THE NAME OF GOD

The concept of the name of God is one which has fascinated scholars and philosophers from the dawn of time. Bluethread explores how a little knowledge of Hebrew helps to enrich this quest.

Moses said to God, "When I come to the Israelites and say to them 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me 'What is his name?' what shall I say to them?" And God said to Moses, "Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh." He continued, "Ehyeh sent me to you.'" And God said further to Moses, "Thus shall you speak to the Israelites: The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you:
This shall be my name forever,
This My appellation for all eternity. (Exodus 3:13-15)

Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh

So God's name, at least the one given to Moses in the above Torah passage, is "Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh." What does that mean? In biblical Hebrew, "Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh" is a deceptively simple phrase consisting of the relative pronoun "asher" sandwiched between two instances of the first person singular imperfect of the verb hayah--to be. "Ehyeh" is most commonly translated as "I will be." Asher is a remarkable Hebrew word. Imagine, in English, a single word that can mean "that" "who" "which" or "where." So the phrase could mean:

I will be that I will be

I will be who I will be

I will be which I will be

I will be where I will be

English has many distinguishable tenses, but biblical Hebrew has only two main tenses, perfect and imperfect. The perfect tense describes actions that are completed:

I walked

I did walk

I had walked

The imperfect tense describes actions or states that are not completed:

I will walk

I usually walk

I might walk

May I walk?

I would walk

A Hebrew verb that appears in the imperfect tense can be translated with any of these meanings. (Simon, The First Hebrew Primer, p. 94) The first Ehyeh might be one tense (for instance, "I am") and the second another ("I will be.")

Here are some other possible translations:

I am that I am (Hertz, p 215)

I will be what I will be (Rashi, from Hertz, p 215)

I am who I am (Sarna, 1986, p 52)

I will be what I want to be (S.R. Hirsch from Plaut, p 405)

I will be what tomorrow demands (Plaut, p 405)

It is he who creates what comes into existence (Albright, p 171)

He brings into existence whatever exists (Enc. Jud.)

I will be with him that I will be

I exist and fulfill my promises

The one who spoke and the world came into being,
spoke and all was (Drazin, p. 59, various sources)

The one who spoke to the world at the beginning "be",
and it was, and in the future will say to it
"be" and it will be (ibid.)

I am he who was, am and will be (ibid.)

Ehyeh asher ehyeh--the self-existent and eternal God; a declaration of the unity and spirituality of the Divine Nature, the exact opposite of all the forms of idolatry, human, animal, and celestial that prevailed everywhere else. [It is]...however, not merely a philosophical phrase; the emphasis is on the active manifestation of the Divine existence....To the Israelites in bondage, the meaning would be, 'Although He has not yet displayed His power towards you, he will do so'....The answer which Moses receives in these words is thus equivalent to, 'I shall save in the way I shall save.' It is to assure the Israelites of the fact of deliverance, but does not disclose the manner. It must suffice the Israelites to learn that 'Ehyeh, I will be (with you) hath sent me unto you.' (Hertz, p. 215)

Martin Buber muses that "Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh" has a special meaning because of what happens almost immediately before and after it appears in the Torah. He notes that God makes a promise before revealing his name:

                        

But Moses said to God, "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?" And He said, I will be with you... (Exodus 3:11-12)

and repeats it soon afterward:

And the Lord said to him,
"Who gives man speech?
Who makes him dumb or deaf,
seeing or blind?
Is it not I, the Lord?
Now go, and I will be with you... "
(Exodus 4:11-12)

Placed as the phrase is between two concrete expressions of God's promise it clearly means: I am and remain present. Moses (p.51-2).

Although Moses initially asks for the name of God so that he could take it back to Israel "not a single instance is reported in the Torah where he is shown to have actually used it." From this we can conclude that the revelation was never meant for the people at all, nor did Moses really inquire for the sake of the people: Moses had asked for himself, and the answer he receives is also meant for him.--Plaut, p 405-406.

And God said, "At first say unto them, 'I am that I am, ' that, when they have learnt that there is a difference between Him that is and him that is not, they may be further taught that there is no name whatever that can properly be assigned to Me, who am the only being to whom existence belongs. --Philo, from Plaut, p 408

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of ten thousand things.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery
Ever desiring, one can see the manifestations.
These two spring from the same source but differ in name;
This appears as darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gate to all mystery.
(Lao Tsu)

GENERAL REFERENCES

Full citations can be found on our references page.

Albright, Yaweh And The Gods Of Canaan,

Buber, Moses: The Revelation And The Covenant,

Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book Of Exodus

Drazin, Targum Onkelos To Exodus

Exodus Rabbah

Fields, A Torah Commentary For Our Times, Vol II: Exodus and Leviticus

Fox, The Five Books Of Moses

Gianotti, "The meaning of the divine name YHWH," Bibliotheca Sacra

Hertz, The Pentateuch And Haftorahs.

Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching

Leibowitz, Studies In Shemot, Part I: Shemot - Yitro

Plaut, The Torah

Sarna, Exploring Exodus: The Heritage Of Biblical Israel

Sarna, The J.P.S. Torah Commentary--Exodus, Philadelphia

Sarna, The J.P.S Torah Commentary--Genesis

Simon, The First Hebrew Primer

Steinsaltz,The Essential Talmud

"YHWH," Encyclopedia Judaica,. pp 680-682.


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8/31/97

© 1997, Rosemarie E. Falanga, Cy H. Silver