The “I Am” of Exodus 3:13-15

The Divine Name

“God said to Moses, ‘Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, I-Will-Be-Who-I-Will-Be … Thus shall you
say to the Israelites, Ehyeh has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:14, Alter Translation).

by Richard Tazzyman (all capitalization added by the author for emphasis)

The “I AM” of Exodus

In Exodus 3, Jehovah appeared to Moses in a burning bush near Horeb, commissioning Moses to lead Israel from Egypt to the Promised Land. There Jehovah revealed Himself in the phrase, “I AM THAT I AM.” This name, as it appears in Hebrew, reveals the very essence of Jehovah and His purpose. The Hebrew verb hayah need not mean only “to be,” but rather “to become,” or “to prove to be.” An alternative translation is “I SHALL PROVE TO BE WHAT I SHALL PROVE TO BE.” The reference is not to God’s self-existence, but to what he has in mind or purpose to become towards mankind.

The footnote on this verse from the Revised Version Improved and Corrected (RVIC) notes, “I AM BECAUSE I AM, or, I AM WHO I AM, or I WILL BE WHAT I WILL TO BE, or I CONTINUE TO BE THE ONE CONTINUING EVERMORE.”1

Jehovah was sending Moses to the children of Israel. He wanted them to remember Him as being “FROM GENERATION TO GENERATION” (Exodus 17:16). Thus GOD the Most High included His Most Holy name not once, but twice. In all, His name appears over 6,800 times in scripture. (The Divine Name King James Bible, 2011, uses JEHOVAH 6,973 times throughout the Old Testament, and LORD, with Jehovah in parentheses, 128 times in the New Testament. The RVIC reverses the ancient Sopherim changes, and uses it 7,065 times by one count.)

“And my Holy Name will I make known … the nations shall know I am JEHOVAH … The holy one of Israel” (Ezekiel 39:7 RVIC). It is not just the nation of Israel, but all the nations that will come to know this name. Psalms 83:18 (RVIC) reads, “That they may know that thou alone, whose name is JEHOVAH, art the Most High over all the earth”!


(1) From Alter’s translation footnote on this: “‘I-Will-Be-Who-I-Will-Be’ is the most plausible construction of the Hebrew, though the middle word, asher, could easily mean ‘what’ rather than ‘who,’ and the common rendering of ‘I-Am-That-I-Am’ cannot be excluded.”

Why is this name and its meaning so important? Because it is associated with the salvation of all mankind. “Whosever shall call on the name of Jehovah shall be delivered” (Joel 2:32 RVIC), or “will be saved” (NWT, NIV, in agreement with Acts 2:21). This does not mean that one will be saved by merely uttering this name, but that one must know the meaning and purpose of the One behind the name.

GOD Named Everything

All that God created has a name — stars, planets, and solar systems (Psalms 147:4). It is likely that this includes angels (Daniel 8, 9). He named the first man (Genesis 5:1,2), who in turn named the animals (Genesis 2:19). Names have a special meaning. Sometimes they are explanatory (1 Samuel 25:25). Throughout scripture, God revealed Himself through His name. “Let them praise the name of JEHOVAH, for his name alone is excellent. His glory is above the earth and Heaven” (Psalm 148:13, Divine Name King James). Here He reveals His personality and nature.

Most Bible translations do not use the name JEHOVAH, or use it only infrequently. For example, in the King James translation the name appears only four times (Exodus 6:3, Psalms 83:18, Isaiah 12:22, 26:4). (The Divine Name King James Bible from 2011 substitutes the name JEHOVAH throughout those places where LORD or GOD is used in the 1611 version).

Most modern translations have substituted the title, LORD, in place of the proper name, a reaction to the American edition of the official revision of the 1611 King James Version. An invitation from the British committee to translators from North America to collaborate on this revision resulted later in a translation known as the American Standard Version of 1901, in which appeared the TETRAGRAMMATON, pronounced as YaHWeH, or in English, JEHOVAH, in nearly 7000 places, rather than the earlier LORD. (“Tetra” is a prefix designating the number four; “Gramma” means“writing” or “letters,” thus meaning for four Hebrew letters, YHWH).

However, “Jehovah” was later removed, and subsequent revisions of the American Standard Version no longer use the Divine name. This made it much easier for biblical teachers with a Trinitarian viewpoint, as the use of a title in place of the sacred name obscured the separation of Jehovah and His Son.

Note the following comment from the original committee on the use of the name.

“The change first proposed in the Appendix — that which substitutes “JEHOVAH” for “LORD” and “GOD” … is one which will be UNWELCOME to MANY, because of the frequency and familiarity of the terms displaced. But the American Revisers, after careful consideration, were brought to the unanimous conviction that a JEWISH SUPERSTITION, which regarded the DIVINE NAME as too sacred to be uttered, ought no longer to dominate in the English or any other version of the Old Testament. … This Memorial Name, explained in Exodus 3:14, 15, and emphasized as such over and over in the original text of the Old Testament, designates God as the personal God, as the covenant God, the God of revelation, the Deliverer, the Friend of his people — not merely the abstract “Eternal One” of many French translations, but the ever living Helper of those who are in trouble. This personal name, with its wealth of sacred associations, is now restored to the place in the sacred text to which it has an unquestionable claim” (Paragraph 8 of the ASV Preface, capitals added).

Substitution of the Proper Name

Substitution for the divine name likely began around the end of the first century. Josephus, a Jewish historian from a priestly family, writes in connection with Jehovah’s first appearance to Moses: “Then God revealed to him his name, which had not come to men’s ears, and which I am forbidden to speak” (Antiquities 2,12,4). Josephus’ statement, however, is vague, not revealing pronouncement of the divine name. The clarification comes from the Jewish Mishnah, a collection of rabbinic teachings redacted by Judah the Prince around the end of the second century. Though of little historical value, the Mishnah clarifies that the divine name was determined to be too holy to utter. It says that one accused as a blasphemer would not be determined guilty unless he had pronounced the NAME. In such a trial for blasphemy, a substitute name was used until all evidence was heard, then the witness was required to privately express what was heard, presumably the
divine Name.

These historical accounts reveal a tendency of the Jews to avoid pronouncing the divine name already before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Later, when reading Hebrew Scriptures in the original language, the Jewish reader substituted either ADO-NAI (SOVEREIGN LORD) or ELO-HIM (GOD) for the Tetragrammaton. Jewish copyists likely began substituting either ADO-NAI, or ELO-HIM in manuscripts. Evidently, they wished to warn the reader to use one of these two words in place of the divine name. Finally, the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures removed the Tetragrammaton completely and replaced it by the Greek KY-RI-OS or THE-OS.2


(2) In many cases a group of symbols, such as lines or dots, were placed above or below letters. This is referred to in literature as vowel pointing, and indicates a writing system in which vowels had neither been written nor implied. This pointing was introduced around 600 AD.

Tetragrammaton Always Refers to Jehovah

While God is reverentially addressed in the Bible with different titles, such as Father, our Lord, or Almighty God, He has only one name, transliterated as JEHOVAH (YHWH). This is shown in the book of Psalms, where this most holy name is used 700 times alone. “Thus will I magnify myself, and sanctify myself, and I will be known in the eyes of many nations, and they will have to know I am Jehovah” (Ezekiel 38:23). “And I will send a fire on Magog, and among them that dwell carelessly in the Isles, and they shall know that I AM JEHOVAH. So will I make my holy name known in the midst of my peoples Israel; and I will not let them pollute my holy name any more; and the heathen shall know that I AM JEHOVAH, The holy one in Israel” (Ezekiel 39:6,7, The Divine Name King James Bible).

Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Our father in the heavens, let your name be hallowed” (Luke 11:2). The word “hallowed” means “sanctified,” as in the Kingdom Interlinear New Testament). Also, Jesus himself prayed, “Father, glorify thy name. Then came a voice from heaven, saying, I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again” (John 12:28,29, The Divine Name King James Bible). Translators today have capitalized references to Jehovah as LORD to make them distinctive. However, substituting LORD for the Divine Name, “I AM,” or JEHOVAH, impacts the clarity of God’s word.

Conclusion

It was not modern translators, nor translators of the King James Bible, that first made changes to the Divine name. Two centuries before Jesus appeared, religious leaders had already begun to substitute JEHOVAH with ADONAI or LORD. Some claim that since we do not know the proper pronunciation of the Divine Name, we should not try to use it. However, as discussed above, JEHOVAH is the common translation of the name in most languages, and respected translators such as Wycliffe and Tyndale preserved it, so we should as well.

What the NAME Means to Us

The Hebrew word “HaVaH” is the verb meaning “to breathe.” A prefixed letter yod (י (designates 3rd person, masculine, future tense. Thus, “YaHaVaH” (or with alternative vowels) may mean “He is future life”; so YHWH / YHVH / Jehovah may imply that the God of Israel is the hope of eternal life.

We should therefore live our lives not only for the present but also in preparation for our eternal future — eternal life. We should also live to assist others to similarly help them prepare for eternal life. Our real hope, and also the hope for all mankind, is not in “the world that then was,” nor in “this present evil world,” but in “the world to come” (2 Peter 3:6, Galatians 1:4, Hebrews 2:5).

“In your faith supply virtue” (2 Peter 1:5-8). People need to be shown how they need to apply what is said in John 17:3 (RVIC), “And this is life eternal, That they should know thee [Jehovah] the only true GOD, and him whom thou didst send, even Jesus Christ.”

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