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.

One thought on “The Names of God: Exodus 3:14-15 and the Answer

  1. Thanks for the detailed, informative discussion of the various names of God in the OT and the observation that the whole subject, even after extensive research, ultimately remains a mystery (as it should IMHO). In a somewhat similar vein, I’d be interested in your take on Jesus’ NT use of the name “Abba.” There appears to be a good deal of scholarly debate about whether this name carries the intimacy of “daddy” or “papa,” but my suspicion is that some of this debate is theological pushback to insure that God retains his proper dignity and authority. Indeed, this theological concern seems to be manifest in the earliest writings of the church, where the Aramaic/Hebraic “Abba” is immediately followed by the more formal Greek word for father. My further suspicion is that Jesus used “Abba” on a regular basis to refer to God, unusual and perhaps a tad “disrespectful” at the time (further reflected in Jesus’ startling demand that we become like little children), and that he thus acquired the popular nickname, “Jesus Bar Abba” (Son of God/Daddy/Papa). When you add in the additional fact that the full name of the strange figure of Barabbas, according to some versions of Matthew, is “Jesus Barabbas” (a Hellenized version of “Jesus Bar Abba”), you can’t help but wonder whether more attention should be paid to the intriguing but marginalized work of Hyam Maccoby. Perhaps at some point you might feel like opening this Pandora’s box, especially since the cry of the Jewish crowd for the release of Barabbas, allegedly as opposed to the release of Jesus, has been a source of so much virulent anti-Semitism.

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