I Am that I Am
Context and interpretation
Its context is the encounter of the burning bush (Exodus 3:14): Moses asks what he is to say to the Israelites when they ask what God has sent him to them, and Yahweh replies, “I am who I am,” adding, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I am has sent me to you.'” ’Ehyeh is the first person form of hayah, “to be”, and owing to the peculiarities of Hebrew grammar means both “I am”, “I was”, and “I will be”. The meaning of the longer phrase ’ehyeh ’ăšer ’ehyeh is debated, and might be seen as a promise (“I will be with you”) or as statement of incomparability (“I am without equal”) .
The passage raises a number of issues beyond its linguistic and theological meaning. It is, for example, somewhat remarkable that despite this exchange the Israelites never ask Moses for the name of God.Then there are a number of probably unanswerable questions, including who it is that does not know God’s name, Moses or the Israelites (most commentators take it that it is Moses who does not know, meaning that the Israelites will ask him the name in order to prove his credentials), and just what the statement means. The last can be approached in three ways:
- “I am who I am” – an evasion of Moses’s question;
- “I am who am” or “I am he who is” – a statement of the nature of Israel’s God;
- “‘I Am’ is who I am”, or “I am because I am” – this version has not played a major part in scholarly discussion of the phrase, but the first variant has been incorporated into the New English Bible.
In her Open Yale Course, Lecture 7, Chapter 5 (“Descriptions of God in the Bible”), professor Christine Hayes considers the possibilities and is tempted to read “Ehyeh asher ehyeh” as God’s reluctance to tell Moses his name:
Moses says: May I say who sent me? He asks for God’s name. The Israelites will want to know who has sent me, and God replies with a sentence, “Ehyeh asher ehyeh.” This is a first person sentence that can be translated, “I am who I am,” or perhaps, “I will be who I will be,” or perhaps, “I cause to be what I cause to be.” We really don’t know, but it has something to do with “being.” So he asks who God is, God says, “I am who am I am” or “I will cause to be what I will cause to be.” So Moses, wisely enough, converts that into a third-person formula: okay, he will be who he will be, he is who he is, “Yahweh asher Yahweh.” God’s answer to the question of his name is this sentence, and Moses converts it from a first-person to a third-person sentence: he will be who he will be; he is who he is; he will cause to be, I think most people think now, what he will cause to be, and that sentence gets shortened to “Yahweh.” This is the Bible’s explanation for the name Yahweh, and as the personal name of God, some have argued that the name Yahweh expresses the quality of being, an active, dynamic being. This God is one who brings things into being, whether it’s a cosmos from chaos, or now a new nation from a band of runaway slaves. But it could well be that this is simply God’s way of not answering Moses’ question. We’ve seen how the Bible feels about revealing names, and the divine being who struggled and wrestled with Jacob sure didn’t want to give him his name. So I’ve often wondered if we’re to read this differently: Who am I? I am who I am, and never you mind.
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