“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.” These words from Shakespeare’s Juliet, believe it or not, have import on how we do theology proper. Juliet’s passion for the young man Romeo was so strong and her grief over the feudalism that separated her from her lover so heavy that she was quite willing to completely disregard Romeo’s connectedness with his noble family name – Montague. Juliet felt that Romeo the man could be divorced from Montague the name and remain the same person. This story has become known as Shakespeare’s greatest “tragedy,” and rightly so. For men to do theology after the Julietian model is no less tragic.
Due to our finitude, God’s infinity and God’s accommodating means to overcome the epistemological dilemma this causes, the believer needs to understand the relationship between the “names,” the “actions” and the “Person/Being” of God is paramount. Perhaps Ex.3:14 is one of the most crucial of all names for understanding much about the substantial nature and being of God as he has revealed himself.
I. The Name: Historio-redemptive meaning
Yahweh’s plan to use Moses to deliver his people Israel was troubling for Moses to say the least. Not only confronting Pharaoh, but also God’s people with this plan, precipitated Moses’ presupposing the need for an apologetic to accompany his outlandish claims. This is seen in Moses’ anticipation of the Israelites question, “What is his name?” (v.13). The following verses, including v.14 (I AM THAT I AM) all point back to an earlier revelation of God’s covenant name given the Israel’s father, Abraham (compare vv.14-17 with Gen.15:7, 13-16). When understood through inter-textual analysis, much of the import of Yahweh’s self-disclosure in Ex.3 has to do not only with God’s self-existence, but also what flows from his self-existent nature – God’s absolute, self-determination and steadfastness to his covenant promises, and people and the power to deliver them; as seen in the life their fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (vv.16-17).
There is also an etymological connection in the Hebrew text between God’s covenant name “YHWH” in vv.15-16 and God’s declaration in v.14 “Eheyeh asher Eheyeh.” YHWH is a proper noun that is derived from the verb HAYAH, meaning “to be.” Therefore, in the 6000+ occurrences of YHWH in the OT, there is with it, resonation of God’s self-existence.
II. The Name: Ontological meaning
Comparative studies of ancient near eastern deities from Babylon, Acadia, and Egypt help to see the stark contrast communicated by the theology back of God’s name in Ex.3 against the theologies of the surrounding pagan nations. The extant records of pagan deities from these backgrounds places much emphasis on how those deities came to be, their contingent correlation with the rest of creation and their servants (i.e. man), and the ongoing struggle between the gods themselves as well as the god’s dependency on man himself. For the Pagans, “a god by any other name would be just as mighty.” For the Egyptians divine names was mere nominalism, not so for Moses and the Israelites. The Hebraic name in v.14 hangs on the God that is, and is Absolute. In the Hebraic context divine ontology is equivalent to divine economy – who God is, is inextricably bound to what God does in redemptive history. Therefore, the paradigmatic understanding of the setting in which the Hebrews would have received this name is highly relevant.
The key element that Yahweh’s name in Ex.3:14 would have expressed to his captive people was the utter Absoluteness of their God. In contrast to the gods of their captors, whose authority and power was often fettered by numerous contingencies. Yahweh, the God of their fathers, gave them the name that expressed his very nature – independently self-existent. This would carry with it the reality of the complete liberty and self-determination of Yahweh’s nature, what we might call the Sovereignty of God. Thus, the One who would deliver them is the One who is all-able to manifest the deeds and operations that are expressed by the nature of the name, as well as what would be required for their redemption from Egyptian bondage – “His outstretched hand!” (v.20).
The Septuagint helps to unpack further the abstract philosophical connotations behind the “I AM THAT I AM.” The Greek of the LXX reads – Εγώ είμι Ό Ών, which very literally would read, “I AM The One Who IS” (cf. Jn.8:24, 28, 58; Heb.13:8; Rev.1:4, 8; 4:8).
One must guard against an anachronistic reading of the ancient Greek philosophy of Plato and others when approaching this verse. We can be assured that Moses had no ideas of God as “pure Being” or any other of the ontological abstraction or “Universal” of the Greek schoolmen. Platonic Idealism is utterly foreign to the entire OT, as Plato came to be after the closing of the OT canon. Nor is this construction in v.14 a Hebrew idiom which finds its western counter-part in the dualism that we find ourselves so saturated in. Rather, Yahweh’s self-disclosure in this time/space event in redemptive speaks of the One who is self-contained, self-sufficient, and self-existent. This is sometimes described by the arcane theological term aseity, from the Latin words a se, meaning “from himself.”
1. Yahweh’s Self-existence – This was diametrically opposed to the pagan conceptions of the gods. For the Pagan, the god(s) “being/existence” differed from the worshiper’s own being only in a matter of degree. Here, Yahweh is revealed as One whose being or existence is self-derived, or again,”from himself.” Such independence displays God complete “otherness” from his creation. We call this incommunicable attribute “God’s transcendence.” Although man dependently shares this part of God’s nature (i.e. existence), only Yahweh, the Triune God of the scriptures has it infinitely. All others, from the heavens to the angels to the worm, in their finitude, are desperately dependent on God’s good pleasure for their existence and being.
2. Yahweh’s Self-sufficiency – In v.12 God gives Moses the supreme consolation, “I will be with thee.” (Compare this to Gen.15:1, “I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward”). Closely related to God’s Self-existence is the fact that he needs nothing and is dependent upon nothing outside of himself in order to accomplish all that he purposes to do. This is most explicit in 4:10-12. Moses appeals to his own inaptitude to which God responds emphatically with his “Self-sufficiency.” Because Moses’ doubted this, “the anger of the LORD was kindled against Moses...” (v.14a).
3. Yahweh’s Self-containment: The past tense of the phrase “And I have said...” in v.17a refers to God’s innate omniscience. Unlike the Egyptian gods, for Yahweh ALL knowledge is Self-referential; a priori so to speak. Verse 17 is again pointing backwards to the promises God made to Abraham (Gen.15:13-16). God’s knowledge of the experience of the Hebrew bondsmen did not depend upon any source outside of himself.
The situational import of these concepts for the Hebrews was that Yahweh, the Absolute God of their fathers, he alone possessed the libertarian freedom, power and independence to deliver them from the bondage of the taskmasters, clay pits and brick ovens of Egypt.
Therefore, in conclusion, given the Hebraic context, Yahweh’s past redemptive promises and actions, and the impotence of the gods found in the culture about them, in can be seen that this Name, in Ex.3, was far more than mere theological nomenclature or fanciful philosophizing, but rather was the Self-disclosure of a covenant name of God that was pregnant with the dynamic expectations of Absolute Divine redemptive activity. In the words of Geerhardus Vos, “Jehovah, the absolute God, acting with unfettered liberty, was the very God to help them in their unworthiness as regards to themselves, and in their impotence in regards to the Egyptians. That sovereignty underlies God’s giving Himself to Israel is stated in so many words: ‘I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God, and ye shall know that I am Jehovah, your God.’ [Ex.6:7]” (Vos, Geerhardus, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments, Eerdmans. 1948. p.119).
To answer Juliet’s “What’s in a name?” All existence, knowledge and power, and God’s revelation of it, that’s what!
I call upon You, Lord, God of Abraham and God of Isaac and God of Jacob and Israel, You who are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who, through the abundance of your mercy, was well-pleased towards us so that we may know You, who made heaven and earth, who rules over all, You who are the one and the true God, above whom there is no other God; You who, by our Lord Jesus Christ gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit, give to every one who reads this writing to know You, that You alone are God, to be strengthened in You, and to avoid every heretical and godless and impious teaching.
St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4
St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4