What’s your name? That seems like a relatively simple question. If someone asks, you probably have a ready answer. Maybe you have a few nicknames that complicate things a bit, but generally this is not one of the more challenging questions you’ll face today.
But when Moses asked God for his name, he got a little more than he bargained for.
In Exodus 3:14-15, we find a fascinating exchange between Moses and God about God’s proper name. Moses is about to go speak to the people in Egypt, and he wants to know what to tell them if they ask for God’s name. And this is God’s response.
God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.”* And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”
God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘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 is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.
So Moses asks for God’s name, and he gets three different responses? What’s going on here?
I Am Who I Am
God’s first answer to the question doesn’t seem terribly helpful. At first glance, Moses couldn’t even have been sure what kind of response this was. As Soulen says, “Lacking every external contextual clue, one cannot initially tell how the reply bears on Moses’ question. Is it an answer? A rebuff? The prelude to an answer yet to come.” None of this is clear yet.
What is crystal clear is that ‘I am who I am’ is a tautology. With these words, God declares who he is by referring God to–God! And that, I believe is the key point. when God first introduced himself at the beginning of the story, God expressed who he is in a relative way: ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’ (3:6). Now, prompted by Moses’ question, God expresses who he is absolutely: ‘I am who I am’. Whether or not this is God’s name is not yet clear. What is clear is that God has expressed his uniqueness in a way that is dependent on nothing else besides God.
Soulen points out, though, that this isn’t really the case. The “I am” of this sentence, points toward God’s final response in the next verse. “I am” is an important part of God’s response, but not the divine name itself.
Narrowly considered, God’s second reply, ‘I am’, is just a shortened version of the first. Coming on the heels of ‘I am who I am’, it reverberates with something of the original’s serenely self-contained character. Viewed in its larger literary context, however, God’s second reply sets out afresh. For ‘I am’ is no longer nestled inside a tautology, but the subject of a sentence…that is responsive to Moses’ question: ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you’ (3:14b). These words shimmer with unexpected humor, link a wink after a long, inscrutable gaze. God’s first reply, it now appears, was not a rebuff after all, or at least not a total one. Rather, it provides the necessary prologue that will enable Mosses to understand God’s second reply. Hidden within the serene self-sufficiency of ‘I am who I am’ was a genuine answer to Moses’ question, an answer that now openly appears in God’s readiness to come to the aid of Moses and Israel. We might paraphrase the deep logic of God’s first two answers this way: I am ‘I am who I am’; therefore I can be ‘I am who I am’ for you.
I have to admit that I’d been reading this passage for years before I noticed that this is where God actually gives his name: verse 15, not verse 14. That’s probably because I didn’t realize that “LORD” in this sentence simply is God’s name. Because of a long-standing tradition of not speaking the divine name out loud, most English Bibles simply insert “LORD” (usually in all caps) wherever the divine name occurs. So what sounds in English like just another of God’s titles is really the answer to Moses’ question.
And the answer is that God’s name is YHWH, the four letters commonly referred to as tetragrammeton. There’s a rather long and complex debate about what exactly YHWH means (and even how it should be pronounced), but I’ll skip the details. The short version is that most scholars agree that there is some connection between YHWH and the Hebrew “to be” verb, the same one used in the “I am that I am” and “I am” statements of the previous verse. So while those statements didn’t constitute God’s final answer to the question, they are there for a reason.
Here’s how Soulen explains it.
Prior to God’s further reply in 3:15, it is not yet clear (at least from Moses’ point of new) that ‘I am who I am’ and ‘I am’ are wordplays that anticipate a reply yet to come: the Tetragrammaton. In light of 3:15, however, it becomes clear tat God’s initial replies are puns that anticipate and elucidate God’s third and final answer to Moses: the Tetragrammaton. This truth is inevitably lost in translation, but it is important nevertheless. ‘I am who I am’ and ‘I am’ are not self-enclosed after all, at least not in this respect. They are God’s own playful commentaries on God’s name, the Tetragram. Taken by themselves, ‘I am who I am’ and ‘I am’ might equally well be the self-enunciation of any deity. Seen in light of Exodus 3:15, however, they are the uniquely apt self-description of the God whose name is YHWH.
So you need to read both verses 14 and 15 together to get God’s entire answer to the rather simple-seeming question: What is your name?
So What Does It All Mean?
Of course, that still leaves us wondering precisely what his name means. For that, you need to keep reading beyond Exodus 3. Like most names, the divine name finds its best explanation as you come to know the one bearing that name.
I don’t want to reduce God to a mere character in a story, but suppose you’re reading a book, and the author introduces some woman named Carol. “Who is this Carol?” you’re wondering. But you can only answer that question by turning the page and reading more. Names unfold through stories. By the end of the book, “Carol” should mean far more than it did at the beginning.
What does YHWH mean? I’m sure we could spend hours discussing the etymological, theological, and philosophical implications of those four letters. But most simply, they are God’s name. And as with any name, the meaning unfolds in the story.
So keep reading.