An explanation of its meaning

K J Cronin

Exodus 3:14 in Modern Jewish Philosophy

In his article in the Encyclopaedia Judaica Marvin Fox identifies two main tendencies towards the interpretation of Divine names in modern Jewish philosophy. These are the primarily metaphysical tendency on the one hand and the primarily religious and personalistic tendency on the other. In relation to the interpretation of Exodus 3:14 these two tendencies correspond to the absolute and eternal interpretations on the one hand and the temporal interpretations on the other that have been identified throughout this paper.[33]

On the absolute and eternal side of the divide are such figures as Moses Mendelssohn and Hermann Cohen. Based mostly on his understanding of an interpretation in Exodus Rabbah 3:6 (see Talmud and Midrash above), Mendelssohn summarises his interpretation of the verse as follows: “I am He who was, is, and shall be, and who practices lordship and providence over all”.[34] He describes all three occurrences of ehyeh as together comprising, “a single name, which embraces past, present, and future alike”, and thus indicates the eternality of God. This feature of his interpretation is clearly reflected in his Bible translation, which reads as follows: “God spoke to Moses: “I am the being that is eternal”. He said further: “Say to the children of Israel, ‘The eternal being, which calls itself, I-am-eternal, has sent me to you””.[35] Mendelssohn further interprets the tri-partite name (ehyeh-ehyeh-ehyeh) as somehow indicating “the necessity of existence” and “the continuous and abiding character of providence”, the former in relation to the existence of God and the latter to His actions. However, his Bible translation also demonstrates his specific albeit imprecise identification of the ehyeh of 3:14b as the name by which God is known to Himself because he translates it as “I am eternal”.

My principal objection to Mendelssohn’s interpretation is that the threefold ehyeh can no more be a name than can ehyeh asher ehyeh, and so, with this fundamental understanding so far astray, the rest of his interpretation cannot but be incorrect. Moreover, his translations of ehyeh asher ehyeh and ehyeh also bear no relation to the Hebrew of these words and so cannot be correct for this reason also.

Hermann Cohen, by contrast, identified only ehyeh asher ehyeh as a Divine name, thus apparently accepting and trying to work within the constraints of tradition, but he interpreted it in terms of the eternality and immutability of God and thus not in accordance with the predominantly temporal interpretations of Jewish tradition.[36]

Foremost on the temporal side of the exegetical divide are the philosophers Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig. Their interpretation of Exodus 3:14 is recorded piecemeal in Scripture and Translation (S&T) and more cohesively by Buber in Moses: The Revelation and the Covenant, upon which two sources the following analysis is based.[37][38]

Buber and Rosenzweig’s interest in Exodus 3:14 was substantially due to the significance it had for their Bible translation, constituting as it did the stated basis for their rendering of the Divine name YHWH, which Buber described as “The greatest reality of the Bible” (S&T, p.170). They were averse to the philosophical interpretation of Exodus 3:14, which Rosenzweig described as “Platonizing” (S&T, p.190), and instead interpreted it in terms of God’s constant presence with and providence towards the people that are Israel and thus along the lines of Berakoth 9b. In support of their interpretation they contend that the meaning conveyed by the verb root hayah is that of “being-there”, as opposed to “being” in the existential sense, and attempt to bolster their interpretation with the contention that the ehyeh of Exodus 3:12 and 4:12 likewise convey the meaning of “being-there” (Moses, p.52).

Specifically in relation to ehyeh asher ehyeh, they interpret the first ehyeh of this declaration as an assurance by God that He will always be with those chosen by Him (i.e. Israel) and to simply mean, “I shall be-there”. They contend that the asher ehyeh of this declaration should be interpreted in accordance with their understanding of other biblical idem-per-idem forms and thus to mean, “as the one I shall always be-there as” or “just as I shall on this or that occasion want to appear” (S&T, p.195), which is along the lines of the sixth interpretation in Exodus Rabbah 3:6. The whole declaration was thus translated into the German equivalent of, “I will be-there howsoever I will be-there”.

The etymology Buber presents in support of their rendering of the name YHWH would not be accepted by any contemporary biblical scholar (see e.g. Moses, p.50).  Nor would their contention that the word ehyeh in Exodus 3:14, 3:12 and 4:12 conveys the meaning of “being-there”. It is also the case that they gave too much thought to Exodus 3:14 only for its bearing upon their rendering of the name YHWH and as a consequence addressed it primarily as a means to an exegetical end rather than an exegetical end in itself, just as Maimonides had done seven centuries before, which approach can only lead to a misunderstanding of the verse as a whole. Moreover, the same objection applies to their interpretation as has applied to so many others before and since, which is that it simply does not measure up to the occasion. In this case, the Israelites were very unlikely to have been impressed by a total stranger delivering to them an assurance of God’s presence with and providence towards them while their longstanding parlous circumstances suggested precisely the opposite, and that is in the very unlikely event that they could have been persuaded that the name YHWH conveys such a meaning. Taking account of both linguistic and contextual considerations, therefore, their interpretation of the verse as a whole is evidently incorrect.  However, these were not the last of Buber’s exegetical comments upon this verse. There remained the thus far wholly unaddressed issue of the absolute ehyeh of 3:14b.

In Scripture and Translation, Buber and Rosenzweig did not specifically comment upon the ehyeh of 3:14b, which is a very striking omission for thinkers of their calibre and clearly indicates their desire to avoid this difficult and controversial subject. Although their malaise in relation to the meaning of the ehyeh of 3:14b is not discernable in Scripture and Translation, it does become quite evident in Buber’s later work, Moses: The Revelation and the Covenant.

The most telling statement Buber makes in Scripture and Translation is that ehyeh asher ehyeh “reveals in the first person what the name (YHWH) conceals in the third” (p.193). In this statement, Buber does not specifically identify either ehyeh of ehyeh asher ehyeh as the first person form of YHWH but there is no other way to understand it and so it can be safely concluded that this is how he understood it. Buber further clarifies his understanding in Moses (p.53) where he states in relation to the word ehyeh that, “the direct word ehyeh explains the indirect name (YHWH)”. When this statement is considered in the context of the above quotation it confirms that he did recognise the ehyeh of 3:14b both as a Divine name and as the first person equivalent of the third person name YHWH. However, he was obviously very reluctant to recognise it as such because he pointedly states, “That Ehyeh is not a name; the God can never be named so. Only on this one occasion, in the sole moment of transmitting his work, is Moses allowed to take God’s self-comprehension in his mouth as a name”.

So Buber did, reluctantly, identify the ehyeh of 3:14b as a Divine name and even described it as God’s “self-comprehension”, which unambiguously philosophical interpretation confirms that his understanding of the verse was not quite as un-philosophical as he had maintained. Furthermore, his contention that the word ehyeh was only to have been used as a Divine name on the single occasion of Moses addressing it to the enslaved Israelites in Egypt indicates that he thought of ehyeh as a very special Divine name, the utterance of which should be severely restricted even to the point of it not being uttered at all. A restriction on its use is certainly suggested by the biblical text, as we shall see below, but not to the point of a complete prohibition.  The emphasis in the Bible is rather on YHWH being the name that is to be used by humanity and only by implication that ehyeh is not to be so used.

However, in taking this position Buber was only taking necessary account of one very remarkable fact in relation to ehyeh as a Divine name, which is that there is only one other possible occurrence of this name in the entire Bible. I say possible because I am not convinced that the ehyeh of Hos.1:9 is intended to be so understood, but Buber believed that it is and even gave it a place in the narrative of the destruction of the Northern Kingdom. If we set this debate to one side, and so exclude from consideration Hos.1:9, then there is no doubt at all that Exodus 3:14 features the only occurrence of the word ehyeh as a Divine name in the entire Bible. This single occurrence stands in marked contrast to the name YHWH, which occurs some 6,828 times.[39] Nor is ehyeh identified as a Divine name in any other Jewish writings up until the Middle Ages and then only prominently so in kabbalistic texts. Therefore, if the ehyeh of Exodus 3:14b is a Divine name, then its occurrence as such would inform us that there is a Divine name in the Bible, one that was revealed to Moses on the occasion of his first encounter with God and his commissioning as prophet to Israel, and that this name has been all but unrecognised in Judaism ever since the words of Exodus 3:14 were first penned, and even to the modest extent that it has been recognised has been all but lost to Jewish consciousness down to the present day. I think you will agree that this would be truly extraordinary if it is indeed the case.[40]

Buber’s closing comments on the verse are interesting to note and germane to a later part of this paper.  He suggests that if ehyeh asher ehyeh is theology, then it is “that archaic theology which, in the form of a historical narrative, stands at the threshold of every genuine historical religion”, which would make it the theology of the genuinely historic architect of Judaism; Moses (Moses, p.55).