Completing the Interpretation of Exodus 3:14

- The Meaning of  Ehyeh asher Ehyeh

According to the Explanation of the Meaning of the Name, I AM is the name of God. I AM is also one of the only two universally accepted literal translations of the word ehyeh as it occurs in Exodus 3:14. The word ehyeh of Exodus 3:14b can be identified in its context as a Divine name, and, because it is a first person singular of the verb, can be identified as the name by which God is known to Himself; His Personal name. Therefore, the Ehyeh of Exodus 3:14b is the Personal name of God and translates into English as I AM.

Having established this, all that remains to be done in order to fully interpret the verse is to explain and translate the puzzling words of Exodus 3:14a; ehyeh asher ehyeh. This is undoubtedly the greatest challenge in Biblical interpretation. What follows is my answer to it.

In Exodus 3:13 Moses asks God what he should say to the Israelites if they ask him for the name of the God who sent him to them. For the purpose of establishing how we would expect God to respond to this enquiry, I would ask you to imagine yourself in an identical exchange, but with you in the place of God. Imagine it is you who is sending Moses on a mission to the Israelites, and that Moses is asking you what he should say to the Israelites if they ask him for the name of the one who sent him to them. The most natural and reasonable way to begin your response to his enquiry would be with a declaration of the name that you wanted Moses to relay to them. This would be naturally and reasonably followed by your instruction to Moses that he was to inform the Israelites that the one who bears that name has sent him to them. Your response would therefore fall into two parts. The first part would be some form of self-identification employing the name that you wanted Moses to relay, and the second would be your instruction to him that he was to respond to their question with that name. A self-identification is normally comprised of some form of self-address and a name, and would normally take the form "My name is x" or "I am x". We will assume that you are of sufficient renown to employ the latter form of words; "I am x". If we now combine the two parts of your response, then you would most naturally and reasonably respond to Moses' question with: "I am x. Tell the Israelites that x has sent you to them".

Now consider the exchange that took place between God and Moses in Exodus 3:13-15. Moses has asked God what he should say to the Israelites if they ask him for the name of the God who sent him to them. According to the above analysis, we would most naturally and most reasonably expect God to begin his response to Moses with a Self-identification that would employ the Divine name that he was to reveal to the Israelites. This would be naturally and reasonably followed by God's instruction to Moses that he was to inform the Israelites that the God who bears that name has sent him to them. We have already identified two forms of self-identification that God might employ – "My name is x" and "I am x" - but in the Hebrew Bible God identifies Himself according to the latter form of words with "I am YHWH". Therefore, if God were to identify Himself to Moses using His Personal name Ehyeh, we would most naturally and most reasonably expect His response to Moses' enquiry to be: "I am Ehyeh. Tell the Israelites that Ehyeh has sent you to them".

However, the Divine Self-identification "I am YHWH" is rendered in Hebrew with a non-verbal clause, employing the personal pronoun ani or anoki, meaning 'I', and the name YHWH, but without the verb 'to be'. Examples of this are "ani YHWH" of Exodus 6:2 and "anoki YHWH" of Isaiah 43:11, both of which translate literally as "I YHWH" but are usually translated as "I am YHWH". If, therefore, this form of Self-identification were employed by God in declaring His Personal name Ehyeh, we could reasonably expect that declaration to take a corresponding form, i.e. 'ani Ehyeh' or 'anoki Ehyeh', but that is not what we find. Therefore, if God did commence His response to Moses with a Self-identification that employed His Personal name Ehyeh, then the words Ehyeh asher Ehyeh do not conform to the Hebrew construction that we would expect such a Divine Self-identification to take, and so we apparently still cannot account for the dual occurrence of ehyeh in ehyeh asher ehyeh.

However, this puzzle can now be readily solved, and its solution leads us to the recognition of what I believe to be the most profound and remarkable words ever written, words so uniquely remarkable that I believe they can only be attributed to the historic architect of Judaism; the man we know as Moses.

The solution to the puzzle that is Ehyeh asher Ehyeh is to be found in two key insights into the words of Exodus 3:14. The first is that in response to Moses' enquiry of Exodus 3:13, God first identifies Himself using His Personal name Ehyeh, as explained in the Textual Analysis of Exodus 3:13-15 in Part II of this website. The second is that Ehyeh asher Ehyeh is the Divine Self-identification when God identifies Himself using His Personal name Ehyeh instead of His proper name YHWH. The explanation for this is as follows.

A self-identification would normally be comprised of some form of self-address and a name, such as "I am x" or "my name is x". A self-address is a statement born of self-reflection, the purpose and effect of which is to bring to awareness knowledge of the one doing the reflecting. Therefore, the purpose and effect of Divine Self-reflection is to bring to God's awareness the knowledge He has of His Personal existence. On the occasion of God revealing to Moses His Personal name Ehyeh/I AM, it is reasonable to expect the Divine Self-reflection to have been perfect because the Personal name is perfect, as established in Part 7 of the  Explanation of the Meaning of the Name. This informs us that on the occasion of God revealing to Moses His Personal name Ehyeh/I AM, the perfect Divine Self-reflection would have been identical to the perfect knowledge that God has of His Personal existence. The following interim conclusion ends Part 6 of the Explanation of the Meaning of the Name: "'I AM' is the articulation in God of the knowledge He has of His Personal existence". Therefore, on the occasion of God revealing to Moses His Personal name Ehyeh/I AM, the perfect Divine Self-reflection was also articulated as Ehyeh/I AM. This in turn means that God's perfect Self-address either is or at least incorporates the Divine Self-reflection Ehyeh/I AM. However, because Ehyeh/I AM is recognisable as a complete form of Divine Self-address in Hebrew as in English, there is no place for the asher in this Self-address. Therefore Ehyeh/I AM is the Divine Self-address when God identifies Himself using His Personal name Ehyeh/I AM instead of His proper name YHWH. We can thus confirm that the Divine Self-identification employing the Personal name of God Ehyeh ought to include the twofold declaration of the word Ehyeh that occurs in Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, and we can thus confirm that Ehyeh asher Ehyeh is the Divine Self-identification when God identifies Himself using His Personal name Ehyeh instead of His proper name YHWH, and the second key insight is confirmed.

Moreover, we can confirm this even without translating the asher, because it is inconceivable that there could be a second meaning being intentionally conveyed in the twofold Ehyeh of Ehyeh asher Ehyeh. As to which of the two Ehyeh is the Self-address and which is the name, the answer is that they are identical and so they are both Self-address and name. However, if for any reason they are to be thought of as one or the other, for example in the writing of a paraphrase, then I would suggest thinking of the first Ehyeh as the Self address and the second as the name, because this is the word order of the most characteristic of Biblical Divine Self-identifications, "ani/anoki YHWH". How this might manifest in a paraphrase will be seen below.

 As for the asher, it is described in the Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon as a "sign of relation" (BDB, p.81), which is its precise function in Ehyeh asher Ehyeh. Its presence has the effect of bringing the two Ehyeh into an unspecified relationship, and it is thus a generic sign of the existence of a relationship between them. Because it is generic, the asher has no exactly corresponding word in English (BDB, p.83), and so we must search instead for an English relative word or phrase that fits the context. Having undertaken such a search, I cannot identify any lexically acceptable English relative word or phrase that when emplaced in "I AM asher I AM" makes of it a recognisable Divine Self-identification. For that reason, I believe that the nuance of meaning in the asher of Exodus 3:14 is untranslatable into lexically acceptable English .

Which brings me to the translation of Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, and first to the literal translation. Because the asher is untranslatable, it makes most sense to retain it in the literal English translation of Exodus 3:14, where it will mean the same to the Hebrew reader as to the Hebrew non-reader who knows the grammatical purpose that it serves. I would therefore propose that Ehyeh asher Ehyeh should read as follows in literal English translation: "I AM asher I AM".

Alternatively, if Ehyeh asher Ehyeh is to be represented in paraphrase, then the most accurate such paraphrase  is "I am I AM", which corresponds to the Divine Self-identification "I am YHWH", and which I believe precisely articulates the meaning of Ehyeh asher Ehyeh.

With these translations, and equipped with a comprehensive understanding of why it is that Ehyeh asher Ehyeh translates in this way and what it means, I believe the puzzle that was Exodus 3:14 has now been solved. The words that God addresses to Moses in Exodus 3:14-15, in response to Moses' enquiry of Exodus 3:13, can now be confidently understood as equivalent to the following simple statement: "I am I AM. Tell the Israelites that I AM has sent you to them, and tell them also that they are henceforth to address Me and refer to Me by My proper name YHWH."

In summary, therefore, the words Ehyeh asher Ehyeh of Exodus 3:14a are God's Self-identification to Moses, just as they are understood in the Septuagint, and the absolute Ehyeh of Exodus 3:14b is the Personal name of God and translates into English as I AM. The two Ehyeh of Ehyeh asher Ehyeh are identical in meaning, as proposed by Maimonides and Sarna, but they have complementary functions within the Self-identification, as explained above.

And so to the final step on this exegetical journey, which is to write Exodus 3:14 in the two versions that I would propose.

First with Ehyeh asher Ehyeh in a partial but literal translation:

                                          Then God said to Moses, "I AM asher I AM".
       And He Said, "Thus shall you say to the Sons of Israel: 'I AM has sent me to you'".

And second with Ehyeh asher Ehyeh in a paraphrase that corresponds to the Self-identification "I am YHWH":

                                           Then God said to Moses, "I am I AM". 
       And He said, "Thus shall you say to the Sons of Israel: 'I AM has sent me to you'".