Exodus 3:14 and the Divine Name: Textual and Historical Considerations


Characteristic of certain contemporary or 'postmodern' approaches to theology is the questioning of the traditional role played by philosophic or metaphysic presumptions regarding the nature and attributes of God. More specifically, approaches sensitive to deconstruction or other post-metaphysic considerations primarily target the traditional equation of God with Being par excellence. Frequently appearing within such discussion is Exodus 3:14 and the Divine name "I am that I am' (Ehye aser ehye). This is due to both the recognition that God's self-appointed name undoubtedly conveys some insight into the nature of God and to the central place Exodus 3:14 has held in the formulation of early Christian and Jewish theology.

This paper will examine the origin and implications of Exodus 3:14 in the broader context of Exodus 3:1-4:17. The intent here is to arrive at an objective reading of 3:14 in particular and 3:1-4:17 as a whole whereby later treatments of this verse might be evaluated. The paper concludes with a brief tracing of Talmudic and early Christian treatments of Exodus 3:14.

Scope of the section

There is clear and considerable disagreement among commentators as to where this section starts and ends. Noth, contra most commentators, who see the section primarily in terms of the call narrative of Moses, suggests the thematic brackets of Moses' flight (2:11) and return (4:23) to Egypt. [1] Others suggest 2:23 as the start of the section. [2] While Exodus 2:23-25 does provide the broader backdrop for the call narrative by relating to readers that the pharoah seeking Moses' life had died and that the cries of the oppressed Israelites had reached the ears of God (Elohim), this information could also be seen as a conclusion to the preceding section (2:16-22/25) which relates the events occurring between Moses' flight and the encounter with the burning bush. In support of this we note Cassuto, who otherwise prefers to start the section at 2:23, stresses the emphatic nature of 3:1 as introducing a new scene, and thus himself sees here the introduction of a new pericope. [3] This paper will follow Childs and others in viewing the start of this section at 3:1.

The majority of commentators prefer to end the section somewhere between Moses' call and his first encounter with Pharoah (5:11), though the precise point of closure is contested. (Those who do not see a division here include Drivers who would extend the section to 6:1.) Suggested divisions between the call and the encounter with pharoah include 4:18 (Bantsch, Childs), 4:24 (Noth), and 5:1 (Dillman, Holzinger, McNeile, Clamer). It is widely agreed that this diversity is primarily due to the lack of clear signs of division. This paper will follow Bantsch and Childs [4] in ending the section at 4:17.

In summary, our preferred section of 3:1-4:17 starts with Moses shepherding on Horeb and turning to see the burning bush, and ends with the conclusion of God's speech from the bush. The entire narrative is limited to the location of the burning bush and consists almost exclusively of the dialogue between God and Moses. Only after our section, at 4:18ff, does Moses depart from the bush and relate to others what he has seen and heard.

Distinction of Sources

For reasons of both observation and theory, the content of 3:1-4:17 is assigned to either J or E. We here summarize both approaches.

One can find within the text three instances of interchanging divine names in the verses leading up to 3:15 (in which God declares himself YHWH). Elohim/Elohi occurs 13 times within 3:1-14, including 3:4b, 3:6, and 3:1b, while YHWH appears at 3:4a, 3:7, and "angel of YHWH" in 3:2a. A doublet is also suggested in verses 7-8 and 9-10 where God twice iterates that he has heard the cries of oppression and has come down. However, whereas the differences between 7-8 and 9-10 are central themes of the call narrative, we here suggest and below argue that these may be seen as complementary rather than simply conflationary. [5] As for the remainder of the section, apart from 3:11-15 which will be treated below, 3:16-4:17 demonstrates no clear source criteria. [6]

Theory-driven suggestions of source criteria include divergence in place names suggested by Childs and others in the reference to Horeb (3:1) and Sinai. [7] However, we note that while 3:1 mentions Horeb (its first occurrence in the Pentateuch), Sinai appears in the Pentateuch no earlier than Exodus 16:1. Thus while true that this mount will eventually (and only occasionally in Exodus) be referred to by both names, this tendency does not begin until after the exodus. The most proximate uses of the two names in Exodus are 16:1//17:6 and 33:6//34:2. To suggest that these later instances cause a divergence in 3:1-4:17 clearly reads back into the text that which is foreign to the text. We might also note that as of the exodus onward, Horeb occurs only twice more in Exodus (17:7; 33:6) while Sinai occurs 13 times. Source critics traditionally attribute E with the preference of Horeb and J Sinai.

That said, our section is generally broken down into the following two strands. J is assigned 1-4a, 5, 7, 8, 16-22; 4:1-16. E is assigned the remaining verses 4b, 6, 9-15; 4:17. [8] This assigns the three unexpected occurrences of "YHWH" to J, and yet interestingly assigns 3:14-15 to E, the passage in which God explicitly declares his name YHWH.

This move by source critics is primarily due to the traditional presumption that E would prefer to limit occurrences of YHWH. Thus E is envisioned here as including the account with the intent of providing historical brackets for the otherwise limitless use of the name YHWH by J. This is accomplished by demonstrating a post-patriarchal introduction of the name. We suggest, however, that this reasoning proposed by source critics becomes problematic and somewhat circular in the following ways.

The documentary hypothesis relies in principle upon a definition of J as that tradition which employs early occurrences of YHWH. It has likewise fundamentally defined E through early non-J[ahwist] appellations of God within the same narratives. As regards our section, this pre-definition of source tendencies results in the scenario where J cannot be attributed the premier declaration of the name YHWH by God to Moses. This construct seems to require assent to the following: Regarding E, (i) E necessarily views 3:15 as a unique utterance/introduction of the name YHWH and thus E recounts it in order to counter the tendency of J; Regarding J, (iia) J is either ignorant of the narrative of 3:11-15; or (iib) J likewise interprets it as a unique utterance and thus intentionally eliminates it from the source in order to avoid conflicts of interest; or (iic) J is emended by E rather than E by J.

To threaten this interpretive lattice we need only posit that J was knowledgeable of the narrative and would have understood how to employ 3:12-15 to his source's advantage. As an introduction to Moses of the name YHWH "which is My name forever and is My title from generation to generation" (3:15), this would have served as the ultimate validation of J contra E. As will be argued below, this understanding of the text (though not necessarily of the hypothetical sources) best concords with the presentation of the text itself.


One approach to identifying the structure of 3:1-4:17 is to view the basic call narrative as constituting 3:1-12. [9] Thus the call can be outlined as follows: (i) the divine confrontation, vv. 1-3, 4a; (ii) the introductory word, vv. 4b-9; (iii) the commission, v.10; (iv) the objection, v.11; (v) the reassurance, v. 12a; (vi) the sign, v. 12. [10] Here the call sequence begins with the encounter and culminates in a 'sign' which validates the call. Parallels between this basic structure and that of Judges 6 and Jeremiah 1 are well known and suggest to some a stereotyped call structure. [11] Though some commentators posit otherwise, the 'sign' of 3:12 most naturally appears to be the fact that Moses and the Israelites will indeed worship God on this same mountain. (Here, then, the sign of validation takes place only after the reason for the call.) Our section of 3:1-4:17 is then viewed as a greatly expanded call narrative built upon the basic unit of 3:1-12.

An alternative approach to identifying the section's structure is suggested by Henri Cazzelles. [12] We prefer this interpretation to the preceding due to its more wholistic approach to the text of Exodus 3. Cazelles sees chapter 3 as consisting of four pericopes: The burning bush (3:1-6); God's first speech (3:7-10); Moses' two questions of identity (3:11-15); God's second speech (3:16-22). Since it is with portions of the third pericope that our paper is primarily concerned, we will here only briefly summarize the other three.

The first pericope, 3:1-6, contains the burning bush, and makes reference to the mountain of God as Horeb (v 1) and the angel of the Lord (maleak YHWH). It also contains the first of the section's two instances of an interchange of divine names (v 4a/4b). The pericope culminates in God defining himself to Moses as God of the patriarchs, "God of your fathers", and closes citing the impact of this declaration upon Moses, who hides his face and fears to look upon God. In viewing 3:1-6 as a separate unit, we note that in an unrelated discussion Childs observes that 3:1-6 is free from "real tensions", which "suggests that [its] common core was considerable". [13]

The second pericope consisting of 3:7-10 introduces the first of two speeches by God. The speech begins with God, now named YHWH (and not Elohim as He is throughout the remainder of 3:7-10), conveying his recognition of his people's misery (v 7). He has decided to deliver Israel and bring it into a good land (v 8). Upon hearing the cries of the "sons of Israel" (v 9) he sends Moses not simply to lead them to Canaan, but more emphatically to bring them "out of Egypt" ("You will bring my people out, the sons of Israel out of Egypt"; 3:10).

Many of the elements of this first speech of God are also found in the second speech (vv 16-22). The Egyptian oppression in vv 7 and 9 is also found in v.16. The decision of YHWH in v 8 to "bring them up" out of Egypt is found in v. 17. Both vv 8 and 17 also list the inhabitants of the promised land and describe the land as "flowing with milk and honey". Moses' commission to visit pharoah in v. 10 is repeated in v. 18, with the difference that in the latter Moses is accompanied by the "elders of Israel" and the pharoah is referred to as "king of Egypt". Cazelles sees other possible parallels such as v 12b "You shall serve God on this mountain" and v. 18 "sacrifice to YHWH"; the 'sign' (ot) of v 12a and the wonders (npl'ot) of v 20; and finally the extended name of God in v 12a ("God of your fathers, God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob") is repeated in v 16 but here prefixed with YHWH ("YHWH, God of your fathers, God of Abraham..."). [14]

The third pericope, found in 3:11-15, consists of two questions posed by Moses regarding 'identity'. In the first, Moses inquires into his own identity and in the second he inquires into God's.

In 3:11 Moses asks God "Who am I..." (me anoki) and thereby questions his adequacy as the one who must approach pharoah and lead the Israelites. God answers with the assurance "I will be with you" (ehye immakh). God's answer consists of the Hebrew verb HYH "be" in the first person singular imperfect. As will be explained more fully below, the Hebrew imperfect can connote past, present and future sense and so the significance of the statement is God's immediate and future presence with Moses. Although this could be literally read "I am with you", the traditional reading prioritizes the future sense due to Moses' question involving a future encounter with pharoah. That God's declaration "I am/will be with you" may possibly have been understood as more than a simple statement of divine presence is suggested by the many similarly structured names found in the Ancient Near East. These include: the Phoenician 'Ba'al itto' ("Baal is with him"); the Babylonian 'Nabu ittija' ("Nabu is with me"); the Egyptian "Ammon with me"; and "Emmanuel" of the Hebrews. [15]

The second questioning of identity is found in v 13 where Moses indirectly asks for the name of God. He does not directly ask "What is your name?" but phrases the question as if coming from the "sons of Israel". And yet, this question within a question is not grammatically posed as a hypothetical (which would employ 'im) but rather uses a hinneh clause, suggesting that Moses expects this scenario to occur. [16] Whereas the question in 3:11 deals with the adequacy of Moses in relation to the pharoah, here the issue regards solely Moses' validation toward the "sons of Israel".

The reply of God to Moses' second question again uses ehye (i.e., first person singular imperfect of HYH). Now, however, the verb occurs twice within a formula clearly intended as a self-designation: Ehye aser ehye, "I am that I am".

"And Elohim said to Moses, Ehye aser eyhe. And he said 'You shall say to the sons of Israel Ehye has sent you.' And again Elohim said to Moses 'You shall say this to the sons of Israel, YHWH Elohi of your fathers, Elohi of Abraham, Elohi of Isaac and Elohi of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is my name forever and this is my title from generation to generation. " (Exodus 3:14-15)

Three audiences

Prior to our treatment of 3:14-15, we must first give heed to Moses' reference of the "sons of Israel" in 3:11. Although apparent, recognition of this shift in (Mosaic) audiences from "pharoah" to "sons of Israel" is important for a reading of the entire section, since a third audience, the "elders of Israel" will soon be introduced at the beginning of the fourth pericope (3:16) This will require a brief digression from our treatment of the third pericope.

At first reading our section (3:1-4:17) seems primarily concerned with calling and preparing Moses to confront pharoah on behalf of the oppressed Israelites. However, when read in light of the three audiences, it becomes clear that Moses' concern regarding pharoah is limited to the initial question of adequacy in 3:11, while the remainder of the section, with the exception of 3:19-20 which briefly foretells pharoah's denial and the plagues, deals with Moses' encounter with the Israelites.

We've already noted that Moses' second question is concerned with validation before the "sons of Israel". And as will be explored more fully below, God's answer in 3:[14-]15 is explicitly intended as that which Moses "shall say ... to the sons of Israel" (3:15). The next pericope (3:16-22), the second speech of God, seems to provide further specification as to how Moses must validate himself, since he is told to gather specifically the "elders of Israel" (3:16), convey to them the content of YHWH's intent (and here is where the content of God's first speech, his discussion with Moses, is nearly duplicated in the second speech), and then with them go to "the king of Egypt" and request three days of worship. [17] The second speech then provides prophetic insight into both pharoah's reply to this request and YHWH's 'reply' to pharoah (3:19-22).

It is within this context that the signs constituting our last pericope, 4:1-17 are to be understood. Given the narrative outlined above, which clearly prioritized Moses' validation toward the "elders of the Israelites" and foretells pharoah's refusal, the most natural understanding of Moses' concern ("They will not believe me") in 4:1 is that of concern of disbelief by the elders rather than pharoah and his partisans. This reading becomes more apparent through YHWH's statement following Moses' provision with the staff cum snake; "This is so that they may believe that the Lord (YHWH), the God of their fathers... has appeared to you." This statement seems only appropriate in relation to the Israelites, especially in light of the much more terse appellations of YHWH attributed to Moses and Aaron in the presence of pharoah, including "God of Israel" (5:1) and "God of the Hebrews" (5:3). Appealing to the broader immediate context, we ought note that in 4:29, the meeting of "elders" with Moses and Aaron, "Aaron told them everything the Lord had said to Moses (pace 4:16). He (i.e., Moses pace 4:17) also performed the signs before the people, and they believed."

Thus our digression ends with a very clear conclusion that our section is predominantly concerned with Moses' faring well before the elders of Israel. Moses' concern primarily and YHWH's concern in response regard the ability of Moses to validate his role as messenger of YHWH before the elders of Israel. The names declared in Exodus 3:12-15 as well as the signs of 4:1-17 seem intent on arming Moses with means aimed at convincing the elders of Moses' prophetic station. Although Moses is privy to the negative outcome before pharoah, once this validation before the elders is established, both the elders and Moses are commanded to stand before pharoah during the initial request for worship.

It is through this particular understanding of our section that we choose to approach our more specific task of interpreting 3:14-15 and the divine name.

Exodus 3:14-15

Speaking of 3:14, Childs warns "[f]ew verses in the entire Old Testament have evoked such heated controversy and such widely divergent interpretations." [18] The difficulty which history has had in finding a unified reading is in great part due to the many questions this passage immediately presents the reader.

  1. Why does Moses ask for the name of God in a manner suggesting the Israelites are certain to require it? Have the Israelites forgotten the name of God? Or has God remained nameless throughout the patriarchal age? Do they know the name and Moses does not? Or more simply, how does giving the name of God serve to validate Moses' claim as God's messenger?
  2. How are we to translate ehye aser ehye and what does it mean? Is v 14a directed primarily to Moses or to the people as well? Is this to be considered a direct answer or is God to some degree refusing to answer and thus veiling his identity?
  3. What is the relationship of v 14 and v 15?

Pentateuchal function of YHWH prior to the Exodus 3:15

The Pentateuch itself provides some statement regarding the Israelites access to the divine name prior to Moses' encounter with the burning bush. As early as Genesis 4:26 we are told the by the time of Enosh, grandson of Adam and Eve, "men began to call on the name YHWH". YHWH occurs much earlier and repeatedly throughout the initial chapters of Genesis. The first instance of the name within the Genesis narrative occurs at 2:4b, and Eve is recorded as uttering the name in 4:1. Thus, according to the text, YHWH as a divine name is well established in the pre-patriarchal stages of humanity. However, regarding knowledge of the name YHWH by the patriarchs, God discloses to Moses in Exodus 6:5 "I am YHWH. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as El Shaddai, but by my name YHWH I did not make myself known to them".

Source critics see in this clear evidence for literary sources. J is by definition attributed with early narratives which make the name YHWH widely known by the people as early as Genesis 2:4b. E by definition and often P are attributed those portions of the narrative which view God as known only through the common name Elohim. Thus Exodus 3:11-15 and 6:5 are assigned to E and P respectively, while Genesis 2:4b, 4:1 and 4:26 are all assigned to J. [19]

The scenario presented by the text is that the name YHWH appears to have been used in pre-partriarchal times and occurs in the speech and knowledge of early figures such as Eve (Genesis 4:1) , Enosh (4:26) and Noah (9:26). However, during the patriarchal era, according to Exodus 6:5, God does not directly disclose himself as YHWH to the patriarchs, but as El Shaddai. This latter disclosure is made to Abraham (Genesis 17:1) and Jacob (35:11) in the context of confirming the covenant. In Genesis 15 we find frequent use on the name YHWH within the narrative, but not in the speech of Abraham, who consistently addresses YHWH as Adonai (15:2, 8). This consistency is maintained through Genesis 18-20 where Abraham bargains with YHWH (18:1) over the fate of Sodom and Gommorah. Elsewhere, after Hagar's encounter the angel of YHWH (16:7) she creates her own name for YHWH, Lahai Roi (16:13). Abraham himself, however, is recorded in two instances as uttering the name YHWH (24:3, 7). In the latter of these Abraham explicitly recognizes "YHWH Elohim" as the one who called him out of Ur.

In the Isaac narratives, we more frequently find the name YHWH within the speeches of characters, beginning with the servant of Abraham who voices the name no less than 10 times in his quest for a bride for Isaac. Other secondary characters who mention the name YHWH include Laban (24:31), Bethuel (24:50-51), the Philistines Abimelech, Ahuzzah and Phicol (26:28-29), Rebekah (27:8), and young Jacob (27:20). Isaac is said to have prayed to YHWH (25:19), called on the name YHWH (26:25), and utters the name YHWH while mistakenly blessing Jacob (27:27). In the final blessing of Jacob Isaac invokes the name El Shaddai. (28:3) and does not mention YHWH.

It is clear these narratives do not yet transgress the scenario presented by Exodus 6:5, which states simply that God did not reveal himself to Abraham, Isaac or Jacob as YHWH, but as El Shaddai. Nothing in 6:5 speaks to whether or not the three patriarchs knew of the name, and in light of the name's familiarity within pre-patriarchal narratives already mentioned, it would seem probable that they would likewise be familiar with it to some degree. Like the Isaac narrative, the Jacob narrative makes frequent mention of the name YHWH both in the narrative and speech of characters, including that of Jacob. Unlike the other patriarchal narratives, however, there arises a discrepancy with the scenario of Exodus 6:5 with the explicit declaration by YHWH to Jacob "I am YHWH, God (Elohi) of your father Abraham and the God (Elohi) of Isaac" (28:13). Although this occurs in a dream, the self-declaration is clearly understood by Jacob who awakens and exclaims "Surely YHWH is in this place". [20]

This is particularly problematic for those holding to an essential integrity of the text since the conflict here involves two direct statements made by YHWH. Though introduced within a third person narration, both statements are made in the first person and clearly intend to be understood as representing the direct speech of God to a single respective recipient. Exodus 6:5's statement "By my name YHWH I did not make myself known to them [i.e., Abraham, Isaac and Jacob]" is juxtaposed against Genesis 28:13's "I am YHWH, God of Abraham and Isaac" addressed to Jacob. The obvious approaches available to address this conflict seem to be the following: (i) YHWH is correctly recorded as making both statements, the coherence of which is not currently apparent; (ii) Moses or a later editor mistakenly or intentionally attributes one of the statements to YHWH by emending an existing account within the text; (iii) this discrepancy arises from a conflation of conflicting sources or traditions. [21]

The narrative of 28:13f. is nearly paralleled in Genesis 35:11, where God meets Jacob again in the same location, which the text refers to as "Luz (that is Bethel)" (35:6). On this occasion God (Elohim) declares himself El Shaddai and reiterates the covenant in similar language. 35:15 concludes with Jacob (re)naming the location Bethel. Later in Genesis Jacob will recount this episode to his son Joseph as "El Shaddai appeared to me at Luz..." (48:3). We raise this parallel here only to draw attention to the end of our problematic passage, 28:13f, which informs us that Jacob called that place Bethel, "although the city used to be called Luz" (28:19b). This reference evidences probable editorial activity [22]. However the rationale behind such an emendation is not clear at all, since neither 35:6ff nor 48:3 require such a link. Both later passages are sufficiently clear as to their historical antecedents as to make the addition to 28:19 redundant. [23]

Irrespective of our (in)ability to resolve this conflict, we may now somewhat confidently return to our original question regarding the Israelites' familiarity with the name YHWH both historically and at the time of Moses' encounter with the burning bush. From the presentation which the text itself provides it seems certain that the name YHWH is recognized and applied specifically to Elohim throughout the pre-patriarchal period. This recognition also carries through into the patriarchal era such that the name is found on the lips of each of the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), though YHWH reveals himself solely as El Shaddai to Abraham (17:1) and Jacob (35:11). Thus, apart from the dream account of Genesis 28, which we believe demonstrates at least the possibility of later editorial activity, a very consistent scenario emerges matching that communicated to Moses in Exodus 6:5.

I would thus suggest that in Exodus 3:15 Moses recovers an ancient name of God which the Israelites have, throughout their history, associated with Elohim and El Shaddai. Prior to the burning bush, we would expect that Moses is not knowledgeable of the name, either in fact or significance, lest the exchange of 3:13-15 be rendered a mere exercise of formality. By obtaining the ancient name, as well as a clear statement of its significance in v 14 (which we have not discussed yet), Moses is adequately prepared to identify the God which sends him. Thus in the context of approaching the sons and elders of Israel, the name functions similarly to a "password" whereby Moses is entitled to the trust of the elders of Israel.

It is also important to recall that this ancient name does not dawn upon history from within the history of the Israelites, and thus would not be understood as a local deity of the Israelites. YHWH intentionally veiled the name from the patriarchs with El Shaddai, perhaps with the specific purpose of disallowing the Israelites to lay false claim to it. Instead, the name would have struck the Israelites as an extremely ancient name which, according to the details of the Genesis narratives, is spoken by the first generation of humanity and is attributed with universally cataclysmic events such as the creation and flood. This is the ancient YHWH who has heard the cries of their oppression and has come down to deliver them out of Egypt. "And when [the elders of Israel] heard that YHWH was concerned about them and had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshipped." (Exodus 4:31b)

Now that we have suggested the function of the divine name within its broader context, we must address the central matters of interpretation and significance.

Interpretation and significance of 3:14

Both 14a and 14b utilize the first person singular imperfect form of the Hebrew verb HYH, generally translated "be". The imperfect denotes action in any tense, present, future or past. The traditional English reading prefers the present "I am". That this general meaning of ehye is what is intended by the text is supported by the preceding instance of the verb [24] in v 12a where the meaning is clearly "I will be". Thus within vv 12-14 there are three identical occurrences of ehye within the answers of God to Moses. This context certainly is intended to inform Moses (and the reader) in the handling of YHWH in v 15. Most commentators seemed agreed that there is at least strong etymological and textual evidence for understanding YHWH as a derivative of the verb HYH, specifically the third person singular imperfect, yihye [25]. Literally understood, YHWH would mean either "He will be" or "He is", though we have seen in the preceding discussion that this term has stood as something very akin a proper name for many centuries prior to its utterance here.

Complications arise, however, when the matter of pronunciation of the name is introduced. The first syllable of the verbal form yihye does not match the traditional pronunciation of the name (yahweh), unless an archaism is presumed. The pronunciation "yahwe" is not attested to prior to Clement of Alexandria's (d. ca. 215) Stromateis which states "He is called 'Iaoue' which means being and the origin of being." [26] According to the Jewish tradition (Yoma 39b, Menahot 109b) the tetragramme had stopped being pronounced long before the Christian era, in the time of Simon the Just (ca 300 BC). [27] Despite this difficulty in reconciling the pronunciation with written forms, several leading scholars admit the very real presence of an archaism. Albright, for example, states that "the preservation of the name as the indicative verbal element in ancient liturgical formulas is so archaic and was so little understood in later times that it must go back to extremely early times". [28] Albright also suggests that Israel's earliest uses of Yahwe, which date from the 13th and 12th centuries BC "lie entirely within normal Canaanite practice and suggests that it was introduced into Israel at a very early date". [29]

The notion of an archaism also concords with the suggestions thus far made in this paper. It has been demonstrated that the Pentateuch itself expects a very ancient vocalization of the name by assigning it to times well in advance of the distinction of Hebrew from other semitic languages. If this is the actual history of the name, we should only expect that the pronunciation of the name be other than the specialized verbal forms of the Hebrew language. It is clear from the scholarship of Albright and others that admitting the presence of an archaism does not disrupt the proposed relation of the name YHWH to the Hebrew verb HYH in Exodus 3:12-15. Rather, it allows for the following possible refinements to the scenario we have thus far drawn.

In light of the archaism and the difficulty in definition it causes, 3:14 may very well be ancient insight granted Moses whereby the otherwise hidden significance of the archaic name is made available. Thus Moses approaches the sons and elders of Israel not only able to pronounce the name, but also to unfold its meaning. It is this meaning, rather than pronunciation, which strikes at the heart of God's purposes toward the oppressed Israelites, as 3:1-4:17, and particularly 3:12-15 make plain. [30] And yet, although it seems clear from our discussion on pronunciation that such an archaism is present, and from that basis we have suggested the possibly insightful nature of vv 12-14, from which we buttressed v 14's function in the section, no real evidence has been given as to whether or not the sons and elders of Israel lacked this insight, and so this conclusion remains hypothetical.

It is often noted that the Hebrew HYH is unlike the Indo-European esen ("be"). The latter easily lends itself to meanings of "being" par excellence, of "being" authentic, solid, or true. The Hebrew HYH does not denote "immutable being", but rather being or existence by activity, or even "becoming". Thus although HYH may imply existence, it does not suggest existence without a particular dynamism. [31] In addition to denoting existence, HYH as well as the Indo-European esen may take the function of a simple copula while adding a temporal mode. [32] Recognition of the distinction between Hebrew and Indo-European connotations of "be" is important for understanding the treatment given Exodus 3:14 in Christian and later Jewish theological thought.

Once the basic meaning of ehye is decided, one can approach the formula ehye aser ehye through the syntactical function of the particle aser. Aser is a particle of relation which normally serves as a connector. It also normally requires to be supplemented by a pronomial, affix or other word defining the nature of the relation more precisely. The relation expressed by aser is often specifically temporal, local, or causal.33 As locative of origin aser serves to introduce a relative proposition in which it can hold the place of object, subject, or predicate, or any species of complement. It also may or may not incorporate an antecedent. [34]

The most common understanding of aser within the formula at hand is that of relative particle serving as predicate of the main proposition, here constituted by the first "I am", and subject of the subordinate clause consisting of the second "I am". This amounts to aser functioning as a nominal proposition since in Hebrew the verb of the relative particle takes on the same person as the main clause if it shares the same subject. [35] Thus the literal "I am that I am" could be understood in the sense of "I am who am" or "I am who is".

This approach to the formula is picked up in the Latin "Ego sum qui sum" of the Vulgate and the Greek "ego eimi o oon" of the LXX, and has thus been historically adopted by the vast majority of exegetes and theologians. This approach characteristically defines the first "I am" as a predicative declaring identity and the second as an existential expression by God of his own being. This treatment of the second ehye, however, imposes upon the distinction previously mentioned between Hebrew and Indo-European conceptions of the "being" referred to in Exodus 3:14. Until the beginning of the 20th century, Christian and later Jewish exegetes appear to have clearly privileged the static aspects (authenticity, continuity) of "being" in their application of Exodus 3:14.

Summary of our proposed reading of Exodus 3:11-15

However, prior to moving on to later treatments of our passage, we ought to summarize the position which this paper has suggested. Given the overall context of Genesis and early Exodus, we view the name YHWH as an ancient name, whose vocalization is most likely archaic and no longer intuitable by Moses and his contemporaries. Though it is perhaps possible to view Moses' inquiry into the name purely in terms of significance, Moses is most likely not aware of the name, which accounts for his asking to learn it. Through the repeated and significant use of ehye by God in vv 12-14, Moses is granted the meaning of the name, and in 3:15 is provided the name itself. According to the knowledge and use of the name throughout the patriarchal period, the Israelites slaves most likely are familiar with the name. We cautiously suggest, based on extrapolations as to the reason God divulges the name's significance in 3:14, that the Israelites may not know the meaning of the name. The divine answers in 3:11-15 thus provide Moses with privileged insight (revelation) into the ancient name, with which he is sufficiently able to validate his prophetic call.

The meaning of the ancient name and the eyhe designations are clear from the passage and refer specifically to God's continuous and intentional presence with Moses and the Israelites. The eyhe references coupled with the impact of the ancient name undoubtedly serve as a profound promise and assurance to the people if Israel. It is a deep declaration of intent to deliver and commune.

In order to locate this proposed reading within a broader historical context, we will briefly trace characteristic usages of 3:14 in the Talmud and early Christian literature.

Exodus 3:14 within the Talmud

Neither the Hebrew text nor the Talmud know how to say "being par excellence" or "existence". [36] The focus of both texts is clearly upon the activity of God within history rather than metaphysical representation. [37] What follows is a very brief summary of the manner in which the Talmud characteristically handles Exodus 3:14.

The Talmud views these occurrences of ehye as imperfect and speaking of both present and future, as becomes clear in its handling of v 14a. The Talmud also tends to view v 14a (ehye aser ehye) and v 14b (ehye) in terms of v 12a (ehye [immakh]) "I will be [with you]" and 4:12, 15 (ehye [im pikha]) "I will be [with your mouth]", and thus inclines toward readings which incorporate the ellipsis "with you/them". These two tendencies combined provide the Talmud with its understanding of v 14a" "I am with them, I who will be with them".

As was pointed out above, the Talmud's main focus is the exploration and explication of God's activity in the world in relation to the Israelite nation. This reading of 3:14a lends itself very well to understandings of God as deliverer and comforter of a people in oppression. Talmudic exegetes also see in the second half of v 14a a foreshadowing of future oppressions, most marked of which is the exile. This view of God as "I am with you, I who will be with you" also naturally speaks to Jewish identity and solidarity. Here God is proclaiming to bind together not only the Israelites contemporary to Moses, but Israelites of all generations throughout history.

In Exodus 3:14 God makes known to the Israelites through Moses that He is in the same situation as they. This is clearly brought out in the following Talmudic example:

"The children of Israel are captive in the mud and among the bricks, and it is toward the mud and bricks that they are destined to return: [Ehye aser ehye] I am bruised as they, I who will be bruised as they". Moses replied to God: "Is this what I am going to tell them?" "No! But say to them: [Ehye] I am bruised sent me to you." [38]

This short passage demonstrates Talmudic use of the future sense of the imperfect, seen as pointing to future oppression, as well as the importance of the ellipsis in consolidating the concerns of God with the concerns of his people. It also interprets the relation of v 14b to v 14a as due to the compassion of God, here veiling from the already over-burdened people any reference to future oppressions for which they are destined. [39]

As we will see, this type of reading of Exodus 3:14 differs vastly from those espoused by Christian theologians. However, by the Middle Ages, Judaism will rediscover Greek thought through an influx of Arabic translations of commentary, theology and philosophy. It is at this time that key terms are defined and buttressed, such as nimsa ("being", "existence") and mesi'ut ("to be", "existence"), in order to express observed Arabic and Latin equivalents. Through the writings of figures such as Maimonides and Gersonide [40] large audiences of Jewish theology will be brought into the mainstream of western metaphysics.

Exodus 3:14 in Early Patristic Writings

There are two general venues within patristic and early Christian literature in which Exodus 3:14 appears. The first and less frequent consists of treatises aimed at matters ecclesial, catechal, liturgical, moral or of spiritual formation. These texts, when speaking of Moses and the burning bush generally do not pause at the formula of 3:14a, but rather emphasize the call of Moses and through some means make a connection between the God of Moses and the God of the Christians. The second venue consists of treatises dealing exclusively with theological controversy, and it is here that Exodus 3:14 appears consistently. More specifically, Exodus 3:14 is employed by Christian writers first in the controversies against the Jews, in which it is used to affirm the Son's divinity; second, in the apologies addressed to the Greeks, where it is used in definitions of True God contra the idols of pagans, as well as in attempts to demonstrate the dependence of Plato's concept of "Being" upon Moses; third, and most notably through Eusebius of Caesarea, in all matters pertaining to the relations of the Trinity, especially contra Sabbellianism and Arianism. Thus by the Council of Nicea (325 AD), Jesus will have been thoroughly identified with the "angel" of Exodus 3:2 and orthodoxy will require that 3:14a (Greek: ego eimi o oon) be applied as much to the Son as to the Father, since they are homoousioi.

During these controversies the following theo-grammatical implications become almost universally adopted in treatments of 3:14. The use of the present participle (oon) is seen as an indication of God's eternity. The verb "to be" (eimi) will be used in an absolute manner such that only one Being can be described as such, while all other creatures possess "being" only in so far as they relate to o oon. The root common to o oon (LXX 3:14) and ousia allows reading this title back to the divine essence (ousia). [41]

The scene of the burning bush is used very early on by Christian authors as evidenced by the writings of Justin Martyr (d. 165 AD), who equates Jesus not only with the "angel" of 3:2 but also "Lord" (Hebrew: YHWH; LXX: Kurios) in 3:4ff. Justin's theology views the Father as eternally unnameable (anoomastos) and through Exodus 3:14 (and other OT theophanies) views Jesus as the God who appeared to the patriarchs. "God's angel spoke to Moses in a flame of fire coming out of the bush saying: I am the One who is, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob". [42] Justin elsewhere argues that the angel of 3:2 is the divine Logos of John 1:1, whom the Christians call "the Lord Jesus Christ". [43] Thus Jesus becomes not only the YHWH of Exodus 3, but the God of the patriarchal period, a status which is seen as clearly attesting to the Son's divinity.

Irenaeus also assigns to the Son the words spoken to Moses in 3:14. It is the Son who descends to rescue the Israelites "For it is the Son who descended and ascended for the salvation of men. Thus through the Son who is in the Father and has the Father in himself, He who is (o oon) has been revealed." [44] For Irenaeus the title o oon signifies that the Lord of the Christians is the only true God, being par excellence as opposed to false gods "who have no being". Throughout his use of Exodus 3:14 Irenaeus continues the practice noticed in Justin of not distinguishing between the "angel" of 3:2 and YHWH/Kurios of 3:4ff. This becomes characteristic of subsequent Christian writers as well, and significantly distinguishes these writings from their Jewish counterparts. Whereas Jewish treatments clearly see 3:14 as a declaration of a name uniquely held by God, early Christian treatments clearly understand the name to be common to both Father and Son. However, already in Justin we see an appeal to the "unnameable" Father. This strand will be increasingly developed by later Christian writers. In essence, the Father is increasingly viewed as static Being par excellence and thus beyond categorization while the Son is identified with any divine activity or vocalization in the Old Testament. [45]

Exodus 3:14 also figured heavily throughout the fourth century AD in controversies involving the trinitarian doctrine set forth at the Council of Nicea. First the Subordinationists, then the Arians, and finally the Eumonians, invoked the Jewish reading of Exodus 3:1-5 which clearly distinguishes between the "angel" of 3:2 and YHWH of 3:4ff. Appeal to the traditional Jewish reading and the distinction it involved allowed these groups to argue that the title o oon and all the significations the title was now pregnant with should not be assigned to the Son. In contrast, the proponents of Nicea were then all the more obliged to argue the validity of applying Exodus 3:14 to Jesus. The primary documentation for the dialogues taking place within the Nicean Council come from Eusebius of Caesarea, who himself was a significant contributor to the proceedings.

Also present at the Council was Athanasius who uses the title o oon of 3:14 as a scriptural proof for the defense of the otherwise non-biblical term ousia, a central term in the Nicean formula. Athanaius argues that since God defined himself by the word oon, one may speak of his ousia. This in turn allows one to say that the Son "proceeds from the ousia of the Father" as much as one may say simply "proceeds from God". [46] Thus for Athanasius the title o oon of 3:14 is not treated as a unique title for God, but rather as an argument for the Nicean formula of the Son's generation, his "proceeding from the divine ousia".


Before leaving this project, we ought to recall an earlier discussion regarding distinction between Hebrew and Indo-European connotations of "be". That some distinction is mandatory seems widely accepted among commentators, though all undoubtedly differ as to the degree of influence language alone has upon conceptualization and treatment of the intended message of Exodus 3:1-4:17. It ought to be apparent to the reader by this point that significant differences emerge between readings dealing specifically with the Hebrew mindset and those readings based on the Latin Vulgate or Greek LXX. Our examples have clearly shown how diverse exegeses and theologies often inevitably make explicit use of the same words and phrases within a text. They have also shown how divergent readings often hinge on precise renderings of terms, whether original or translated, which invoke etymological history or philosophical application. Explanation of this dynamic does not require Kuhnian paradigms or anything similar, but does require very careful pause and consideration of the impact which a language's history and philosophical milieu has upon an objective understanding of translated (or archaic) materials. Of course this history and milieu is further complicated by the distinct aims and presuppositions of the translators which may or may not care to prioritize the intended meaning of the original reading.



[1] M Noth, Exodus. Trans J S Bowden. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press; 1962) Childs, however, sees no evidence of an intended literary connection between Moses' flight from and return to Egypt. See BS Childs, The Book of Exodus. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press; 1974), 51.

[2] Those suggesting a starting point of 2:23 include Bantsch, Holzinger, Cassuto, and Plastaras.

[3] U Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus. (Jerusalem: Magnes; 1967) 30.

[4] See Childs, 51f. Justification of this position includes (i) the observation that in none of its occurrences does "afterward" (w'ahar; as in 5:1) mark a break in the narrative, but rather indicates continuity; and (ii) the seeming appearance of a catchword connection between 4:23 and 4:24 makes a division between these two unlikely.

[5] Though treated below, we might here simply convey that 3:7-8 contains no reference to Moses' call, yet mentions the land "flowing with milk and honey", a theme later reiterated in 3:17. Exodus 3:9-10 includes the key information "Now come, I will send you to pharoah, and you will bring My people out...".

[6] So Childs, 52.

[7] Ibid.

[8] A F Campbell and M A O'Brien, Sources of the Pentateuch: Texts, Introductions, Annotations. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press; 1993) 260-263. Childs lists 3:1 as traditionally belonging to E, undoubtedly due to its reference to Horeb. (Childs, 52)

[9] Proponents of this approach include Zimmerli, Habel, Killian, Richter, and Childs.

[10] This outline is suggested by Habel. Q in Childs, 53f.

[11] Ibid., 54

[12] H. Cazelles, "Pour une exégèse de Ex. 3, 14" in Dieu et l' être. Exégèse d'Exode 3:14, et de Coran 20, 11-24 (Paris, 1978)

[13] Op cit., 53.

[14] Op cit., 28.

[15] Cazelles, 29.

[16] Childs, 66,

[17] A thorough reading of our passage will require an inquiry into the constitution and relation of the "sons of Israel" in contrast to "elders of Israel". Our section and the whole of Exodus 4 make clear that priority of import is held by the elders. God's first speech references "sons of Israel" as does the questioning and answering of 3:11-15. In the second speech YHWH explicitly instructs Moses to focus upon the "elders" (3:16), instruction Moses is recorded as heeding in 4:29.

[18] Childs, 61

[19] Campbell and O'Brien, op cit.

[20] Perhaps of additional interest to our understanding of Exodus 3:14-15 is the observation that immediately following this self-declaration to Jacob, God promises Jacob "I will be with you" but uses hinneh anoki tsimmak and not ehye as in Exodus 3:14a.

[21] As noted above, source critics interestingly assign Exodus 6:5 to P despite the very central issue of the introduction of the name YHWH and the operative principle that references to YHWH characteristically derive from J. The assignment to P is made on the basis of presumed parallels between the groaning of the Israelite slaves and the "the groaning of those in doubt and despair, if not in the actual exile" as well as the significance in both contexts of "the promise of deliverance and possession of the land". (Campbell and O'Brien, 36 n.38) Needless to say, this alleviates source critics from explaining the same discrepancy between otherwise clearly Jahwist texts. Exodus 6:1 ("And YHWH said to Moses...") has been generally assigned to J while the remainder of the chapter is assigned to P. (Campbell and O'Brien, 203-206)

[22] It is not the case that the location in question ceased to be call Luz prior to Jacob's naming it Bethel, as is evidenced by 35:6 which refers to the locale primarily as Luz and notes a concurrent identity of Bethel. Jacob's retelling of 35:6ff in 48:3 also assumes the location is still known as Luz. Thus we can rather confidently suggest that 28:19b is an later emendation of the text, most likely to aid readers in making the connection to 35:11 or 48:3 or both. Genesis 28:19 is generally seen as an insertion by J into the otherwise Elohist strand comprising 28:17-22. J is also assigned 28:13-16 which records the problematic self-disclosing declaration of God. (see Campbell and O'Brien, Ibid.)

[23] Though extremely hypothetical, consider the scenario in which our proposed editor is unaware (or unconcerned) of the obvious and sufficient connections already in place between 35:11-15 and 48:3 or between 35:11-15 and 28:13ff. He would thus be unaware (or unconcerned) that his emendation of 28:19 is both unnecessary (in relation to 48:3) and redundant (in relation to 35:11ff). Such an near-sighted editor, if actual, could similarly emend 28:13 with the name YWHW while failing to keep in mind the parameters of Exodus 6:5. Such an emendation would give rise to the entire discrepancy we have before us. This thought experiment, however, significantly fails in providing a reason as to why our editor would add YHWH to 28:13.

[24] The verb in 3:12a is also first person singular imperfect of HYH.

[25] See Cassuto, 13f.

[26] V, 6, 34. Quoted in A. Caquot, " Les énigmes d'un hémistiche biblique" in Dieu et l' être. Exégèse d'Exode 3:14, et de Coran 20, 11-24 (Paris, 1978), 24 n23

[27] Caquot, ibid., notes the discovery of a toponyme in Soleb, Egypt which can be pronounced "yahwo". Several scholars consider this to be an acceptable precedent to the Jewish divine name, and understand it as the earliest transcription. If in the earliest transcriptions the second syllable was pronounced "o" rather than "e", many feel that correlation to a translation of yihye "He is" is almost impossible.

[28] W Albright, Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan (New York: Doubleday, 1968) 171.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Though mentioned earlier, it is again interesting to note here that following the self-declaration of YHWH to Jacob in 28:13f., YHWH promises Jacob "I will be with you" but uses hinneh anoki tsimmak and not ehye as in Exodus 3:14a. Given our current consideration of the relative uniqueness of the explanation granted Moses, one wonders if compliance to the statements of Exodus 6:5 ("By my name YHWH I did not make myself known to them") could be accomplished by a veiling of the significance of the name as opposed to simply a refrain from divine pronouncement of the name. This would require a consistent understanding of "name" in terms of significance, such that in v 13a Moses is seen as asking for the significance of the divine name. Though certainly with different implications, this approach emphasizing significance is embraced by many scholars including Childs who concludes "Verse 14 answers the question by offering a word play on the name Yahweh which is connected to the root 'to be'. This suggests that the question in v 13: 'What is his name?' was understood as a request not for information, but rather for an explanation of the significance of the name." (69) Though our own proposed scenario assigns v 14 much greater status than 'word play', Childs' et al. inclination toward 'significance' contra pronouncement of the name may allow us to view the otherwise seeming conflict of Exodus 6:5 and Genesis 28:13 in a slightly different light.

[31] Caquot, 18.

[32] For example, HYH functions as a simple copula in Genesis 29:17: "Rachel was (hayittah) lovely".

[33] BDBG, 81f.

[34] Caquot, 19.

[35] Caquot, ibid.

[36] C Touati, " Ehye Ash'er ehye (Exode 3, 14) comme « L'Etre-avec... »" in Dieu et l' être. Exégèse d'Exode 3:14, et de Coran 20, 11-24 (Paris, 1978), 75.

[37] Cf Semot Rabba III, 6. Quoted in Touati, 75 n.1

[38] Semot Rabba III, 7. Quoted in Touati, 77f. "Les enfants d'Israël se tiennent dans la boue et parmi les briques [selon Exode, 1, 14: Ils leur rendirent la vie amère par de rudes labeurs, dans l'argile et dans la brique], et c'est vers la boue et les briques qu'ils sont destinés à retourner; Ehye aser ehye, «Je suis meurtri comme eux Moi qui serai meurtri comme eux». Moïse répliqua à Dieu: "C'est cela que je vais leur dire?" "Non! Mais dis-leur. Je suis meurtri m'a envoyé vers vous".

[39] It seems that this ellipsis would prove fruitful to Christian exegetes and theologians in grounding, for example, Isaiah's Servant Song within Old Testament history. Most often correlations are made typologically between Christ and the sacrificial system (pace New Testament authors) in terms of the judicial requirements of God. Here, however, God is declaring himself principally enmeshed with his people, and as the Talmud would have it, to the point of sharing in their suffering. This actually speaks to an entire topic which is historically skirted by Christian theology due to spectres of Sabbellianism, namely, the suffering of God. Western notions of God and particularly classic Christian theology disallow the divine nature from experiencing emotional changes, such as suffering, since it implies a lack or wanting. As will be seen below, this Christian understanding of divine nature as static and absolute derives quite directly from philosophical considerations of Exodus 3:14. As stated in our introduction, it is a central aim of this paper to examine this tendency.

[40] That is, Levi ben Gershom.

[41] We might note here that the Greek ousia functions only to name the essence and would not be able to define that essence. Also, to the degree Plato's view are adopted, one would see God as "beyond ousia". See M. Harl, "Citations et commentaires d'Exode 3, 14 chez les Pères Grecs des quatre premiers siècles" in Dieu et l' être. Exégèse d'Exode 3:14, et de Coran 20, 11-24 (Paris, 1978), 88.

[42] Apologia 1.63.7.

[43] Dialogue, 60.4. Quoted in Harl, 90.

[44] Adversus Haereses, 3.6.2; See also Adv Haer, 4.7.3; Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, 46;

[45] As an example, simply consider this one quote from Clement of Alexandria (c 200 AD) regarding the Father: "How can that be spoken of which is not genus, differentia, species, individual, number, accident, subject of accident? .. Thus the deity is without form and nameless. Though we ascribe names, they are not to be taken in their strict meaning; when we call him One, Good, Mind, Existence, Father, God, Creator, Lord, we are not conferring a name on him. Being unable to do more, we use these appellations of honor, in order that our thought may have something to rest on and not wander at random. ...He cannot be comprehended by knowledge, which is based on previously known truths... It remains that the Unknown be apprehended by divine grace and the Word proceeding from him." [Stromateis, 5.12].

[46] Epistula de decritis Nicaenae synodi, 22.1-4. Quoted in Harl, 100.

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There are too many errors in this book for unsophisticated readers. McLaren’s book has value only to readers who recognize the mistakes but are willing to learn about a position that springs from ideology and a theological framework. For me, the emerging church movement is enough to consider by itself without flawed economics intertwined

Mordecai Kaplan: Rethinking Judaism for the New World

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