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Shemot/Exodus 3:14 And G-d said to Moshe, "I am that I am."
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Here are perhaps the most famous words spoken byHaShem in the Hebrew Scriptures. Moshe, who is, not perhaps unreasonably, still somewhat taken aback by the commission he has just been given, has just asked how he is to answer the questions of the Israelites when he goes to tell them that HaShem has sent him to bring them out of Egypt: "You spoke to who out in the wilderness?" The Israelites are going to be looking for some validation of authority before they let Moshe represent them before Pharaoh and, as we know because we have read the story before, that first interview doesn't go very well and the people are not impressed with the results.
Delving into the realms of gematria, theBaal HaTurim reveals some astonishing facts about the name G-d reveals to Moshe. "The gematria of is 21. This is also the gematria of the initial letters of the three Divine Names which begin the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy ('The L-RD! the L-RD! a G-d compassionate and gracious ...' (Shemot 34:6, JPS)) and the gematria of the initial letters of the names of the patriarchs (Avraham, Yitz'khak and Ya'akov), and of the initial letters of the five books of the Torah (i.e. the first verses of B'resheet, Shemot, Vayikra, B'Midbar and D'varim).
Grammatically, HaShem's words are neither difficult nor disputed. is a 1cs prefix form of the verb , to be, while is one of the more frequent words in the Hebrew Scriptures, the relative pronoun, translated "that, what, whom, where" as the surrounding words require. What is debated is the precise meaning they have in this particular context. Hebrew doesn't really have a tense system in the way that many of the classical languages, such as Latin and Greek, do; instead Hebrew verbs are more concerned about whether the action is complete or not and we derive the tense - the time relative to the original time of the actor - when the action took place. Normally, a prefix verb - that is, a verb where there the subject pronoun precedes the root letters - is considered to be describing incomplete action, while an affix verb - so called because the subject pronoun immediately follows the root letters - is considered to be describing complete action. It follows, then, that the most normal tense translation for an affix verb is past, while that of a prefix verb is present or future. When a vav is present at the start of a verb, this often - but not always - switches the state of completeness. With a prefix verb, this is known as the vav-conversive (or consecutive) construction and is used for sequential past actions in a narrative; the first word in the text above - - is one such - 3ms, prefix, from the root , to say - and is translated "and he said". However, this doesn't apply to either of the two uses of , which are clearly stand-alone prefix verbs. The first question, however, is how they should be translated. The options are "I am", present tense, "I will be", future tense, and "I was", imperfect tense. The second question is whether they should both be translated in the same way.
Nahum Sarna starts the discussion: "The phrase indicates that the earliest recorded understanding of the divine name was as a verb derived from the root , taken as an earlier form of , to be. Either it expresses the quality of absolute Being, the eternal unchanging, dynamic presence, or it means 'He causes to be'. G-d Himself articulates in the first person rather than the third person, reserved for man to use, because name-giving in the ancient world implied the wielding of power over the one named; hence, the divine name can only proceed from G-d himself." G-d's name, then, is active rather than passive; rather than being named, He names Himself. The name word is a verb, so G-d is telling us that we should understand that He is dynamic rather than static.
The most frequent English translation (ESV, NIV, NRSV) is in the present tense: "I am who I am". It is supported by theSforno - who says, "He whose existence is constant and consistent, and whose essence is His existence" - and Richard Elliott Friedman. Friedman asks why the name is given here in the first person singular, while in the next verse, Moshe is told to use the third person singular form, . He replies: "It appears most likely to me that the former is expressed in the first person because it is the deity's own first articulation of His identity in the world. The latter is the deity's informing Moshe of the name in the form in which humans will know it forever after, naturally in the third person." Umberto Cassuto1 is also in favour of the present tense, adding that "there is in this the thought of implementing the promises". He then cites the Rashbam, who commented, "I am who I am always, ever alike, and consequently I am true to My word and fulfil it." This is an important reminder of G-d's steadfast character; He will do what He has said He will do.
Another possible English translation uses the future tense: "I shall be what I shall be". This view seems to be understood by the ancient sages, who put these words in G-d's mouth: "I shall be with them during this trouble what I shall be with them when they are subjugated by other kingdoms" (b. Berachot 9b). Presumably Babylon and Rome are in view here; this suggests that G-d will be with and preserve Israel through other times of exile and servitude in the same way as He preserved them through the years in Egypt since Yosef's death. TheRamban says that "this is the greatest possible proof that there is a G-d in Israel 'so close at hand as is the L-RD our G-d whenever we call upon Him' (D'varim 4:7, JPS) and that 'there is, indeed, divine justice on earth' (Psalm 58:12, JPS).
RabbiHirsch explores the effect that the revelation of G-d's name has on mankind. Speaking initially for G-d, he says, "If I am to express an idea of Myself which, if he comprehends it, and if he allows himself to be completely absorbed by it, will completely change a man, will raise him out of, and above all other creatures, and bring him into direct intimate relationship to Me, then I name Myself, I express Myself as 'I shall be that which I will be.' G-d stresses, by using the future tense, that the future is completely unbound, completely dependent on His free will." If we really understand G-d's name, Hirsch says, then we will come into a personal relationship with Him. And that will certainly means change!
How are we to know G-d's name? How does that change our lives? During the morning prayers we recite each day, , The L-rd is king, the L-rd was king, the L-rd will reign for ever more. That is certainly true, but is that enough? The answer is simple: "This Yeshua is the stone rejected by you builders which has become the cornerstone. There is salvation in no one else! For there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by whom we must be saved!" (Acts 4:11-12, CJB). The name of Yeshua, trusting in Him, calling on His name - is what brings us into relationship with G-d. The writer to the Hebrews gives us a remarkably similar text, probably an encapsulated piece of liturgy from the early church: "Yeshua the Messiah is the same yesterday, today and forever" (Hebrews 13:8, CJB). The Proverb writer tells us that, "The name of the L-RD is a strong tower; the righteous man runs into it and is safe" (Proverbs 18:10, ESV), while Rav Sha'ul explains that "if you acknowledge publicly with your mouth that Yeshua is L-rd and trust in your heart that G-d raised him from the dead, you will be delivered" (Romans 10:9, CJB). Familiar words, perhaps, but remember what 'Yeshua' means; according to the angel who gave His name to Joseph: "You are to name Him Yeshua, [which means 'ADONAI saves,'] because He will save his people from their sins" (Matthew 1:21, CJB). Just as with the revelation to Moshe, the name 'Yeshua' is revealed from heaven because divine names can only come from G-d.
We live in noisy and brash world. Many voices are clamouring for attention, hawking their own wares or way of salvation, as Yeshua warned: "If anyone says to you, 'Look, here is the Messiah!' or 'Look, there he is!' do not believe it. For false messiahs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect" (Mark 13:21-22). This is why, before Yeshua came, G-d announced: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the L-RD; make straight in the desert a highway for our G-d" (Isaiah 40:3, ESV). That voice needs to be heard clearly today, a clarion call to wake people from their consumerist trance. "How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?" (Romans 10:14, ESV). Each of us has a duty to share the Good News of Messiah, so that others may hear and believe.
1. - Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, Magnes Press, Jerusalem, 1983, 965-223-456-7
Further Study: Isaiah 62:10-12; Ephesians 4:17-24
Application: Do you know the name of G-d's Messiah and have you called on Him? Hear the revelation of G-d's Spirit to you today; draw near to Him and let your life be changed forever!
Comment - 07:04 15Dec13 Tim: I am particularly struck by the name of God being a verb - an active verb at that. Especially in this season approaching Christmas as I prepare services for so many who will flow through our doors, God is active, saving the world and seeking the lost. As Billy Graham says, "Christmas is the event that sets heaven to singing". The Name that causes to be' causes us to be partners with Him through Yeshua.'
Comment - 10:57 21Dec13 C. E. Wagman: Yeshua said that if we don't believe Moses how can we believe Him, because Moses wrote of Him. It is time to reject the traditions of men and return to the wells of old. To drink from the living water, even amidst the strife (meribah) in our lives. Great work, thank you.
© Jonathan Allen, 2013
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