I am who I am in Exodus 3

Meaning of I am Who I am in Exodus 3:15 by Dr. John Sanders

Yahweh is the Hebrew name for the God of Israel. The name occurs in chapter three of Exodus in verses 2, 4, 7, 15, and 16. You can know when the name Yahweh occurs because in English Bibles the divine name is usually translated LORD (all caps).


In Hebrew the name “Yahweh” and the words “I am” (ehyeh) sound similar. Many believe Yahweh is a word play on ehyeh (yeh sounds like yah). Exodus 3:14 in Hebrew is “ehyeh asher ehyeh” translated into English as either “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be.”

What does the translation, “I am who I am” mean? There are three main interpretations.


  1. A minority believe that God is not disclosing anything. Rather, God is being intentionally evasive (the deus absconditus = the hidden God).


2.  Many theologians give it a philosophical definition: God is the eternally existent one (Augustine). The Septuagint translation uses the Greek ego eimi ho on, “I am he who is” or, “I am the one being.” Aquinas said God’s name is “He who is” meaning that God is a necessary being (one who must exist) in contrast to creatures which are dependent beings (do not have to exist).


3. It means that God will be with God’s people.

3.1 Today, most biblical scholars (Jewish and Christian) “agree that in Hebrew thought the emphasis is not upon pure or abstract being, but rather…the stress is upon God’s presence with Moses and Israel. God’s “being” is a “being with,” a divine presence” (Hyatt’s commentary on Exodus). Fretheim says it means “I will faithfully be your God” (63). It is about an ongoing relationship (Meyers 59 and Durham 39).

3.2 Theologian William McClendon agrees it means God’s presence will be with the people: “I will always be ahead of you. Find Me as you follow the journey.” (Doctrine285). Julian of Norwich (Medieval Christian writer) says “He who is” refers to the “goodness of fatherhood” and “the wisdom of motherhood.” It means “I am that which helps you love” [Showings chapter 59]

3.3 The expression by God “I will be with you” occurs several times in Genesis where God promised to be “with” Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and others (Gen. 26:3, 24; 28:15; 31:3). The expression is pregnant with theological meaning (for discussion see Gowan’s Theology in Exodus.). It is a very important motif in the Hebrew Bible for God’s commitment to Israel (e.g., Ex. 33:12-16) and in the New Testament when Jesus says, “I will be with you” (Matt. 28:20).

3.4 Sanders agrees with the third interpretation. Many read philosophy into the Hebrew text instead of interpreting the phrase in its literary context. Yahweh is the God who promises to be with the people on their journey through history. He agrees with Fretheim (p. 52) that the key to the interpretation is to look at God’s replies to all five of Moses’ stated problems. In each instance God repeats “I will be with” or “I am” (see chart below).



Moses’s 5 obstacles (3:11-4:17)                                                              God’s 5 responses

Inadequate- “Who am I?”     3:11


I will be with you. 3:12
What is your name, who is sending me? I am who I am (14); I am concerned about Israel (16); and I will bring you out of oppression (17)
What if they don’t believe me? 4:1 Here are signs that I have appeared to you to show that I am with you. 4:5-9
I am ‘heavy’ (kabed) of mouth. 4:10


I will be with your mouth. 4:12
I don’t want to go. 4:13 Aaron with go with you and I will be with your mouth and with his mouth. 4:15


John Sanders

John E. Sanders is an American theologian who is a professor of religious studies at Hendrix College. He has published on four main topics: (1) open theism, (2) Christian views on the salvation of non-Christians, (3) Christian views on the nature of hell, and (4) applying cognitive linguistics to theology.

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