The God of Abraham heard the cry of his enslaved descendants and appeared to an octogenarian shepherd in the wilderness. Awestruck, Moses stood before the burning bush and dared to ask the God of the universe his name. This, according to most English translations, was the Lord God’s reply:
God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’ And he said, ‘Say this to the people of Israel, “I AM has sent me to you.”’ God also said to Moses, ‘Say this to the people of Israel, “The LORD, 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.’” (Ex 3:14–15, ESV)
Now this is where it gets interesting. These verses are theologically loaded and scholars have been discussing their meaning for thousands of years. Putting aside preconceptions, and focusing on the actual language used, which of the following did God declare his name to be? (a) “I am” (b) “I am who I am” (c) “I will be” (d) “I will be who I will be” (e) “Lord, the God of your fathers.” The reader will please bear with me as we get a little technical before emerging at the other end of the Hebrew and Greek discussion to think about what this means for understanding who God is.
The Hebrew in which this passage was originally written uses some words which we need to try to understand. The word for “God” is elohim, which typically means God or gods (the word is actually plural) but can also mean “mighty ones.” In this passage it should be taken to mean the one God, the supreme Being, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The Greek translation of the Old Testament, called the Septuagint, was the Scripture used in the time of the New Testament and from which the New Testament writers mainly quote. It translates elohim as ho Theos, “the God,” the normal way of referring to the one God.
The words “I AM” are translations of the first person imperfect form of the Hebrew verb “to be” or “to become;” ‘HYH. Usually, but not exclusively, the imperfect in Hebrew is taken to have a future tense. Many scholars argue that a more accurate translation is “I will be,” and therefore God’s declaration becomes, “Elohim said to Moses, ‘I will be who I will be.’ And he said, ‘Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I will be has sent me to you.’” But what is interesting is that outside this passage, God isn’t referred to as ‘HYH but as YHWH, the present tense of the same verb, “I am.” In fact, when our English Old Testaments have the title LORD in capitals, referring to the Lord God of Israel, the Hebrew word is YHWH, or Yahweh, present tense, “I am.” So, even in the passage above, “Elohim also said to Moses, ‘Say to the people of Israel, “YHWH (I am) the Elohim of your fathers; the Elohim of Abraham, the Elohim of Isaac, and the Elohim of Jacob, has sent me to you.” Hence the discussion. Is God’s name, by which he will be remembered throughout all generations, “I will be,” or, “I am”? In the light of the virtually exclusive use of YHWH, “I am” for LORD throughout the Old Testament, it makes sense to translate the passage as follows (omitting for now the repetition of “and God said”)
God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am. Say this to the people of Israel, “The One who will be has sent me to you… I am, the Elohim of your fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, has sent me to you. This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.”
God is proclaiming here his essential “being-ness.” He is the one who “IS,” the only being who has existence in and of himself. everything else that exists, all creation, is created. Creation is not self-existent, it is other than God, who alone “IS” (Deut 6:4; Isa 45:18). In fact, God’s “being-ness” extends back and forward into eternity; he is the one who was, and is and will be. Any and all aspects of the verb “to be” apply to him. The Septuagint carries this sense also. Exodus 3:14 –15 uses ho Theos for God (elohim). But it uses the present tense of the verb to be, eimi, with the pronoun ego, “I” for emphasis, even though eimi itself expresses the first person singular itself. A literal translation of the Greek would be
And said (the) God to Moses, ‘I am the being-one (present participle, the one who is)’ and he said, ‘you will say to the sons of Israel, ‘The being-one (present participle) has sent me to you.’”
Then in the next verse where the Hebrew has the present tense, “YHWH (I am) the Elohim of your fathers,” The Greek has the word kyrios, LORD, as in the English translation.
The appellation YHWH for God precedes this moment in Exodus (e.g. Gen 4:26; 6:8; Gen 12:1; 21:33; 28:16); God is not revealing his actual name for the first time here. This substitution of “Lord” for the name YHWH (but never when “I am” refers to other than God) is likewise found throughout Genesis (and the rest of the Old Testament) and comes from the Jewish reticence to pronounce the Memorial Name of God. Although the Hebrew texts have YHWH, the Jews would (and still do) verbally read Adonai, “Lord,” in place of this holy name. When the Septuagint was translated from the Hebrew in 300-100 BC or thereabouts, the Jewish translators used kyrios, “Lord,” wherever YHWH occurred. English translators have followed suit, using the capitalised LORD when translating YHWH from the Hebrew Old Testament.
Now, all of this might be seen as a confusing technical point of mere academic interest, were it not for the enormous theological weight that this name of God, YHWH, carries. The ways YHWH and the Greek ego eimi, “I am” and kyrios, LORD, are used throughout the scriptures and carried into the New Testament tell us not only about the timeless and totally uncreate Being of God, but about who Jesus is. (Thank you for persevering this far!)
The Scripture writers consistently use the present tense of the verb “to be” as the name of God and when God talks about himself. The memorial name YHWH, “I am” occurs throughout the Hebrew scriptures, not only as God’s name the LORD (kyrios) but to stress who God is (ego eimi). We especially see this in Isaiah:
• “Who has performed and done this, calling the generations from the beginning? I, the LORD, the first, and with the last, I am he (ego eimi)” (Isa 41:4).
• “I, I, am he (ego eimi, ego eimi) who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins” (Isa 43:25).
• “Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: ‘I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god’” (Isa 44:6; compare Rev 1:17, 2:8, 21:6, 22:13).
• “I (ego eimi, ego eimi) the LORD speak the truth; I declare what is right” (Isa 45:19).
• “Even to your old age I am he, (eigo eimi, ego eimi) and to grey hairs I will carry you” (Isa 46:4).
• “Listen to me O Jacob, and Israel, whom I called! I am he; I am (ego eimi) the first and I am (ego eimi) the last” (Isa 48:12).
• “Thus says the LORD, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: ‘I am (ego eimi) the LORD your God, who teaches you to profit, who leads you in the way you should go’” (Isa 48:17).
• “I, I, am he (ego eimi, ego eimi) who comforts you. (Isa 51:12 and see also John 14:16)
• “Therefore my people shall know my name. Therefore in that day they shall know that it is I (ego eimi) who speak; here I am (literally, ‘I am present’)” (Isaiah 52:6).
But if the Name of God and references to God’s being are expressed in the present tense (YHWH), what did God mean when he said, “I will be who I will be,” and “I will be has sent you”? Exodus 3:13–14 does not actually state who or what God would be, other than implying he will be what he is, first and last, beginning to end. Perhaps that in itself is enough; God was drawing his eternal pre-existence into his present and future covenant relationship with Israel, a kingdom that would have no end through whose King all families of the earth would be blessed. The Hebrew verb “to be” has a semantic range beyond mere existence however. It also carries the sense of happening or becoming or being present. This dovetails beautifully with concepts such as God becoming the God of Israel through his election, choosing to dwell (be present) with his people eternally and even becoming “God with us” in the incarnation in order to effect this. Scholarly interpretations of “I will be” in the context of Exodus 3:14–15 include God’s promise to be with his people, dwelling amongst them and bringing them out of Egypt, bringing into being what he will (i.e. a new nation or creation) or as a play on the verb as a prelude to stating God’s name as “I am”. The Christadelphian view is that God says he will be manifested in mighty ones (elohim) as part of John Thomas’ construct of “God manifestation.”
What of the New Testament? Why not let the inspired apostles and the lips of Jesus himself interpret the significance of God’s name and being-ness? We do not find Jesus or the early church using YHWH as the name of God. The church spoke of and prayed to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. God and Jesus are both referred to as “Lord,” kyrios. Interestingly, where we do find the Greek equivalent of YHWH, “I am / I am the being-one,” it is on the lips of Jesus in reference to himself, not to God his Father. Adding the gramatically superfluous pronoun ego (I) to the first person singular verb eimi (I am) adds emphasis; the expression stands out and draws the reader familiar with the Hebrew or Greek Old Testament to passages such as Isaiah 40 to 55 where God repeatedly discloses himself as YHWH/ego eimi. Jesus’ claim to this expression is prominent in John’s gospel, the gospel which particularly aims to set out who Jesus is.
• I am the bread of life (John 6:35 and variants in verses 41, 48, 51)
• I am the light of the world (John 8:12)
• I am the door of the sheep (John 10:7, 9)
• I am the good shepherd (John 10:11, 14)
• I am the resurrection and the life (John 11:25)
• I am the way, and the truth, and the life (John 14:6)
• I am the true vine (John 15:1, 5)
• I am the-one-speaking to you (John 4:26)
• I am the-one-testifying concerning myself (John 8:18)
Most striking are the six usages of ego eimi in an absolute sense, without any sort of predicate i.e., without the “he” that appears in some translations such as the ESV.
• I am / it is I; do not be afraid. (John 6:20)
• If you do not believe that I am (he), you will die in your sins (John 8:24)
• Then you will know that I am (he) (John 8:28)
• Before Abraham was (became), I am (John 8:58)
• So that when it occurs, you may believe that I am (he) (John 13:19)
• Jesus said to them, “I am (he)” (John 18:5, 6, 8)
Furthermore, in Revelation we see expressions of the was/is/is to come being-ness of God applied equally to the Lord Jesus as to God Almighty (Rev 1:4, 8; 4:8; 11:17; 16:5: 22:13). Jesus unequivocally applies this Scripture-wide theme of the eternal being-ness of God to himself. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever, he is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and end, who was, and is and is to come, the Almighty. Well might we praise him and glorify him together with the Father, not least at this Christmas season, celebrating when the Word who was with God and was God became flesh and dwelt among us.
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel (which means, God with us)”
“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord”
Note . This might seem to contradict Ex 6: 2–3, “God spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am the LORD. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by my name the LORD I did not make myself known to them.” Since, in Genesis, God is clearly referred to and directly addressed as YHWH, and in declaring his name to Moses in Ex 3:14–15 God seems to assume his name will be recognised in connection with the forefathers, it cannot mean the name was literally never used. Doubtless God is explaining that the full and eternal import of his name was not evident to them at the time. John 8:53–58 suggests Abraham’s latter descendants didn’t understand it either.