The Meaning of
“I Am Who I Am”
The following extract is from the article “Calling God names: an inner-biblical approach to the Tetragrammaton,” William M. Schniedewind, in Scriptural Exegesis: The Shapes of Culture and the Religious Imagination: Essays in Honour of Michael Fishbane, Oxford, 2009. When the author mentions the Hebrew phrase Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, he is referring to the declaration, “I am who I am” (Ex.3:14), Yahweh’s famous self-description revealed to Moses.
Second, it has been pointed out by many that Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh [Exodus 3.14,15] seems to be connected with verse 12, in which God promises ‘I shall be with you’ (אהיה עמד). The connection with verse 12 was already recognized by ancient Jewish interpreters. Independently, many modern readers have seen the same connection. A later interpreter may be playing on the promise, ‘I shall be with you’. We do well to remember that this connection does not merely derive from the immediate context, though that might have been the trigger. The promise ‘I shall be with you’ (אהיה עמד) is found frequently in the Hebrew Bible; God promises that He will be with Abraham, with Isaac, with Jacob, with Moses, with Joshua, with Gideon, with David, with the people of Israel, and so on. Thus, the exegetical rumination would result not only from the immediate context, but also from the broader cultural and religious horizon of ancient Israel. We arrive at interpretations of the name of God based on the LORD’s presence—some have suggested translating Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh as something like ‘I am the one who shall surely be with you’. While there may be an intuitive connection here, the problem with this interpretation is that it is not what the text literally says. Ehyeh is an imperfect, or a future; it should mean something like ‘I shall be whom I shall be’—but that does not suit our religious sensibilities. ‘I shall be whom I shall be’ makes the LORD seem capricious, whereas (paradoxically) ‘I am who I am’ can assert God’s unchanging nature. Perhaps both seemed like good answers during the Babylonian exile or in the postexilic community, as well as at other times of crisis.
Although the proximity of Ehyeh-‘Immakh and Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh almost demands some relationship between the two, the meanings of the two are not naturally connected. We must assume that Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh (אהיה אשר אהיה) is an interpretation of אהיה עמד, ‘I shall be with you’, in order to make the connection. And, we may ask, why stress that God’s name—His very essence—points to God’s presence? Perhaps because God’s presence was challenged and questioned—as it was by the exile and during the postexilic period. Certainly, there was a need to reassert God’s presence in the Jerusalem temple, especially in the postexilic period when the former symbol of God’s presence—the ark—was absent. The divine name could serve as a new symbol of God’s physical presence in Jerusalem and in the temple.
In sum, the early history of the ineffable name of God seems to be closely associated with the Jerusalem temple. References to the building of a temple ‘for the name’ can be compared with the rather mundane Near Eastern parallels in which such statements merely indicate exclusivity of ownership. In the exilic period, however, the fact that the temple was ‘for the name of God’ could be understood to mean that only the name of God, and not God himself, resided in the temple. When the temple was rebuilt in the postexilic period, the fact that the name of God resided in the temple increasingly was understood literally to imply God’s physical presence with his people and in the temple. Ehyeh, for example, was an interpretation of the Tetragrammaton that played on the promise of God’s presence and reassured the people of His immanence. When the former symbol of God’s physical presence on earth, the ark of the covenant, had disappeared, the name became a convenient surrogate as a symbol of God’s presence with His people, and especially in the Jerusalem temple.
(c) 2012 Christian Disciples Church