I am who I am in Exodus 3

Handout on the divine name by Dr. Sanders

What does the translation, “I am who I am” mean? There are three main interpretations (Hyatt has a long discussion)

  1. 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, Calvin L62).  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.”  This means God is a necessary being (one who has to exist) in contrast to creatures which are dependent beings (do not have to exist). Only the present tense, is, applies to God. not past or future tenses: “the One Who Always Is” (Durham 39 yet, Durham combines this with #3).
  3.  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).  Fretheim says it means “I will faithfully be your God” (63). It is about an ongoing relationship (M59 and Durham 39). McClendon sees this as God’s presence will be with the people as God leads them and they agree to follow: “I will always be ahead of you. Find Me as you follow the journey.” (Doctrine p.285). They will learn more about Yahweh as they travel together on the journey. 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]


The notion that God is “with” someone goes back to Genesis where God promised to be “with” the patriarchs (Gen. 26:3, 24; 28:15; 31:3). The expression is loaded with theological meaning. It is a very important motif in the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Ex. 33:12-16—see Gowan’s Theology in Exodus) and carries over into the NT when Jesus says, “I will be with you” (Matt. 28:20).


Sanders agrees with the third interpretation. Many read abstract 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 the journey through history. He thinks the key to the interpretation is to look at God’s replies to all five of Moses’ statements. In each instance God says “I will be with” (see chart below). The key is the repetition of “I am” and “I will be” in the narrative.


5 obstacles (3:11-4:17) See chart Fretheim 52                        God’s 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

Miscellaneous points: [Myers 57-59 has lots of good information]

  1. 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)
  2.  Why do we use the English title lord/master for God? Latter Jews substituted the Hebrew adonai (lord/master) or ha shem (the name) instead of pronouncing the name. The Septuagint (Greek) uses kurios (lord) for Yahweh while the Latin (Vulgate) uses dominus. In the Middle Ages Jews combined YHWH with the vowels of adonai to get Yahovah. (M58). Meyers criticizes the use of LORD for the name of God because it perpetuates a masculine identity for God (M58). I add that LORD depersonalizes the agency of God by substituting a title for a name.
  3.  “Yahweh” and the words “I am” in Hebrew sound similar. Many believe Yahweh is a word play on ehyeh (yeh sounds like yah). 3:14 in Hebrew is “ehyeh asher ehyehtranslated as either “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be.”
  4.  Some names in Hebrew have part of the name Yahweh in them (M59): Jochebed (Moses’ mother), Elijah.
  5. YHWH (without vowels) is known as the “tetragrammaton” (four letters).
  6. In the ANE there is power in knowing somebody’s name (see M57). God discloses this special name as a mark of trust. Fretheim (65) thinks God is taking a risk here since disclosing your name enters you into relationship—they may call on their God by name but this entails the possibility that some might abuse the name.
  7. The one who names an entity in the ANE is superior to the one named. In Genesis 2 humanity “names” the animals and thus has a degree of power over them. Here, God names the divine self (Sarna 52, F64).

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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