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I Am

I AM (אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה). The name of God (Exod 3:14) given by God to Moses when Moses asked for credentials that would convince the children of Israel that God had indeed authorized him to lead them out of Egypt (3:13). The disclosure of the name is given at the burning bush which aroused Moses’ curiosity because the bush burned with fire, but was not consumed. Such a phenomenon suggests something eternal and constant. Moreover, the giving of this name was preceded by God’s declaration to Moses that He is “the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (3:6), and the God who knew the sorrows of His people’s bondage in Egypt and had come down to deliver them. Thus the name “I am,” or “I am that I am,” overarches the past and the future history of the children of Israel and suggests that what God is in the present, He was in the past, and will be in the future to this people.

God’s identification with this people is forever, for He has willed to be known as the God who is the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and Jacob, a name which is “my name forever, and this is my memorial unto all generations” (Exod 3:15 KJV). Thus Moses’ credentials, and the faith of the children of Israel in God’s action of deliverance in the future, are grounded in, and are, an extension of what God has done for their fathers in the past.

There is no consensus among translations, or among various Biblical VSS whether the ’ehyeh of Exodus 3:14 should be translated “I am that I am,” or “I will be that I will be.” It should be observed that nothing in the record of Exodus 3 attempts to demonstrate or urge that which God was in the past to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This was unnecessary, since this was a part of the faith of the children of Israel. Even in Egypt, they held this faith. What was requested by Moses and needed by the children of Israel was a name, a disclosure of God that what He now is (I AM) and would be in the future as the God who willed to deliver Israel from the bondage of Egypt, is wholly consonant with what He was in the past with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. What was needed was not a name which disclosed that God was what He was, but that He is and will be in the future what He admittedly was in the past: the God of their fathers and, therefore, the God of their children, the children of Israel, who therefore should accept Moses’ claim that God had called him to deliver them out of Egypt.

The most distinctive name by which God was known in Israel is Yahweh (Jehovah), which comes from the same root as “I am” (אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה) but is the third person instead of the first person, future, and whose meaning throughout the Old Testament is that God has made a covenant with the children of Israel to which God will ever remain faithful and will never break. It is within this content of the meaning of “Yahweh”—a name that appears repeatedly in Exodus 3 that the “I am” is given to Moses as a credential that will—and did—convince the children of Israel that God willed through Moses to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt into a better future.

The meaning of this “I am” reappears in the claim of Jesus in the New Testament. The Jews of the New Testament resisted the summons of Jesus to lead them out of the slavery of sin into a future of freedom by appealing to the past, asserting that they were the children of Abraham—an assertion which Jesus countered, in the interest of His present and future liberating achievements, by declaring “before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58).

A more speculative and metaphysical theology sees in the “I am” of Exodus 3 an assertion of God’s ontological Being, who is the only reality, and in the light of which the opposition of Pharaoh, the concern of Moses, and the doubts of Israel regarding the future to which Moses is commanded to lead them is, in comparison to the “I am,” nothing. However, whatever may be legitimately deduced about the metaphysical character of God, of God-as-He-is-in-Himself, in distinction from created reality which in itself is nothing except contingent being, the entire context in which the name and disclosure of God as the “I am” is given, is historically conditioned. It was given by God not to disclose what He-is-in-Himself but to disclose what He is, was, and will be in that historical situation of Egypt’s sin, Moses’ need, and the doubts and fears that Moses contemplated as the reaction of the children of Israel to God’s redemptive purpose for them.

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