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.’”—Exodus 3:14
The God Who Is?
As one of the more mysterious utterances in the Old Testament, God’s self-revelation to Moses in Exodus 3:14 has received countless examinations by biblical interpreters. Perhaps the best-known interpretation views God’s statement—“I AM WHO I AM”—as an expression of his aseity, or his self-existence. As the ultimate, uncreated being, God simply “is.” This interpretation goes all the way back to the intertestamental period, evidenced by the Septuagint’s translation of this phrase as, “I am the one who is.”
While we certainly should affirm the self-existence of God, we must ask if such an interpretation makes sense in the immediate context of this passage. Would Israelites suffering under the weight of Egyptian oppression truly need to be informed of God’s ontological aseity? Does the flow of the narrative lead us to conclude that God would reveal this rather philosophical aspect of his identity at this particular juncture? I suggest not, and the broader context of Exodus seems to point us in a different direction.
A Three-Part Answer
In seeking to understand Exodus 3:14, the first item to observe is that God provides a three-part answer when Moses asks by what name he should identify God to the people of Israel:
(1) God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM” (Ex. 3:14a).
(2) And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (Ex. 3:14b).
(3) 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’” (Ex. 3:15).
Interestingly, the most elusive phrase—I AM WHO I AM—is not the answer that God tells Moses to communicate to Israel. This answer is seemingly just for Moses. This means that whatever we conclude about God’s communication here, the names revealed in (2) and (3) must be sufficient to answer Israel’s inquiry concerning God’s identity. When we compare (2) and (3), we see that they are clearly parallel statements:
(2) Say this to the people of Israel:
has sent me to you.
(3) Say this to the people of Israel:
the God of your fathers,
the God of Abraham,
the God of Isaac,
and the God of Jacob
has sent me to you.
These parallels suggest that the names “I AM” and “the LORD” are interchangeable to a certain degree. Further supporting this is the observation that the English phrase “the LORD” translates the Hebrew name Yahweh, which appears to be a third-person form of the verb “to be,” the same verb underlying the name “I AM” (ehyeh). Therefore, our conclusions concerning the more common name “the LORD” can help us understand the significance of the less common name, “I AM.” Our understanding of “I AM,” in turn, will hopefully shed light on the related and ever-perplexing statement, “I AM WHO I AM.”
Did the Patriarchs Know “the LORD”?
When we examine the statements above, what immediately jumps out is how “the LORD” is described as “the God of your fathers,” which is specified further as “the God of Abraham, the God Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” This is especially interesting since God will later tell Moses, “I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty (El Shaddai), but by my name the LORD (Yahweh) I did not make myself known to them” (Ex. 6:3). Yet in the patriarchal narratives, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob each address God by his name, Yahweh (e.g., Gen. 15:2; 26:25; 28:16). How are we to make sense of this?
The name Yahweh fundamentally relates to God’s faithfulness to his people.
Clarity comes when we see that, throughout Exodus, God repeatedly promises to act in certain ways, with the result that people will “know that I am Yahweh.” This doesn’t mean that people will simply acquire awareness of God’s label Yahweh, since God has already revealed that name in Exodus 3. Rather, to “know that he is Yahweh” means that people will experience the true nature of God’s character—they will experience what the name Yahweh signifies.
In Exodus, people come to “know that he is Yahweh” either when they experience God’s salvation/provision for Israel (Ex. 6:7; 7:5; 8:22; 16:12; 29:46) or his judgment against Egypt (Ex. 7:17; 10:2; 14:4, 18). This suggests that the name Yahweh fundamentally relates to God’s faithfulness to his people. It’s in this sense that the patriarchs did not “know Yahweh”—they knew of his name and received his promises, but they never experienced the full expression of his faithfulness to those promises through his powerful salvation and judgment.
I Am with You
With this broader background in view, we can return to Exodus 3 and see a hint of this theme of God’s faithfulness. God first introduces himself to Moses as the God of the patriarchs (Ex. 3:6) and specifies his intention to fulfill his promises by bringing Israel to the land of Canaan (Ex. 3:7–9). God then calls Moses to lead the people out of Egypt (Ex. 3:10), Moses questions his adequacy for this task (Ex. 3:11), and God assures him by saying, “But I will be (ehyeh) with you” (Ex. 3:12).
Here God uses the very word that he will use in Exodus 3:14 to identify himself as “I AM” (ehyeh)—the Hebrew may be translated either as “I am” or “I will be.” In this verse, God is assuring Moses of his faithful presence as he commissions him to serve as a vessel of salvation for Israel and judgment against Egypt. This broad background and immediate narrative flow suggest that the names “I AM” and “the LORD” pertain to God’s faithfulness to his people: he is with them, will save them, and will judge their enemies.
By extension, the elusive phrase “I AM WHO I AM” most likely refers to this facet of God’s identity as well; some have viewed it as a superlative (“I am the most faithful one”) while others opt for a different grammatical understanding (“I will be what I will be [that is, with you]”). Either way, both the broad and immediate context of Exodus suggests that rather than reminding his people of his aseity, by revealing his name God is seeking to encourage his weary people of his faithful presence in their midst.
Matthew R. Newkirk