the name of God

tetragrammatonIn Exodus 3:14, God introduces Himself to Moses. This is a very important event in the Bible as it represents perhaps the first time God’s name was known. In Exodus 6, God recounts to Moses that His name “Yahweh” was not known to previous patriarchs:

Exo 6:3 I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by My name LORD I was not known to them.

But Exodus 3:14 is when God finally does make His name known. The narrative is that Yahweh hears the cry of the slaves in Egypt and Yahweh remembers His covenant with them. Yahweh’s covenant spurs Him to action as He appoints Moses to be His spokesman. Moses is a reluctant spokesman. Moses resists in all types of fashions. One such resistance is Moses’ desire for a power name in order to inspire and intimidate his listeners:

Exo 3:13 Then Moses said to God, “Indeed, when I come to the children of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they say to me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?”
Exo 3:14 And God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” [Yahweh asher Yahweh] And He said, “Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ ”
Exo 3:15 Moreover God said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the children of Israel: ‘The LORD [Yahweh] God [eloheem] of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is My name forever, and this is My memorial to all generations.’

God’s response almost seems tongue-in-cheek. God’s name is Yahweh, as consistently stated throughout the Bible, so “Yahweh asher Yahweh” might be a snarky way of presenting the name “Yahweh” to Moses. If “Yahweh asher Yahweh” was meant to be God’s full proper name, it is interesting that it is never used again.

The meaning might be “I will be whoever I want to be”. This might be God’s way of frustrating Moses’ question. Yahweh then immediately ties the name “Yahweh” with Israel. So God’s response could be seen as: “I will be whoever I want to be and I chose to be the God of Israel”.

In any case, Moses has no knowledge of this name nor do any of Moses’ hearers. What would they take away from hearing this name? Moses never does get the response for which he is looking. God’s response, translated literally, is “I will be who I will be”. This is an ambiguous and confusing statement of little use to Moses (Moses is never recorded as using it).

But God then takes great care to link His name with Israel. Moses might not have a useful name, but Moses should be reassured in God’s commitment to Israel. Yahweh links His name with Israel in verses 15, 16, and 18. However the name “Yahweh” is taken, it is in relation to Israel. The Talmud backs up this idea:

The only full interpretation of Exodus 3:14 in the Talmud is in Berakoth 9b2, where it is framed in the context of Israel’s servitude in Egypt and Babylon, and is interpreted as an assurance by God that He will be with Israel in all its troubles. The only Talmudic citation of the absolute ehyeh of 3:14b also features in this interpretation, where it is understood simply in terms of God’s compassion towards Israel. Apart from it being the only full interpretation of Exodus 3:14 in the Talmud, Berakoth 9b2 is also highly noteworthy because it is the interpretation subsequently espoused by Rashi, the most respected and influential of all Talmudic commentators and one of the most respected and influential figures in Judaism. The extract from Berakoth 9b2 reads as follows in the Soncino Talmud:

“I am that I am: The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses: Go and say to Israel: I was with you in this servitude, and I shall be with you in the servitude of the (other) kingdoms. He said to Him: Lord of the universe, sufficient is the evil in the time thereof! Thereupon the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: Go and tell them: I Am has sent me unto you.”

Some individuals, such as Norman Geisler, take Exodus 3:14 as some sort of metaphysical claim by Yahweh to be timeless or immutable. But in the Talmud, God’s name is not linked to immutability or timelessness, but to Israel. The idea that God’s name is linked to Israel is a claim for mutability. God is identifying Himself relationally.

The Septuagint might back up Geisler’s claim. This document, written under the watch of the Hellenized king, Ptolemy II, translates Exodus 3:14 roughly to “I am the Being” or “I am the One”. The Hebrew from which it is translated no longer exists, but the translators seem to have taken some liberty.

In contrast to this, the earliest Hebrew texts of Exodus 3:14 record the ancient Hebrew name found in the earliest Hebrew quotes of the Bible. The Dead Sea Scrolls use the ancient Hebrew script that is also used on the Ketef Hinnom (the earliest known Bible quote dating from 700-650 BC). This is quite interesting as the rest of the Dead Sea Scroll text is in more modern Hebrew. The name Yahweh is left in an ancient script among newer Hebrew script.

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Furthermore, two ancient Greek translations also use translations counter to the LXX and closer to what one would expect the Hebrew to mean:

The versions of Aquila and Theodotion have ehyeh asher ehyeh and the ehyeh of 3:14b rendered into Greek as “esomai hos esomai” and “esomai” respectively, which in turn translate as “I will be who I will be” and “I will be”.[3] There could have been several reasons why they chose to translate the words of Exodus 3:14 in this way, but among them would certainly have been a desire to produce a translation that would be more true to the Hebrew original than the Septuagint. For this reason they would have wanted to restore the idem-per-idem form of ehyeh-asher-ehyeh, and so they did. However, had the translators’ only purpose been to restore the idem-per-idem form, then the most obvious revision of ego eimi ho on would have been ego eimi ho ego eimi, which would at least have preserved the only literal translation of ehyeh that does feature in the Septuagint version of the verse (ego eimi). Instead, they chose to replace the words “ego eimi” with “esomai”, which is to replace the words “I am” with “I will be”, and, in keeping with the apparent intention of the Hebrew text, they translated all three occurrences of ehyeh in this way.

The author of this paragraph rejects the understanding of Aquila and Theodotion because the author absurdly maintains: “in Judaism God is understood to be eternally immutable”. But Aquila and Theodotion appear to be preserving the natural Hebrew reading in which God is not making a metaphysical claim (a claim never developed anywhere in the Bible and is countered by endless texts). But Aquila and Theodotion support the idea that God is saying “I will be who I will be” or “I am who I will be”. Their claim, along with what is probably the original Hebrew text, is that God is dynamic and relational.

About christopher fisher

The blog is meant for educational/entertainment purposes. All material can be used and reproduced in any length for any purpose as long as I am cited as the source.
This entry was posted in Bible, God, Open Theism, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to the name of God

  1. Pingback: Apologetics Thursday – Much Ado About Judaism | God is Open

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