My second year of seminary, I was translating Hebrew with some friends. We were making our way through the early chapters of Exodus, and had gotten to the story of Moses and the burning bush. One of us, I don’t remember who, slowly translated the part where Moses asks about God’s name.
My friend Phil asked us to pause for a quick second. “Guys,” he said. “We’re about to translate some of the holiest words in Scripture.”
Phil was right. The sentences we translated next unfolded the revelation of God’s name YHWH to Moses.
God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3:14)
This scene where God reveals the divine name to Moses is not only a key event in the narrative of Exodus (and thus in the whole Bible). It’s also a scene that gives remarkable insight into the meaning of God’s name.
And so many readers miss the most important part of what God says to Moses.
Most biblical scholars understand the divine name, probably pronounced Yahweh, to come from a form of the Hebrew word “to be.” The four consonants of the name, YHWH, are known as the tetragrammaton, and there is some close (though not exact) correspondence between these four letters and the third-person forms of the verb “to be.” God’s statement to Moses that “I am who I am,” using the first-person singular form of “to be,” is an important bit of evidence in support of this interpretation. In that case, the divine name YHWH means something like “He Who Is” or “The One Who Is.” This is further supported by the Septuagint, the a body of Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, which translates the Hebrew words “I am who I am” into the Greek “I am the one who is,” using a participle form of “to be.” So the idea of YHWH being closely related to the verb “to be” is not just a modern discovery; it appears to have been recognized by those who translated the texts of the Hebrew Bible into Greek.
When we recognize this dimension of the name God reveals to Moses, it communicates something powerful about the identity of God: the LORD, YHWH, is the Creator of the whole world. We might think of God as the source of all being or even Being itself. There’s a reason using language for God such as “the great I Am” is so powerful. (That line in the song “Mary Did You Know?” gets me every time.) Moreover, it’s remarkably consistent with the picture of the Creator God we get elsewhere in the Bible, from the creation narrative where God creates by saying “Let there be…” to the prologue to John where the eternal Word is described as that which brought all things into being.
It’s tempting to see this profound meaning underneath God’s words to Moses and stop right there. In fact, I think that’s what a lot of readers do when they see the implications of God’s response that “I Am Who I Am.” The God who commands Moses to bring the Israelites out of Egypt is the Creator, the source of all being, the great I Am. God’s identity as the source of all existence and life undergirds Moses’ mission, such that Moses does not need to fear anything as he carries out God’s instructions to go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of bondage. And going forward in the story, it’s this very same source of all being that sends the plagues, parts the sea, and appears to the Israelites on the mountain.
Or perhaps Moses’ request to know God’s name was a desire to have some sort of control over God, to be able to invoke the deity at his own initiative to give reassurance to the Israelites. In that case, God’s response indicates that he reserves absolute sovereignty. God answers to no one, will be controlled by no one. Not Pharaoh. Not Moses. Not you or me. If naming or knowing one’s name is a form of control, then God tells Moses that this name is different. “I Am Who I Am,” God says. We cannot put God in a box.
Both of these interpretations are out there, and there is a good bit of truth to both of them. God certainly is the Creator of the universe, and it matters that this very Creator is the one who happens to be speaking to Moses in a burning bush just now. And God certainly is sovereign, with no superior and no equal, as subsequent events in Exodus will demonstrate quite clearly.
What many readers fail to acknowledge, however, is that God keeps talking to Moses. God does not stop with, “Say to the Israelites, ‘I Am’ has sent me to you.” God says something else, which communicates just as much about God’s identity and relationship to the people Israel as “I Am Who I Am.”
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’:
This is my name forever,
and this my title for all generations. (Exodus 3:15)
“Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever.” Just after revealing a name that’s universal and cosmic in scope—I Am Who I Am—God returns to the particular relationship established with Israel’s ancestors, the blessing and covenant that undergirds God’s initiative to rescue Israel from slavery and bring them to the Promised Land. And it’s only after naming this relationship that God tells Moses “this is my name forever.”
I believe it’s critical that we read these two statements together and not focus exclusively on the more mysterious and metaphysical I Am Who I Am. The implication is that God is sovereign, beholden to no one, but God has chosen to establish a relationship with this particular people, to identify with them, to bless them and redeem them and be their God even as he remains the Creator God of all the universe.
It’s as if God is saying, “I will be who I will be. And who I will be is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. What I will be is faithful to the covenant that I made with them.” This—all this, including the messy interaction with a particular covenant people—is God’s name forever, his remembrance for all generations.
As we look to the intersection of science and faith, it can be tempting to focus only on the first sentence of God’s response to Moses, to emphasize God’s role as the source of all being and life, the creator of all, the first mover who remains sovereign over the universe. But to do so is to neglect the way God has chosen to identify himself through and in relation to a particular people, whose story Christians believe continues now among those who profess faith in Jesus Christ.
If we take this seriously, it means we who are interested in science and faith need to pay attention not only to science and philosophical ideas about God, but to the very specifics of the Christian faith. The language and imagery of Scripture, the rituals and rhythms of the church, the fruits of the Spirit in our lives, the sacraments, and all other means of God’s grace will help us know the Great I Am—and, I am convinced, something about the very nature of the world God created. It’s not because God fits into the boxes we’ve created for him, but because God has himself chosen to be made known in this way, as the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their descendants.
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