"And Moses said unto God, Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them, The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me, What is His name? what shall I say unto them? And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and He said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me to you." -Ex 3:13f
When Moses asked God what His name is, God replied, "I AM THAT I AM. Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you." This sometimes confuses people, because God is never again referred to or addressed as "I AM THAT I AM" anywhere else in the Bible. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures God is usually referred to and addressed as "Yahweh," never as "I AM." So what did God mean when He told Moses that His name is "I AM"?
When speaking about someone's name, we must remember that the English word name (as well as its Hebrew equivalent, shem) has different meanings and nuances. Here are a few different things that name can mean.
When we speak of "name" in the sense of nomenclature, we are speaking about the word or words that designate a particular person, as in "His name is David." When we talk about a person's "name," we most often mean nomenclature.
Sometimes the word "name" is used when referring to a person's character. If we say a man "has a good name," we do not mean that his name (i.e., his nomenclature) has a pretty sound and is easy to pronounce. If a man "has a good name," this means he is a man of good character.
Just as the word "name" is used to refer to a person's character, it is also used to refer to a person's reputation. If parents tell their wayward son, "You've ruined the family name," they are not saying that their son misspelled or mispronounced their family's surname. They mean he has soiled the good reputation of their family by his bad behavior.
Sometimes "name" is used when speaking of a person's fame or success. If we say a man is "a big name in the movie industry" or "a big name in local real estate," we do not mean that his name is unusually long or difficult to spell. Someone with "a big name" is someone who has achieved some fame and success.
The word "name" means authority when used in the phrase "in the name of." This phrase simply means "by the authority of." If a man does something in the name of the President of the United States, he is doing it by the authority of the President, acting on behalf of the President's wishes. When the Bible says the Apostles baptized in the name of Yeshua, it simply means they were doing it by Yeshua's authority, doing that which He authorized them to do.
If we are speaking about God's name in the sense of nomenclature, His name is Yahweh (or, as some prefer to spell it, Yahveh). If we are speaking about God's name in the sense of His character, His reputation, His fame, or His authority, He is I AM THAT I AM. That is, He is reliable and consistent in His character, His reputation, His fame, and His authority.
The KJV's "I AM THAT I AM" in Hebrew is ehyeh asher ehyeh. In Hebrew the verb "to be" can be expressed in past or future tense, but technically speaking it has no present tense forms that correspond to our English am, are, and is. In modern Hebrew ehyeh means "I will be." Rashi and others following him also render ehyeh as "I will be." Nonetheless, most English translations (including some Jewish ones) translate it as "I AM."
Whether you prefer "I AM" or "I will be," ehyeh is about God's being. In the Septuagint (the third-century B.C. Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures), God tells Moses, ego eimi ho On, translated into English as "I am THE BEING."1
Ehyeh asher ehyeh declares God's BEING, His eternal existence from eternity past to eternity future. It presents God as the Supreme Being, the Self-Existent Uncreated One who creates all that was, is, and is to come. The "name" Ehyeh is not God's nomenclature; it is a declaration of His eternal existence. If we are speaking about nomenclature, His name is Yahweh.
In regards to the name Yahweh, God later said to Moses, "I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob by the name of God Almighty [El Shaddai], but by My name Yahweh was I not known to them" (Ex. 6:3).
Just as some people are confused by God's declaration that His name is "I AM," so some people are confused by this statement. After all, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all knew that God's name was Yahweh. They constantly referred to Him and addressed Him as Yahweh. So how could God say to Moses, "by My name Yahweh was I not known to them"?
Once again, we must not restrict the meaning of "name" to nomenclature only. It is an indisputable fact that the pre-Mosaic Patriarchs knew and used the nomenclature of Yahweh. Therefore God's statement that He was not known to them by His name Yahweh has to mean something other than nomenclature.
Since "name" can mean character, reputation, fame, and authority, we can conclude that the Patriarchs did not know the character, the reputation, the fame, and the authority of Yahweh – at least not to the same degree that Moses and his generation would learn these aspects of His "name" by being witnesses of and participants in the Exodus from Egypt. In other words, by means of the Exodus, God's people would come to a fuller and clearer understanding of the character, the reputation, the fame, and the authority of Yahweh. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob knew the nomenclature of Yahweh, but Moses' generation would witness Yahweh's mighty redemptive acts in history: the Ten Plagues, the Parting of the Red Sea, the manifestation of Yahweh at Mount Sinai – manifestations of a magnitude far greater than anything witnessed by Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This new knowledge of His "name" was not a revelation of nomenclature nor a revelation of a different God. This new revelation was "one of degree, not of essence."2
The name Ehyeh is derived from the verb "to be." The three-letter root of "to be" is H-Y-H. Add an aleph prefix to this root, and you get ehyeh. (An aleph prefix, when attached to a verb, conjugates the verb into first-person singular future tense, i.e., "I will.")
The name Yahweh, like the name Ehyeh, is also derived from the verb "to be." The Hebrew word for "present" (as in present time) is HoVeH, derived from HaYaH, the root of "to be." A yod prefix conjugates a verb into third-person singular future tense (i.e., "he will"). Add a yod prefix to H-V-H, "present," and you get YHVH, the four-letter name of God, most often pronounced as Yahweh.
Some argue for alternative English transliterations and pronunciations of the four-letter name. Regardless of the English transliteration, there is a connection between Ehyeh and Yahweh. Jewish commentator W.G. Plaut writes: "If YHVH is a third person singular and Ehyeh a first person variant, one could understand God to say: 'I am Ehyeh (first person) the same whom you know as YHVH (third person).'"3
In regards to the etymology of the four-letter name, Plaut writes: "The most widely accepted explanation of YHVH connects the Name with the word hayah, to be, a causative form of which could be Yahveh, 'He who causes to be.'"4
So God's name expresses not only His Being, His uncreated eternal existence, and His creatorship, it also proclaims Him as the original Cause behind all creation. Yahweh is the Self-Existent One who caused everything to come into existence.
His name Ehyeh also expresses His Sovereignty, His rightful authority to do whatever He wills to do, and to be whatever He needs to be. If He needs to be a fierce, wrathful God who smites Egypt with plagues, that is what He will be and do. If He needs to take on a body of human flesh, become a man, and die as the Lamb of God, that is what He will be and do. "Wherefore should the heathen say, Where is now their God? But our God is in the heavens: He hath done whatsoever He pleased" (Ps. 115:2f).
Some people treat God's nomenclature like a magic amulet, thinking there is some inherent power in the "correct" pronunciation of the four-letter Name – much like the seven unfortunate sons of Sceva who thought they could cast out demons simply by saying "in the name of Yeshua whom Paul preacheth" (Acts 19:13).
I addressed this error several years ago in a booklet I called Linguistic Superstition and the Sacred Name Movement. I still stand by everything I wrote in that booklet. However, that does not mean that I discourage the utterance of the name of Yahweh. On the contrary. In my daily private prayer, I speak the name of Yahweh more times than I can count. I started doing this in the mid-1980s, over 30 years ago. However, I do not say the Name carelessly or flippantly or in casual conversation. I speak the Sacred Name only in a sacred context – in prayer, praise, and singing, or when teaching or discussing the Sacred Name – because I do not want to misuse Yahweh's Name.
Jews avoid the misuse of the Name by simply banning the pronunciation of Yahweh, substituting Adonai ("Lord") or HaShem ("the Name"). I understand and respect the rabbis' motives for banning the pronunciation of the Name. But I am not under the heavy yoke of rabbinical Judaism, so I do not need to refrain from reverently speaking the Name. If I am on the rabbis' turf – visiting a synagogue or some other Jewish institution, or participating in some Jewish-sponsored event – I will certainly honor their custom and refrain from speaking the Name. But when I am not on their turf, I am free to reverently call on the name of Yahweh.
In Biblical times, righteous Israelites freely uttered the Name, even when doing something as mundane as greeting one another. When Boaz came to the field, his words of greeting to the reapers were "Yahweh be with you." The reapers' reply to Boaz was "Yahweh bless thee." We know they did not say "Adonai," because these are direct quotes of their words. If they had said "Adonai," the text would read Adonai, not Yahweh.
The Hebrew Scriptures contain many, many more such quotes of God's people speaking the Name. Sometimes people did refer to God as Adonai ("Lord"), but when that is the case, it is written that way, spelled alef-dalet-nun-yod. Any time you see a person's spoken words recorded and their words include "the LORD" written in all capitals, that tells you that the Hebrew text is YHWH, and the speaker uttered the Name. They said "Adonai" only where the English translation reads "Lord" with only the "L" capitalized.
I do not condemn nor criticize Jews (and some Messianics) who prefer to use some circumlocution such as Adonai ("Lord") or Ha-Shem ("the Name") or Adoshem (a blend of Adonai and Ha-Shem). But as I said, we are not under the authority of the rabbis. Unless we are on their turf, we have the liberty to freely and reverently call God by His Name, just as the Israelites of old did.
There is nothing wrong with calling Yahweh by the generic titles "God" or "the Lord," because the Hebrew text often refers to Yahweh by the equally generic (and, unlike English, un-capitalize-able) Hebrew generic titles elohim and adonai. Most English-speaking people know that "God" with a capital "G" refers to the God of the Bible, the God worshipped by Jews and Christians. However, in recent decades the English word "God," even when capitalized, seems to be morphing into an all-inclusive, New-Agey concept of "God" as some nebulous, unknowable "universal spirit." The distinction between "God" and "god" is not as apparent as it was in previous times, when most of the English-speaking world had more of a Judeo-Christian world view than they now do. Many people now consider gods like Allah to be God, i.e., the same God who is worshipped by Jews and Christians.
To conclude this short article about the name of Yahweh, let's consider the Prophet Elijah. Before Yeshua's first coming, the spirit and power of Elijah prepared the way for His arrival. Before Yeshua's second coming, the spirit and power of Elijah will likewise prepare the way: "Elijah truly shall first come, and restore all things" (Matt. 17:11). The name Elijah in Hebrew is Eliyahu. Eliyahu means "my God is Yahweh." As we approach the end of the age and the return of Yeshua, I believe that the faithful remnant preparing the way for Yeshua's return will increasingly declare the message that is expressed by Elijah's name: "My God is Yahweh. Not Allah, not one of the Hindu gods, not some nebulous New-Age 'universal spirit,' not an imaginary god that is worshipped in Bible-denying churches and synagogues, not a god who can be depicted in an idol or explained by Greek philosophy. My God is Yahweh, the God of Elijah, the God and Father of our Lord Yeshua the Messiah."
As we declare this message to a God-forsaking and God-forsaken world, may we hasten His coming. Maranatha!
1The Septuagint Version of the OT With an English Translation (London: Zondervan, 1970), Ex. 3:14, p. 73.
2W.G. Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981), p. 425
3Ibid., p. 405.
4Ibid., p. 426.
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