THE NAME OF GOD AS REVEALED IN EXODUS 3:14
An explanation of its meaning
K J Cronin
Completing the Interpretation of Exodus 3:14
– The Meaning of Ehyeh asher Ehyeh
Here is what we know so far. In the Textual Analysis of Exodus 3:13-15 in Part II of this paper I conclude that the Hebrew word ehyeh of Exodus 3:14b can be identified in its context as a Divine name, and because it is the first-person singular of the verb it can be identified as the name by which God is known to Himself; His Personal name. It is also the case that one of the only two universally accepted English translations of the Hebrew word ehyeh is ‘I am’. In the Textual Analysis I conclude that ‘I am’ is the only theologically acceptable translation of the ehyeh of Exodus 3:14b and, as confirmation of this, the Explanation of the Meaning of the Name identifies I AM as the name of God. 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 in order to fully interpret the verse is to explain and translate the puzzling words of Exodus 3:14a; ehyeh asher ehyeh. This is certainly the greatest challenge in biblical interpretation. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that it is the greatest mystery in human history. What follows is my solution 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 most 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 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 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 was 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 in Exodus 3:14. 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 still cannot account for the dual occurrence of ehyeh in ehyeh asher ehyeh.
However, with the assistance of the Explanation of the Meaning of the Name this puzzle can now be 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. 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 is normally 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.
Because God is perfect His Self-reflection is perfect.
Therefore the Divine Self-reflection brings to God’s awareness the perfect knowledge that He has of His Personal existence.
Therefore on the occasion of God identifying Himself to Moses and revealing to him His Personal name Ehyeh/I AM, the Divine Self-reflection would have brought to God’s awareness the perfect knowledge that He has of His Personal existence.
The following conclusion ends Part 6 of the Explanation of the Meaning of the Name in Part II of this website: “‘I AM’ is the articulation in God of the knowledge He has of His Personal existence”.
On the occasion of God identifying Himself to Moses using His Personal name Ehyeh/I AM, the Self-awareness occasioned by the Divine Self-reflection would also have been articulated as Ehyeh/I AM.
The Divine Self-address is, or at least incorporates, the articulation of the Self-awareness occasioned by the Divine Self-reflection.
Therefore the Divine Self-address is, or at least incorporates, the word/s Ehyeh/I AM.
Because ehyeh is a complete form of self-address in Hebrew, there is no place for the asher in the Divine Self-address of Exodus 3:14a.
Therefore Ehyeh/I AM is the Divine Self-address when God identifies Himself using His Personal name Ehyeh/I AM.
As stated above, a self-identification is comprised of a self-address and a name and so the Divine Self-identification is comprised of the Divine Self-address and the Divine name. We have now established that the Divine Self-address is Ehyeh/I AM and that the Divine name is Ehyeh/I AM. We can therefore now 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 so 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 signals the existence of an unspecified relationship between the two Ehyeh of Ehyeh asher Ehyeh. Without the asher the two Ehyeh would appear to stand alone as merely independent declarations of the name Ehyeh. It is presumably for this reason that the asher is required between Self-address and name in Ehyeh asher Ehyeh and for this reason that the Divine Self-identification Ehyeh asher Ehyeh does not conform to the normal construction of self-identification that comprises only self-address and name.
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 translation of the asher that fits the context. Having undertaken such a search I can identify only one translation that when emplaced in “I AM asher I AM” makes of it a recognisable Divine Self-identification. That translation is “is who”, yielding the words “I AM is who I AM”. However, this is a completely unattested translation of asher and, moreover, it does not preserve the purity of the idem-per-idem form of Ehyeh asher Ehyeh. I therefore do not accept this as the translation we seek and conclude that the nuance of meaning in the asher of Exodus 3:14a is untranslatable into 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 simple and 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 being 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 three 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 you shall say to the Sons of Israel:‘I AM has sent me to you’”.
Second with Ehyeh asher Ehyeh translated 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 you shall say to the Sons of Israel: ‘I AM has sent me to you’”.
And finally, in the interests of complete clarity, with Ehyeh asher Ehyeh translated in a loose but universally recognisable paraphrase:
Then God said to Moses, “My name is I AM”.
And He said, “Thus you shall say to the Sons of Israel:‘I AM has sent me to you’”.