THE NAME OF GOD AS REVEALED IN EXODUS 3:14
An explanation of its meaning
K J Cronin
The evidence of the textual, philosophical and theological analysis presented in this paper is that there is a Divine name in Exodus 3:14, that this name is the Personal name of God, that it is the Hebrew word Ehyeh and that Ehyeh should be translated into English as I AM. The meaning of the name I AM as presented in this paper is most readily apprehended from the Diagram depicting the creative activity of God, is comprehensively explained in the Explanation of the Meaning of the Name and is concisely explained in the Summary of the Explanation. That meaning is that Ehyeh/I AM is the articulation in God of the knowledge He has of His Personal existence.
The words Ehyeh asher Ehyeh are God’s Self-identification to Moses, just as they are understood in the Septuagint. They are not a name. They translate literally as “I AM asher I AM” and in paraphrase as “I am I AM” or “My name is I AM”, as explained in The Meaning of Ehyeh asher Ehyeh.
It goes without saying that the extended Explanation of the Meaning of the Name presented above would not have been readily understood by many of the enslaved Israelites in Egypt and so it is unlikely that Moses presented any such explanation to them. However, it is entirely possible that he presented some such explanation to the Elders of Israel. As for the majority of the Israelites, he could certainly have drawn them a diagram, and a diagram can make a point very effectively and can do so in a way that almost everyone can understand.
If the meanings of the declaration Ehyeh asher Ehyeh and the name Ehyeh are as I have explained them to be, then I would propose that Exodus 3:14 can stand alone as confirmation of the peerless depth and authority of the prophecy of Moses and so of the peerless validity of the Jewish understanding of God. Indeed, I would go one step further and propose that it is specifically the declaration Ehyeh asher Ehyeh that sets the seal on the peerless prophetic authority of Moses, because it is the depth of meaning in these words that is peerless at least to my knowledge and understanding, and they are undoubtedly unique in the human historical record. I am certain that however long I had spent thinking my way towards God, I would never have reached the contemplative depth at which these remarkable and beautiful words are to be found except that they were written down on the page in front of me and in a book of some consequence. It is the acquisition by Moses of this unique and astonishing depth of understanding that I cannot account for in any other way than as the greatest ever instance of Divine revelation to humanity.
Conversely, and in my opinion very fittingly, the Divine name Ehyeh – the Personal name of the God of Judaism – can stand alone as the definitive response to and decisive refutation of the Christian idea of a triune God. This is so because the Explanation of the Meaning of the Name has amongst its most fundamental premises the Jewish understanding of God as one in His Person. It is therefore incompatible with the Christian understanding of God, which contends that God is three persons, and is moreover an implicit refutation of that understanding.
Thus at once does Ehyeh declare against all religious claims to superiority over Judaism, and against all religious claims to have superseded Judaism, and specifically against the Christian idea of a three-person God, and so against the entire edifice of Christian thought and belief.
As regards the rabbinic identification of Ehyeh asher Ehyeh as a Divine name, this is evidently incorrect. It is not incorrect only because of what I have written. It is incorrect also because of what is written in Exodus 3:13-15 and it is there for everyone to read and confirm for themselves. It is extraordinary that such an important error has stood unchallenged for so long, but such is the power of tradition. I am aware that the meaning of these words has not been understood since long before the writing of the Talmud, but that does not entirely excuse the perpetuation of what is an obviously incorrect reading of the biblical text. I believe this traditionally perpetuated error cannot but be harmful simply because it relates to what are surely the most important and holy words in existence. I therefore take issue with the rabbis on this point.
As regards the relationship between the names Ehyeh and YHWH, I would suggest that YHWH should not be regarded as the third person singular equivalent of Ehyeh because to understand it as such does not make good linguistic sense. The reason for this is that the Personal name of God is ‘I AM’, not ‘He is’. I would instead suggest that the name YHWH should be regarded as the untranslatable and gender-free proper name of God, and that it should be understood to bear the same meaning as Ehyeh, as was proposed by Ibn Ezra (see Medieval Jewish Thought). If understood in this way, then the use of the name YHWH in prayer and worship would have the effect of bringing powerfully to mind the meaning of the name Ehyeh, but without such mindfulness requiring the utterance of the most holy of Divine names and the most holy word in existence; Ehyeh.
And finally to the question of whether or not the name Ehyeh should ever be uttered, this is of course something everyone must decide for themselves. I would only point out that Moses was commanded to tell the Israelites that they are always to refer to and address God by His proper name YHWH and by implication that they are never to use His Personal name Ehyeh. The Bible therefore supports what many may feel intuitively, which is that the utterance of the name Ehyeh should at least be highly restricted. However, the Bible does not command us to forget about the name Ehyeh or to cease from contemplating its meaning. Had that been what was intended, then it would not have been written into perpetuity in the Book of Exodus. Moreover, I believe that the meaning of Ehyeh as a Divine name is of immense importance to every person of faith and to all theological and philosophical enquiry. I am therefore certain that its meaning should be understood and contemplated and discussed and remembered even if the name itself is never uttered at all. As for myself, and outwith the sphere of the most meaningful enquiry, the name Ehyeh in any language will be ineffable, but I will speak of it respectfully as the Personal name of God.