Exodus 3:14, the Divine Name of God

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 unto you.

//Moses, worried that Israel won’t accept his authority if he returns to Egypt to try and rescue the children of Israel, asks God for God’s name. God identifies himself as I AM, in what became recognized as a Divine Formula. For example, John’s Gospel seven times presents Jesus as the I AM in a claim of divinity. In John, the Jews recognize this claim, and wish to stone him for impersonating God.

But what does the phrase really mean? Other suggested translations include “I will be who I will be,” or “I cause to be what I cause to be.” In each case, the answer isn’t an answer at all for poor Moses. Karen Armstrong believes it was a Hebrew idiomatic expression to denote deliberate vagueness. God will be whatever or whomever he wishes!

This vagueness may have contributed to the understanding that God’s name was to be revered, not dissected. The two most common names for God in the original Hebrew are Elohim and YHWH, and the latter became so sacred that it was never spoken aloud. Readers of the scriptures would substitute the name Adonai, meaning “my Lord.” YHWH is usually written and pronounced Yahweh by today’s scholars (some references read Jehovah), but in truth, the pronunciation of God’s holy name has been forever forgotten through lack of use. We no longer even know the name of God.


  1. It always struck me as odd that it would even occur to a monotheist to ask what God’s name is. After all, isn’t the sole purpose of a name to differentiate one thing from another thing?

    I mean, we give names to people (Bob, Fran), species (homo sapiens, canis lupus familiaris), pagan gods (Zeus, Apollo), and galaxies (Milky Way, Andromeda), because those things are numerous and we’d lose track of them all without names.

    But I’ve never heard of anyone give, for example, the universe a name. There’s only one universe, so what would be the point?. (Though as physicists discover more about the multiverse, maybe we’ll need to name our universe after all).

    My (subjective, unscholarly) take is that this whole issue of Moses wanting God’s name points to the polytheistic roots of the ancient Hebrews. And that the insistence on “I am what I am” points to the emerging monotheism within it: a heed to see God not as one of many, but simply as “the one”.

  2. Not that Ms. Armstrong needs my help, but her understanding is the commonly accepted on, as the phrase can also be translated “I will be what I am,” or “I am what I will be,” or “I will be what I will be.” What the story is saying is “God is.” Volnaiksra – that is not the sole meaning of a name, at least according to Israel at that time (and many other nations). The name represents the power and essence of that person, to the point that Native Americans, including those here in Alaska, will sometimes give their “American Name,” but not their “Native” or “real” name.

  3. Interesting comparison, John, thanks!

  4. @John Hanscom: Point taken. But I would argue that the only time people feel the need to ascribe a power or essence of a person is when it’s understood in relation to the powers and essences of others.

    For example, I can imagine that some of the Native American names you mention might mean something like “brave in the face of trial” or “communes with the spirit of the wolf” or “has foresight” (I’m making these up, but you get the picture). I cannot, however, imagine that these Native American names would ever mean something like “has two arms and two legs”, or “breathes air”, or “walks upright”. In other words, names such as this only have meaning if the essence that they point to is in some way particular to that person….ie. if the essence somehow sets that person apart from others.

    I return to my example about galaxies and universes. Both are ‘things’, and both have attributes and essences and powers, but only galaxies have names. “Milky Way” is used to, as you say, represent the power and essence of a particular galaxy (it is vast, like a “way”, it is cloudy, like “milk”). We label our galaxy “Milky Way” to set it apart from other galaxies, and highlight its particular attributes.

    But we don’t ascribe a name to the universe because even though it does have attributes and essence and power, it is the only one of its kind (quantum physics aside), so there is no need to label it.

    Another example is water. We give names to rivers, lakes, and oceans, but most people do not use a name for “water” itself. We simply call it by its descriptive word, rather than a name that gets applied over the top of that. The only people who *do* give water a name are chemists: H20 – again, this is for the purpose of differentiate it from other chemicals.

    Names are inherently about segregation and isolation. And anything that is inherently about segregation and isolation is simply incompatible with an entity that is “the Alpha and the Omega”.

    So yeah, I agree that ultimately “I am that I am” was meant to be understood as “God is”. I also think it was meant to be understood as “What’s my name? Moses, what kind of stoopid question is that?!”

  5. lol! Once again, Vol reaches the essense of the issue.

    One naturally wonders: If God had replied “Harry,” would He have ever achieved notoriety?

  6. Then there probably would have been wars between those who called him Harry and those who insisted on Harold.

    Another explanation is that God didn’t like his name and just didn’t feel like disclosing it. Maybe it was something like “Percival”? “I am that I am” definitely sounds much cooler.

  7. By the way, this post combined with your recent post about numerology reminded me of the movie “Pi” by Darren Aronofsky. Have you seen it, Lee?

    In it, some Kabbalist Jews insist that the secret name of God was actually a number (though because it’s Hebrew, I guess also a word) that was something like 216 digits long, and was related to some sort of advanced mathematical formula.

    If I remember correctly, someone who discovered this number and uttered it correctly would be imbued with some sort of intimate mystical knowledge of God.

    I found the idea of God’s name actually being some sort of golden mathematical formula fascinating. Do you know if the idea does indeed have origins in Judaism, or would it just have been a fabrication of the screenwriter?

  8. Haven’t seen Pi, but I think I need to! I’ve heard the idea of a mystical number for God, but honestly didn’t pay attention … I’m unaware of any numbers for God except 888, the number of Jesus :) That’s derived in the same manner as 666=Nero Caesar.

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