Exodus 3:14 in Historical Christianity

Whilst Jewish exegetes did not attribute disproportionate importance to Exodus 3:14 until the Middle Ages, it has commanded the attention of Christian exegetes from the outset.  To grasp the significance Exodus 3:14 has in Christian thought we might usefully consider the words of Gilson, who stated that with this revelation "Exodus lays down the principle from which henceforth the whole of Christian philosophy will be suspended".[1]  The importance attached to this verse is readily understood when one considers the foundation upon which Christian dogma rests; for the validity of the Christian understanding of God depends upon the validity of the assertion that Jesus is the incarnation of the word of God, and that the Divine essence and the word of God are at once identical and distinct.  These assertions are within the provinces of ontology and epistemology, although the latter is not commonly recognised.  There is no more ontological a verse in the Bible than Exodus 3:14, as the Septuagint and Vulgate make clear, and it is therefore not only understandable that this verse has attracted so much attention from Christian exegetes; it could hardly have been otherwise.

The Church fathers and Medieval Scholastics identified the ehyeh of 3:14b as the Divine name that expresses the most fundamental essence of God, which essence they identied as "subsistent being itself" (Latin "ipsum esse subsistens").[2]  According to Ott, "The Patristc writers and the Schoolmen (Scholastics) accept the name of the Divine Essence given in Ex.3:14, and regard Absolute Being as that concept by which we state the essence of God most fundamentally".  John Damascene stated the opinion that is still held in Roman Catholicism today, which is that the name ehyeh (translated "He who is" from the Septuagint "ho on") is the "most appropriate" of all divine names (De fide orth I.9).  Ott also informs us that the words ehyeh asher ehyeh are understood in Roman Catholicism to bear the meaning: "I Am He Whose Essence is expressed in the words "I am"; and he continues: "God is therefore purely and simply being. His Essence is Being".

Among the more important of the early and Medieval Christian contributions to the interpretation of this verse are those of Jerome, Augustine,[3] and Aquinas,[4] all of whom saw in it an allusion to God's absolute and eternal being.  Augustine and Aquinas also explicitly identified the ehyeh of 3:14b as a Divine name, the former employing both the Septuagint and Vulgate translations in his exegesis while the latter employed only the Vulgate in his.  In consequence of this, both "Being" (after Augustine) and "He who is" (after Aquinas) came to be recognised as Divine names in Roman Catholic Orthodoxy, although both relate to the same Hebrew word; ehyeh.

Translations of Exodus 3:14 in modern Christian Bibles can be usefully considered along the lines of the three major branches of Christianity: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant.  Until the middle of the 20th century all Roman Catholic versions were based upon the Vulgate, but since that time have been based upon combinations of the Hebrew MT, Septuagint, and Vulgate.  The New American Bible offers a good example of this synthesis, with ehyeh asher ehyeh being rendered as in the Vulgate to yield "I am who am", while the absolute ehyeh is translated directly from the Hebrew MT to yield "I am".  The New Jerusalem Bible by contrast employs a combination of the Septuagint and Hebrew MT in its translation, rendering ehyeh asher ehyeh as "I am He who is" and the absolute ehyeh as "I am".  Roman Catholic versions thus retain the connotation of absolute and eternal being, which is in line with the most recent Papal interpretation of the verse.  The Eastern Orthodox Churches recognise only the Septuagint as Holy Scripture, and so their understanding of the verse is necessarily in terms of absolute and eternal being.  Protestant Bibles show more variety in their translations, but most of them opt for "I am who I am" and "I am" for 3:14a and 3:14b respectively.  This translation of ehyeh asher ehyeh invites a variety of interpretations, including those of God being inscrutable, evasive, or even dismissive in His response to Moses.

Turning now to some modern Christian interpretations of the verse, Pope Paul VI's Credo of the People of God states the following in relation to the orthodox Roman Catholic belief in God: "He is He who is, as He revealed to Moses; and He is love, as the apostle John teaches us: so that these two names, being and love, express ineffably the same divine reality of Him".[5]  Paul VI's identification of "Being" as a Divine name is a reference to the exegesis of Augustine, and through him to the translation of Exodus 3:14b in the Septuagint.  Pope John Paul II commented on these words of his predecessor in his Catechesis on the Creed, where he writes: "Following the doctrinal and theological tradition of many centuries, he saw in it the revelation of God as "being" – subsisting being, which expresses, in the language of the philosophy of being ( ontology or metaphysics used by St. Thomas Aquinas), the essence of God".[6]  Roman Catholic orthodoxy thus retains the longstanding interpretation of the ehyeh of 3:14b as connoting absolute and eternal being, and of it being a Divine name.

Brevard Childs offers a substantial and useful commentary on the call of Moses, in the course of which he settles on an interpretation that appears to be a somewhat elaborated synthesis of the positions of others before him. [7]  He suggests that the ehyeh of 3:14b and ehyeh asher ehyeh of 3:14a are statements of God's unspecified intentions for Moses and Israel respectively, and thus settles on a generally temporal interpretation of the verse. More specifically he suggests that the ehyeh of 3:14 is a word play on the divine name YHWH; that the ehyeh asher ehyeh of 3:14a is "paradoxically both an answer and a refusal to answer" on God's part; and that God is here announcing that "His intentions will be revealed in His future acts, which He now refuses to explain".  Inventive though his interpretation may be, there is little in it that could have been especially meaningful or even encouraging to the enslaved Israelites in Egypt, and, as with some contemporary Jewish interpretations, it neither measures up to nor even fits the occasion, and so is unlikely to be correct.  More interesting is Noth, who identifies the ehyeh of 3:14b as a divine name, and even suggests that it "unmistakably hints at the name Yahweh in so far as an Israelite ear could immediately understand the transition from ehyeh to Yahweh merely as a transition from the first to the third person, so that the name Yahweh would be understood to mean 'He is'".[8]  Noth's interpretation thus approximates those of Recanati, Rashbam, and Ibn Ezra, as outlined in Exodus 3:14 in Jewish Medieval Thought.



Footnote number 1-8

 [1] Gilson E., The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, (London: Sheed and Ward, 1950), p.51.

 [2]For an authoritative summary of the Roman Catholic interpretation of Ex.3:14 from Patristic times to the present day, see: Ott L., Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, trans. Lynch P., (Rockford: Tan Books and Publishers, 1974), p.25-27.

 [3] McKenna S. (trans.), Saint Augustine: The Trinity, in: Peebles M. et al. (eds), The Fathers of the Church, A New Translation, (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1970), p.177. For online translation, see: Hadden A., On The Trinity; Book 5, Ch.2, available online at: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/130105.htm

 [4]Gilbey T. et al (eds.), St Thomas Aquinas: Summa Theologica, Latin Text and English Translation, Vol 3, (London: Blackfriars, 1964), pp.91-93; For online translation, see: Summa Theologica, Part 1, Q.13, Article 11. Available online at: http://www.catholicprimer.org/summa/FP/FP013.html#FPQ13A11THEP1

 [5] "The Profession of Faith of Paul VI (1968)", in: Dupuis J. (ed.), Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church, (NY: Alba House, 1996), p.24. Full text also available online at: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/paul_vi/motu_proprio/documents/hf_p-vi_motu-proprio_19680630_credo_en.html

 [6] John Paul II, A Catechesis on the Creed: God, Father and Creator, (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 1996), p.118.

 [7] Childs B., Exodus, Old Testament Library, (London: SCM Press, 1974), p.75ff.

 [8] Noth M., Exodus, Old Testament Library, trans. Bowden J., (London: SCM Press, 1962), p.43.