The Buddha & The Book of Exodus

As a Buddhist, I would look to the Hebrew scriptures for the purpose of comparative religion. Due to the limitations of human language, are the various world religions explaining the same Ultimate Truth in diverse ways?

Please consider the following words of Exodus:

And Moses said unto God, Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them, The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me, What is his name? What shall I say unto them?
And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you.

When Moses asks God for his name, so he can tell the Israelites the name of their tribal deity that will rival all other tribes, God refuses.

Instead, he simply says, “I AM has sent me unto you.” In other words, “I am Existence-itself, and human language cannot contain me.” Even the word “God” is a linguistic construct.

This sounds a great deal like the Buddha’s teaching that the true and ultimate nature of Nirvana is beyond what human language can describe. The nature of Nirvana is often described as a boundless light, much like Moses’ burning bush that could not be consumed.

It seems to me this might be taking a few words out of context.

The god of Exodus is also named “Jealous” in the same book of scripture Exodus 34:14. The Covenant deal involves the Israelites offering animal and substitute-for-firstborn-children sacrifices, in exchange for land occupied by others. It is a very nationalistic god, rather than a universal benevolent Creator god.

First of all, I am not Jewish or Christian or Muslim, so nothing I say on this forum is to promote any of these religions. Having said that, you might not be presenting an accurate picture on what the Hebrew Bible says on these things, and I’d be curious to talk with a Rabbi on the matter.

I didn’t know we have Rabbis among our ranks :slight_smile: … The ‘I am what I am’ is famous mostly because it’s so mysterious and esoteric minded people like to indulge in it. But why do you want to discuss it on a Early Buddhism forum?

אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה in Hebrew has no clear meaning, people just interpret it and give it their own spin, but both the grammatical or the contextual meaning is open for interpretation. It’s based on some form of ‘to be’, but it’s not clear which.

The commentary of one of the greatest historical Rabbis, the RASHI, goes as follows (of course the original is in Hebrew/Aramaic):

“Ehyeh asher ehyeh”: “I will be” with them in this predicament “what I will be” with them in their subjugation by other kingdoms. He [Moses] said before Him, “O Lord of the universe! Why should I mention to them another trouble? They have enough [problems] with this one.” He said to him, “You have spoken well. So shall you say, etc.” -[from Ber. 9b] (Not that Moses, God forbid, outsmarted God, but he did not understand what God meant, because originally, when God said, “I will be what I will be,” He told this to Moses alone, and He did not mean that he should tell it to Israel. That is the meaning of “You have spoken well,” for that was My original intention, that you should not tell such things to the children of Israel, only “So shall you say to the children of Israel,” ‘Ehyeh [I will be] has sent me.’” From tractate Berachoth this appears to be the correct interpretation. Give this matter your deliberation.) [Annotation to Rashi] [There appears to be no indication of this interpretation in tractate Berachoth.]

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Something else of interest to those who like to comb through ancient composite texts is this detail from Genesis 2:3-4

[3.] waybārek ʔĕlōhîm ʔet yōwm haššǝbîʔî wayqaddêš ʔōtōw kî bōw šābat mikkāl mǝlaktōw ʔâšerbārā ʔĕlōhîm laʔăśōwt.
And blessed Elohim the day seventh and consecrated it because in it he had rested from all his work which in creating Elohim had made
[4.] ʔêlleh tōwldōwt haššāmayim wǝhāʔāreṣ bǝhibbārǝʔām bǝyōwm ʔăśōwt yahweh ʔĕlōhîm ʔereṣ wǝšāmāyim wǝkōl śîaḥ haśśādeh ṭerem yihyeh bāʔāreṣ
There are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created in the day that Yahweh Elohim made the earth and the heavens and every plant of the field before it was in the earth.

Let’s ignore how extraordinarily redundant a literal translation of the oldest parts of the Bible can be.

Who was that Yahweh guy who showed up in Genesis 2:4? His name used to be Elohim.

Also he just finished creating creation. Now he’s gonna do it all over again… just because?

*Hint: a compiler shoved two creation myths side-by-side, one narrative called the Elohist narrative and one called the Yahwist, based on the different names they use for God.

I don’t know if I am a “perennialist” or not, but what I am indulging in here is comparative religion.

The word “God” is simply a linguistic construct, and may describe the same Ultimate Truth to which the word “Nirvana” points, albeit in a different way.

In this verse the Hebrew verb “created” appears in the singular form. If “let us make man” indicates a numerical plurality, it would be followed in the NEXT verse by, “And they created man in their image.” Obviously, the plural form is used in the same way as in the divine appellation ‘Elohim, to indicate the all-inclusiveness of God’s attributes of authority and power, the plurality of majesty. It is customary for one in authority to speak of himself as if he were a plurality.

Hence, Absalom said to Ahithophel, “Give your counsel what we shall do” ((2 Samuel 16:20)). The context shows that he was seeking advice for himself’ yet he refers to himself as “we” ((see also Ezra 4:16-19))…

Chapter 45 of Isaiah, using the Tetragrammaton, unequivocally asserts that the Lord alone is the creator and ruler of all things in the universe. The six uses of ‘Elohim in this chapter ((verses 3, 5, 14, 15, 18, 21)) show that the term ‘Elohim is synonymous with the Tetragrammaton, and that both epithets refer to the absolute one-and-only God. The singularity of God, expressed in the first-person singular in verse 12, clearly shows who is meant by the phrase, “Let us create man in our image“: “I, even I, have made the earth, and created man upon it; I, even My hands, have stretched out the heavens, and all their host have I commanded.”
What is the meaning of God said: "Let us make man in our image . . .?" | Jews For Judaism

Similar to how the term Elohim indicates the all-inclusive nature of the Hebrew God, the term Nirvana indicates the all-inclusive nature of Ultimate Truth, as the extinguisher of all suffering and delusion.

Certainly modern Judaism considers both of these figures to be the same. Even very old Judaism considers them the same. When you get to a stage early enough for them to be seperate, we are barely talking about Judaism anymore, and more “ancient Israelite religion”, which shares a lot in common with other Near Eastern religions, like that of Mesopotamia.

El, not yet Elohim, was the Bull-deity of the Canaanite civilization.

Hence all of the bulls sacrificed to God in the Old Testament.

All that suggests is all this “god talk” is due to the limitations of human language to describe Ultimate Truth.

I’d have to ask a Rabbi about that one.

Why? Rabbis don’t practice ancient Israelite religion.

They don’t think Yahweh had an “Asherah”, for instance.

They don’t sacrifice bulls in the temple, for instance.

I’d have to ask a Rabbi about that one as well.


A Hebrew word occurring frequently in the Bible (R. V.) and signifying, except in a few late passages noted below, a wooden post or pole planted near the altars of various gods. In the Authorized Version the word is rendered “grove.”…

In a few passages (Judges iii. 7; I Kings xviii. 19; II Kings xxiii. 4) Asherah appears to be the name of a goddess, but the text has in every case been corrupted or glossed (compare Moore and Budde, as cited above). In the first of the three passages the name Ashtaroth should stand, as it does elsewhere, in the case of similar charges of defection from Yhwh (compare Judges ii. 13, x. 6; I Sam. vii. 4, xii. 10). In the other two passages, the term Asherah is superfluous. These passages may indicate, as Moore suggests, that the Asherah became in some localities a fetish or cultus god…

The relation of this goddess to the pole called Asherah in the Bible is a difficult problem. The name in the Bible is masculine; the plural “Asherim” occurring sixteen times, and the plural “Asherot” but three times. The latter is clearly an error. Asherah must be a nomen unitatis. G. Hoffmann has shown (“Ueber Einige Phönizische Inschriften,” pp. 26 et seq.) that these posts originally marked the limits of the sacred precincts, and that in the Ma’sub inscription it is the equivalent of “sacred enclosure.” Moore finds in this fact the explanation of the use of the word in Assyrian (ashirtu, ashrâti; eshirtu, eshrâti), in the sense of sanctuary. Hommel fancies that he sees in the original form of the ideogram for Ishtar (compare Thureau-Dangin, “L’Ecriture Cunéforme,” No. 294), a post on which hangs the skin of an animal.

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Ok, well, you have physical evidence from archaeology, and you have the traditions of the Rabbis, which is an outgrowth of the sect of the Pharisees, which was one of many sects of late Judaism of the first century.

Evidence or tradition, you choose.

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Here is perhaps a more interesting question: What if the light of the burning bush and the light of Nirvana are indicative of the same Ultimate Truth, expressed in different ways? Also, the ultimate goal of the Buddhist path is often described as enlightenment or illumination.

The light of the burning bush hardened Pharaoh’s heart, if you want my real answer.

I don’t think contact with Nibbāna usually does that.

I don’t believe the burning bush really existed. To me, it’s a literary device for conveying a higher truth, just as the Buddhist scriptures contain many such devices. At most, Moses had a mystical experience of light, which he described as a burning bush.

Well, you are quite free to believe that.

At the same time, what if I speculated that the brilliant light of the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, wiping out most of Japan’s Christian population, was the Buddha Infinite Light using an expedient means to save Japan from the encroachment of a foreign religion?

I would be free to think that, but maybe not on the best grounds.

The being that inhabited the burning bush murdered the Egyptian newborns. Whether or not it really did isn’t the question, it is said that it did, and it is presented as a being who does these things.

My H-bomb light isn’t the best candidate for a possible manifestation of Amitābha. But the God of the Old Testament seems to me a poor manifestation of nirvāṇa.

IMO of course, anyone is free to disagree.


I don’t even want to mention Amitabha in this thread, if possible. There’s enough material in the Pali scriptures alone that we can compare with the Hebrew scriptures.

The name Amitabha is ultimately just another word-construct for describing the ineffable reality of Nirvana. In the words of Shinran, “Nirvana has innumerable names.”