‘I Am Who I Am’? The Real Meaning of God’s Name in Exodus
When the people of Israel were enslaved in Egypt, they cried out to God for deliverance. Then God answered their cry, using the expression “I am who I am” (Exod 3:14) to introduce himself as their deliverer. In English, that sounds like a philosophical statement about God’s existence. In Hebrew, the passage uses the verb ehyeh (a form of the word hayah), normally translated “I am” or “I will be.” That translation is, in most situations, adequate. But for the meaning of God’s name in Exodus 3 and several other places in the Bible, hayah carries the added weight of representing God himself: Yahweh, “I am.” In such contexts, more careful attention to the nuance of this verb is important.
Indeed, the Hebrews, languishing under the whips of their oppressors, did not need to know simply that God exists. They needed to know that he was present with them. And that is precisely what God announced to Moses and memorialized in his name Yahweh, as defined by the verb ehyeh.
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The Meaning of God’s Name at the Burning Bush
God explained the meaning of his name Yahweh (often represented in English Bibles as “Lord” in all small caps, and sometimes vocalized as “Jehovah” or by its consonantal root “YHWH”) while commissioning Moses at the burning bush. He instructed the prophet,
Say this to the people of Israel: “I am (ehyeh) has sent me to you.” . . . Say this to the people of Israel: “The Lord (Yahweh), the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.” This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations. (Exod 3:14–15)
God explained the meaning of Yahweh by placing it in parallel with the similar-sounding Hebrew term “I am” (ehyeh, from the root hayah). Yahweh is God’s personal name, so closely identified with his being that many orthodox Jews refuse to pronounce it, instead saying HaShem (“the name”) or Adonai (“Lord”), to guard this name’s sanctity.
Scholars debate whether the word Yahweh actually derives from the verb hayah. Even if the word Yahweh does not derive from hayah, it sounds similar. And biblical authors often employed sound-alike phrases to indicate name meanings (e.g., Gen 25:25, 30). In this case, the meaning of God’s name Yahweh is explained with the sound-alike ehyeh, a Hebrew being verb usually translated, “I am” or “I will be.” But the usage of being verbs such as hayah/ehyeh in Hebrew differs slightly but significantly from the way being verbs are used in most Western languages.
Misreading ‘I Am’
Confusion arises about the meaning of God’s name translated “I am” and the related “Yahweh” when we read those terms through Western lenses. In English, for example, being verbs such as “am,” “is,” and “are” express either equivalence or existence.
In the statement “I am a student,” the verb “am” indicates the equivalence of the subject “I” and the predicate “student” (I = student). We call this use a “linking verb.” But when a being verb is used without a predicate, as in the statements “he is” or “she will be,” the verb merely indicates the subject’s existence. In many languages like English, the phrase “I am” indicates the speaker’s existence. Read this way, the Lord’s statement “I am” is a declaration, “I exist.”
Based on such readings, Yahweh has commonly been interpreted as a statement of God’s self-existence or aseity, terms theologians use to indicate that God had no beginning and does not depend for continued existence on anything other than his own self. The Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck represents this widespread understanding when he states, “God is independent, all-sufficient in himself, and the only source of all existence and life. Yhwh is the name that describes this essence and identity most clearly. . . . His name is ‘being.'”1Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics (John Bolt, ed.; John Vriend, trans.; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 148–78.
This existential interpretation of God’s name is not new. It goes back at least to the third century B.C. when the Pentateuch was translated into Greek. In that translation (the Septuagint), Exodus 3:14–15 was translated, “God spoke to Moses, saying, ‘I am the being-one (ego eimi ho on).‘ . . . Say to the children of Israel, ‘The being-one (ho on) has sent me to you.'” In this manner, God’s explanation of his name was interpreted as a statement of self-existence. Over the centuries, commentators have widely adopted this reading of the divine name.
It is certainly consistent with other biblical descriptions of God to call him “self-existent.” God is said to be eternal (Psa 90:2), having no prior cause (Isa 43:10–11) and no need for sustenance outside of himself (John 5:26). It is therefore proper to call him “self-existent.” But self-existence is probably not the point of the phrase “I am” (ehyeh) or the name Yahweh in biblical Hebrew.
Present with His People
In biblical Hebrew, the being verb hayah conveys not just existence but manifest existence. It indicates the appearance, presence, or standing of a thing. To state, “There was (yehiy, a form of hayah) light” (Gen 1:3) is to announce the manifestation, not just the existence, of light. To say, “The Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was (yehiy) a mighty tempest” (Jonah 1:4) is to announce the appearance of a storm as a result of God’s wind.
The Hebrew being verb hayah/ehyeh, Sigmund Mowinckel explains, “is not the abstract Greek [einai, ‘to be’], the mere existence per se. To the Hebrew ‘to be’ does not just mean to exist . . ., but to be active, to express oneself in active being.”2Sigmund Mowinckel, “The Name of the God of Moses,” HUCA 32 (1961), 127. Note that pre-classical Greek also used being verbs with a more concrete meaning. See “The Early History of the Verb ‘to Be’” in Eric A. Havelock, The Greek Concept of Justice: From Its Shadow in Homer to Its Substance in Plato (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978), 233–48.
In the name Yahweh, God made himself known as a present being—present with and for his people. And wherever God’s presence is invoked, that announcement is pregnant with the certainty of his attention, his care, his power, and his grace. Perhaps a helpful paraphrase of God’s words at the burning bush would be, “Say to the people of Israel, ‘I Am Present has sent me to you.’” God sent Moses to the people in Egypt with that marvelous announcement. And the subsequent exodus events would be an object lesson for all generations that God is Yahweh, present with his people in all their sufferings (cf., Exod 5:2; 7:17; 8:22–23; 12:51; 13:21; 33:14–19; 40:34–38; also Num 6:23–27; Psa 113:1–9).
God has many titles in Scripture, such as “Father,” “Almighty,” “King,” and “Savior.” Each of his titles reveals another of his many roles or attributes. But “Yahweh” is more than a title. Its meaning is clearly important for our understanding of the God of the Bible. It shows us not simply that God exists but also that he is near to his people in love.
1. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics (John Bolt, ed.; John Vriend, trans.; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 148–78.
2. Sigmund Mowinckel, “The Name of the God of Moses,” HUCA 32 (1961), 127. Note that pre-classical Greek also used being verbs with a more concrete meaning. See “The Early History of the Verb ‘to Be’” in Eric A. Havelock, The Greek Concept of Justice: From Its Shadow in Homer to Its Substance in Plato (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978), 233–48.
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