The following text is an exegesis I wrote for my Greeks and Hebrews class. It discusses the meaning and purpose of God's enigmatic name, as it appears in Exodus 3:14.
Yahweh makes a baffling first impression. When He meets Moses on Mount Horeb, he introduces Himself using a formula instead of a name. “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh,” says God; “I am who I am” (Ex 3:14 GNT). Philological analysis of the formula in light of logic, ontology, ancient Hebrew symbolism, and modern Jewish philosophy illuminates its meaning and intent.
The Hebrew phrase itself is ambiguous. “Ehyeh” is the first-person form of the verb “hyh,” which can mean, “to be,” or, “to cause to be.” Sensible translations include, “I am who I am,” “I am that I am,” “I am that which I am,” “I am what I am,” and “I will be who I will be” (Sarna 17). The Vulgate reads, “Ego sum qui sum” (I am who am), and later, “Qui est” (He who is), as God refers to Himself in the third-person (The Vulgate Bible). A grammatical analysis shows that the clauses that comprise the formula are interdependent. A transitive verb, “to be” (am) derives all meaning from its object. The object, “who I am,” refers to the subject and creates an endless loop of meaning. Though the translations vary slightly, they all evoke the same deliberate obfuscation of God’s identity.
Reading the formula through an ontological lens shows that God conceals part of His being from Moses. P. Coffey, author of Ontology, describes being as having two parts: existence and essence. A thing either exists, or it does not exist. A thing’s essence, according to P. Coffey, is “that by which a thing is what it is: id quo res est id quod est” (Coffey 75). In other words, the essence is the trait or collection of traits that defines something and distinguishes it from all other things. The formula “I am who I am” expresses God’s existence but conceals His essence entirely. Thus, the text read in light of ontological principles implies that God cannot be fully known.
It seems, then, that God’s answer sidesteps Moses’ question; however, hidden in the enigmatic formula is a statement of eternal truth. The formula can be compared to the tautology, i = i
The reason for which God conceals his name is as elusive as the meaning of the formula. Here, the writings of Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel serve as an interpretive aid. In his analysis of the origin of religion, Heschel describes verbal expression as a departure from wonder; “In expressing,” he says, “one is delivered of what he is replete with” (Heschel 97). For example, a man sees a beautiful sunset and is enthralled by its beauty; he can overcome this emotion by painting the sunset, whereby he contains the phenomenon on a canvas and subdues that which formerly subdued him. Moreover, Heschel defines piety as the life that flows from a soul overcome with a sense of the ineffable, and the pious person as he who “[desires] to live [that sense] rather than be released of it” (97). That sense is lost the moment it is expressed in words, so God lays the foundation for Jewish piety by omitting the detail that would release a person from his stupefaction.
It is possible that God obfuscates his name to declare his dominance over humans. When a person is confronted by the unknown, his reaction is first one of fear. His power is threatened, so to speak, by the object of his wonder. In order to regain his position of power, the person must understand that which bewilders him. He does this by naming it. A name is a shortcut, a symbol that provides quick access to a complex concept. For example, a reptile with a bony shell is called a turtle because it becomes tedious to refer to the animal by describing it. To know God’s name would allow Moses to access Him, to classify Him, and in doing so to believe he has dominated Him. In his commentary of the Torah, W. Gunther Plaut quotes Martin Buber: “Anybody who knows the true name [of a person] and knows how to pronounce it in the correct way can gain control of him. …through the name he becomes approachable, the speaker has power over him” (Plaut 399). The ancient Hebrews evidently associated knowledge with power, so it can be argued that God retains anonymity to assert his dominance. (Whether God does this to protect his throne or to state a reality is unclear as His intentions are absent from the passage.)
God’s dominance is also apparent in that his response defies human nature. In the book of Genesis, the first responsibility God gives to Adam is the task of classifying the fauna; taxonomy is thus a pillar of human nature. It follows that God’s name-formula—essentially a non-name—signifies an irreconcilable rift between the human and the divine. Moses wants to name God, to understand Him, but he cannot. The image of the burning bush from earlier in the passage harmonizes with this notion. In Hebrew culture, fire evoked mystery and divinity. In light of this, that God calls Himself, “I am who I am,” shows that God operates on a plane different from, if not higher than, that of humans.
Heschel further suggests that God chooses to remain nameless to preserve the genuineness of His relationship with humankind. Heschel talks about the inherent loss of detail in symbolism; he says, “There is hardly a symbol which, when used, would not impair or even undo the grasp of remembrance of the incomparable” (Heschel 97). To illustrate, a photograph of a mountain never stuns a person as much as the real thing. The symbol represents; it does not duplicate. The second commandment against making graven images suggests that the Hebrews believed this as well. Therefore, it can be argued that a symbol for God would weaken the relationship by its gross inaccuracy. Furthermore, Heschel sees all existence as a fluid thought of God. It follows that humans cannot think of God but only in God. The philosopher explains the relational effects of this: “As soon as a person objectifies God, he gains an idea and loses God” (128).
It is yet possible that God conceals his name to initiate Moses’ transition from material polytheism to spiritual monotheism. In Coffey’s analysis of essence, he notes that in pondering “the constitution of any corporeal thing, there is a danger of taking what is really only part of the essence of such a thing for the whole essence” (Coffey 77). Having grown up in a world of golden calves, animal-headed gods, and Pharaohs who were essentially gods on earth, Moses probably would have tended to see gods as “corporeal beings.” God’s nondisclosure of His essence thus prevents any confusion over the part and the whole of God. With no way to connect God to the material, Moses is forced to embark on an exclusively spiritual journey.
One could say that this journey is defined in the first few moments Moses speaks with God. Moses leads the Hebrews out of Egypt with an obedience that can only flow fresh from an encounter with indescribable wonder. God’s perplexing introduction marks the beginning of a grand narrative—that of the Israelites’ quest for nationhood, for prosperity, and for relationship with the unknowable God who is who He is.
Coffey, P. Ontology. New York, NY: Peter Smith, 1938. Print.
Good News Bible. New York, NY: American Bible Society, 1992. Print.
Heschel, Abraham Joshua. Man Is Not Alone. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951. Print.
Plaut, W. Gunther. The Torah: a Modern Commentary. New York, NY: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981. Print.
Sarna, Nahum M. The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus. Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society, 1991. Print.
The Vulgate Bible. Ed. Swift Edgar. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010. Print.