in third-person. Perhaps when God speaks of himself, he refers to himself in the first-person ehyeh; however, when others refer to God, and speak of him, he is referred to in the third-person yhwh. In any case, God is a god linked to the verb for “to be.” Having looked at various interpretations of “the answer” to Moses’ question, I now want to turn my attention to the Exodus narrative as a whole, looking to see which of these various interpretations make sense of the most data.

At the beginning of the book of Exodus, the narrator presents us with a strange picture. Calling to mind the first command given by God in Genesis 1:28—“be fruitful and multiply”—the book displays before our eyes a people who, indeed, had been fruitful (Ex. 1:7, 9). But in their fruitfulness, the people also made enemies: the Pharaoh felt threatened precisely because of it (1:9). The fruitfulness was either a blessing or a curse; it was either responsible for the growth of the nation, or it was the very curse that reduced them to their slavery. However, what appears evident is that God was intimately involved with his people in their struggle to survive tyranny. The midwives, the narrator tells us, “feared the God” (1:17, my trans.). In addition to this, the narrator makes us cognizant of God’s [elohim, אֱלֹהִ֔ים] early involvement in the Israelites’ reproductive efforts. “God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous” (1:20 NIV).

The tale suggests that, already, God was present with his people. We are not told whether the Israelites knew God as the “I am” or as the “He is”; what we do know is that God—in the generic sense conveyed by אֱלֹהִ֔ים—was with the Israelites. In addition to this, we are reminded right at the end chapter two, “God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob” (2:24 NIV). God, then, was both present and covenantal, both faithful and loyal.

Moses, having run away from Pharaoh’s court, and having settled into a nomadic lifestyle in a place called Midian on the Arabian peninsula, is confronted, years later, by a relatively commonplace scene in such desert regions: a burning bush. The not-so-commonplace sight was the fact that the bush didn’t just burn; it refused to be consumed (3:3). Midrash Rabba offers an intriguing commentary on this passage:

“Why did God show Moses such a symbol? Because he (Moses) had thought to himself that the Egyptians might consume Israel; hence did God show him a fire, which burnt but did not consume, saying to him, “Just as the thorn-bush is burning and is not consumed, so the Egyptians will not be able to destroy Israel.”[21]

Again, the covenantal-loyalty of YHWH is exuded here. If this is the message YHWH was trying to convey to Moses, then he was certainly trying to tell him that he, their God, his people’s God, was faithfully looking after them. Though they may be in the process of being burned by fire, they shall not be consumed—for YHWH remembers his covenants.

Just moments prior to giving Moses “the answer” to his question—namely, what is God’s name?—YHWH[22] said: “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain” (3:12 NIV). The promise is already there. First, YHWH says, “I will be with you.” He is the god of covenantal loyalty. Second, YHWH says what will happen with Israel: “you will worship God on this mountain.” He is the god of the future.

It is in this biblical, canonical context in which Moses first hears God’s reply (or “replies,” if you will). Who is God? and What is his name? Instead of seeing the various interpretations as mostly in conflict with each other, I think a syncretic approach works rather well in the interpretation of this passage. Why shouldn’t a first-person verb such as ehyeh convey (a) an “unknowable name”; (b) the grounding of being; and (c) covenantal loyalty? All of these interpretations have come from engagement with the verb in the middle of it all: hyh [“to be”]. What does it mean for something “to be”? What does it mean for God to say that he is (or was, or will be) this “to be”? In a way, then, I see all of these as tentatively valid interpretations. They all have been borne out of an authentic wrestling with the biblical text at hand.

Therefore, on that fateful day on Sinai, it seems likely to me that Moses was given an answer that involved complexity and nuance. A generic name for a god was not thrown out, but neither was no name given. Instead, what Moses discovered was, perhaps, that he was dealing with a God who didn’t like labels, a God who “fear[ed] the magical use of His Name…”[23] Later on in Exodus 33:19, this very same God would remark, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy.”[24] The enigma is being perpetrated even here. Who will receive God’s mercy? The answer is not to be found in the answer given. The human subject remains at a kind of distance; he or she is never directly manipulating God’s behavior. Answers qua answers are not given; instead, YHWH speaks in cryptic terms. Maybe if the human subject could know God’s actions, could know whom God would show mercy, maybe then could the human exercise some control over this God.

If the name had to do with some other verb, could humans make sense of this deity then? Maybe if God was not a “to be” but a “to love,” maybe then would he be predictable.[25] But, as it is, no such verb was given. What was given was a verb scholar and layman alike continue to struggle with. In Exodus 3:14, we had come face-to-face with a passage one scholar has called “one of the unsolved difficulties for both translators and exegetes.”[26] Like the ancients of old who sought out names so that they might magically abracadabra various gods into existence, we, too, demand accurate knowledge. Like Moses, being presented with an answer he could not cope with, we meander around the ashes of a burnt out bush, hoping to find “the answer.” And what is our question? “What is the name of God?” In the commentaries and in the academic journals we went looking—only to return with a plethora of so-called “answers.” Under every rock we’ve looked only to come up empty-handed. Somewhere, buried in a long-forgotten commentary written by some nomad, another answer awaits to be discovered. And the names of God continue to puzzle and perplex us today as much as ever, evading us like elusive fireflies burning now and disappearing later. In every scholar, in every reader of the Bible, there lurks a Moses asking an age-old question: “What is his name?”

 

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

 

WORKS CITED:

Albrektson, Bertil. “On the Syntax of אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה in Exodus 3:14.” Text, Translation, Theology: Selected Essays on the Hebrew Bible. Burlington: Ashgate, 2010.

Cassuto, Umberto. A Commentary on the Book of Exodus. Translated by Israel Abrahams. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1967.

Gianotti, Charles R. “The Meaning of the Divine Name YHWH.” Bibliotheca Sacra 142, no. 565 (January 1985): 38-51.

Gordis, Robert. “The Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Old Testament and the Qumran Scrolls.” Journal of Biblical Literature 76 (1957).

Hyatt, J. Philip. Commentary on Exodus. New Century Bible. London: Oliphants, 1971.

Janzen, Gerald J. “And the Bush Was Not Consumed.” Jewish Biblical Quarterly 31, no. 4 (October 2003): 219-225.

Noth, Martin. Exodus: A Commentary. Translated by J. S. Bowden. London: W. & J. Mackay & Co. Ltd., 1962.

Reisel, M. The Mysterious Name of Y.H.W.H. Studia Semitica Neerlandica. Netherlands: Royal VanGorcum Ltd., 1957.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] M. Reisel, The Mysterious Name of Y.H.W.H., Studia Semitica Neerlandica (Netherlands: Royal VanGorcum Ltd., 1957), 1. “[I]n the view of primitive man forces are active in Nature that can be influenced and controlled by magical means, such as rites of protection or propitiation, by worship, as also by the giving or avoiding of certain names” (italics original).

[2] Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, trans. Israel Abrahams (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1967), 37.

[3] Genesis 2:20.

[4] Robert Gordis, “The Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Old Testament and the Qumran Scrolls,” in Journal of Biblical Literature 76 (1957), 125.

[5] Ibid.

[6] J. Philip Hyatt, Commentary on Exodus, New Century Bible (London: Oliphants, 1971), 75. “To pronounce the name of a deity meant to call upon his power.”

[7] Ibid.

[8] Such is the view of M. Reisel, The Mysterious Name of Y.H.W.H., 5. “To this single question he surprisingly receives as many as three answers…”

[9] Noth does this (cf. Martin Noth, Exodus: A Commentary, trans. J. S. Bowden [London: W. & J. Mackay & Co. Ltd., 1962], 42) as does Hyatt (cf. Commentary on Exodus, 75-8). For a list of scholars who advocate some source theory derived from the different names of god in the Hebrew Bible, I refer my readers to the numerous commentaries available. It is not the purpose of this paper to engage with various source theories robustly, as I am more interested in dealing with the interpretation of Exodus as the text currently stands, warts and all.

[10] I will refer to “the god” throughout the text as YHWH from this point forward. While it may cause some difficulties to my readers—perhaps various sources meant different gods when they mentioned either YHWH or elohim? and I have, as it were, caused some confusion by collapsing the alleged “distinction”—it would have been relatively strange, aesthetically speaking, for me to continue to refer to god as “the god” for the remainder of the paper.

[11] Hyatt, Commentary on Exodus, 76-7. “In this construction the speaker (or writer) is intentionally indefinite , because he is either unwilling or unable to be definite and precise.” For examples of other such constructions in Exodus, see 4:13; 16:23; and 33:19.

[12] Cited in Charles R. Gianotti, “The Meaning of the Divine Name YHWH,” in Bibliotheca Sacra 142, no. 565 (January 1985), 41.

[13] Hyatt, Commentary on Exodus, 75.

[14] Ibid., 76.

[15] See Gianotti, “The Meaning of the Divine Name YHWH,” 41.

[16] Ibid., 42-3.

[17] Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, 39.

[18] Cited in Gianotti, “The Meaning of the Divine Name YHWH,” 42.

[19] Noth, Exodus: A Commentary, 45.

[20] This verb is translated here as the Qal verbal stem third-person imperfect masculine singular.

[21] Cited in Gerald J. Janzen, “And the Bush Was Not Consumed,” in Jewish Biblical Quarterly 31, no. 4 (October 2003), 225.

[22] Technically the word here is elohim.

[23] Reisel, The Mysterious Name of Y.H.W.H, 11. Italics original.

[24] NIV.

[25] Interestingly enough, S. D. Goitein makes the argument that the Hebrew root hyh is related to the Arabic “hawiya” which means “to love.” He then interprets Exodus 3:14 as saying, “I shall (passionately) love whom I love” (see Reisel, The Mysterious Name of Y.H.W.H., 17).

[26] These are the words of W. A. Irwin cited in Bertil Albrektson, “On the Syntax of אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה in Exodus 3:14,” in Text, Translation, Theology: Selected Essays on the Hebrew Bible (Burlington: Ashgate, 2010), 41.

Bloomed Explosions of Radiant Unknowing: A Romantic Poem

I drew her up like water from a spring found flowing

With rains placed on receptive laps of summer

Where flowers bloomed explosions of radiant unknowing

And eyes that haunted mellow stars above her

 

Her eyes a deepest black of bluest seas

Hands trading in burnt bronze for pearls

Damn necklace torn from collar in ecstasy

Restless lips of mine find home eternal

 

I had her pressed against the ground like an iron plow

Her straps dropped like kernels into fertile black soil

Green valleys of rolling love on her naked brow

Kisses etching marks on her skin unspoiled

 

Near the desert regions of her sunshine navel

I found myself lurking in quenched exploration

That thirst of old and fragrant new, entangled

Her body, my body, in Edenic damnation

 

Did I ever know her, and she know me?

Or were we seasons on opposite ends of the year?

Always holding hands at a distance of two trees

One blooming summer and the other budding spring…

 

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

I am currently finishing a master’s thesis at Emory University in theology and the philosophy of language. In my spare time, I am working on a romance novel called “The Seduction of Koroleva” and a collection of romantic poetry being written under the working title “In(Finite) Red.”