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Appendix 3

Appendix 3

The Meaning of “I am who I am”

The following extract is from the article “Calling God names: an in­ner-biblical approach to the Tetragrammaton,” William M. Schniede­wind, in Scriptural Exegesis: The Shapes of Culture and the Religious Imaginat­ion: Essays in Honour of Michael Fishbane, Oxford, 2009. When the author men­tions the Hebrew phrase Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, he is referring to the declaration, “I am who I am” (Ex.3:14), Yahweh’s famous self-descript­ion revealed to Moses.

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Second, it has been pointed out by many that Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh [Exodus 3.14,15] seems to be connected with verse 12, in which God pro­mises ‘I shall be with you’ (אהיה עמד). The connection with verse 12 was already recognized by ancient Jewish interpreters. Independ­ently, many modern readers have seen the same connection. A later interpreter may be playing on the promise, ‘I shall be with you’. We do well to remember that this connection does not merely derive from the immediate context, though that might have been the trigger. The promise ‘I shall be with you’ (אהיה עמד) is found fre­quently in the Hebrew Bible; God promises that He will be with Abraham, with Isaac, with Jacob, with Moses, with Joshua, with Gideon, with David, with the people of Israel, and so on. Thus, the exegetical rum­ina­tion would result not only from the immediate context, but also from the broader cultural and religious horizon of ancient Israel. We arrive at inter­pret­ations of the name of God based on the LORD’s presence—some have suggested translating Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh as something like ‘I am the one who shall surely be with you’. While there may be an intuitive connect­ion here, the pro­blem with this interpretation is that it is not what the text liter­ally says. Ehyeh is an im­perfect, or a future; it should mean something like ‘I shall be whom I shall be’—but that does not suit our religious sensibil­ities. ‘I shall be whom I shall be’ makes the LORD seem capricious, whereas (parad­ox­ically) ‘I am who I am’ can assert God’s un­changing nature. Per­haps both seemed like good answers during the Baby­lonian exile or in the postexilic community, as well as at other times of crisis.

Although the proximity of Ehyeh-‘Immakh and Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh al­most demands some relationship between the two, the meanings of the two are not naturally connected. We must assume that Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh (אהיה אשר אהיה) is an interpret­ation of אהיה עמד, ‘I shall be with you’, in order to make the connection. And, we may ask, why stress that God’s name—His very essence—points to God’s presence? Perhaps because God’s presence was challenged and questioned—as it was by the exile and during the post­exilic period. Certainly, there was a need to reassert God’s presence in the Jerusalem temple, especially in the postexilic period when the former symbol of God’s presence—the ark—was absent. The divine name could serve as a new symbol of God’s physical presence in Jerusalem and in the temple.

In sum, the early history of the ineffable name of God seems to be closely associated with the Jerusalem temple. References to the building of a temple ‘for the name’ can be compared with the rather mundane Near Eastern par­allels in which such statements merely indicate exclusivity of owner­ship. In the exilic period, however, the fact that the temple was ‘for the name of God’ could be understood to mean that only the name of God, and not God him­self, resided in the temple. When the temple was rebuilt in the postexilic per­iod, the fact that the name of God resided in the temple in­creas­ingly was understood literally to imply God’s physical pres­ence with his people and in the temple. Ehyeh, for example, was an interpretation of the Tetragramma­ton that played on the promise of God’s presence and reassured the people of His immanence. When the former symbol of God’s physical presence on earth, the ark of the covenant, had disap­peared, the name be­came a conven­ient surrogate as a symbol of God’s presence with His people, and especially in the Jerusalem temple.


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