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Psst…. Yahweh Doesn’t Mean “I AM”

YHWH 2 smallIn a place like the world of the Bible where people were given names like “Festive” (2 Samuel 3:4~ Haggith),  “Hot” (Genesis 10:1 Ham), and “Wild Goat” (Nehemiah 7:58~Jaala), you might imagine that the names of their gods might also have some descriptive quality. Of particular interest is one of the most repeated names for the God of Israel, יהוה YHWH.

Growing up I was always told based on Exodus 3:13-15 that יהוה YHWH, meant “I Am.” In fact, while preparing this post, I found this very declaration on a popular website dedicated to the many names of God. Unfortunately, it just isn’t true.

The text reads,

“Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 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.'” 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.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.

The mistake is easily solved; the true meaning of YHWH is NOT “I AM.”

We have three “Names” in a row. We have “I AM WHO I AM,” [I would not be surprised to find some scholar somewhere claiming that this rendition of God’s name is late, and, “obviously borrowed from Popeye the Sailor Man.”].  Then we have “I AM,” and “The LORD.” Let’s look at them in Hebrew.

  • “I AM WHO I AM”— אהיה אשׁר אהיה
  • “I AM”— אהיה
  • “The LORD”— יהוה

You don’t have to know Hebrew to see the change between the two “I AM” lines and the “Lord” line. Hebrew goes from right to left, so you can see that the “I AM” lines begin with an א aleph which marks one type of 1st person verb “I” and that the “Lord” line begins with a י yod which marks one type of 3rd person verb “he.” Given that each of these names is based on the common verb היה “to be,” the Name יהוה YHWH is some version of “He is.”

“What do you mean, “Some version of?”

Good, question… I love having intelligent readers.  But, this is the tricky part.

Hebrew verbs have what is called STEM. This means that the Hebrews take the same basic consonants of a verb and change the way they pronounce them with prefixes, suffixes, infixes and different vowels to create different nuances in an action.

By way of an overly simple explanation consider the notion of “Kill.” We can kill, generally. We can execute, which means cause to be killed. We have slaughter, which is a particularly violent killing. We have suicide, which means to kill one’s self. According to the Hebrew way of expressing action, these types of changes might easily be represented by the same basic group of consonants with different kinds of prefixes, suffixes, infixes, and vowels. [Hope this isn’t too confusing.]

So, if I pronounce the consonants of יהוה YHWH differently I can have different kinds of “being” in view.[1] We basically have two kinds of “being,” to work with.

The basic sense of יהוה YHWH is that it is a simple statement of existence. HE-WHO-IS… perhaps as a statement of self-existence as opposed to coming into being, or as a statement of true existence as opposed to the many gods and idols filling the land who might be called AREN’T. Those who support this seek for יהוה YHWH to match the traditional reading of the earlier “I AM” statements. The Jewish Scribes preserved those as “I AM” so the memorial name should be “HE IS.”

The second possibility is based on the almost universally accepted pronouncement  of יהוה YHWH as Yahweh. There are extra-biblical examples of this as the accepted pronunciation. With these vowels a-e, then the name of God in Hebrew would mean, “HE-CAUSES-TO-BE.” Basically it means, “Creator.” Those who accept this, also tend to reject the traditional reading of “I AM WHO I AM,” and “I AM,” in favor of pronouncing them to agree with “Creator,” making the first “I CREATE WHAT I CREATE,” which means that He is declaring himself the supreme creator of all, making the second name simply, “I CREATE.”

So I have a bit of a Triple mind on this.

A part of me likes to imagine God’s answer to Moses in the snarky American sense these words would have if said today. Moses asks essentially, “Whom shall I say sent me?” God says, “I am who I am,” which kinda feels like, “What’s it to ya, Bub?”

Then my awed Biblical Scholar self loves the idea of a grand declaration of ultimate being, a time before time existence that stands opposed to the fictions of pagan worship, swirling around a dedication to carvings and demons who tremble before HE-WHO-IS.

Then my let’s face the facts self recognizes the likelihood of Yahweh… the creator of all, the source of all, the beginning and the end of all… which ain’t to shabby neither.

[1] I must acknowledge that many have attempted to attach these consonants to other ancient languages to get some verb form other than “to be” out of them. See the article יהוה YHWH in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, vol. V, 500-521. I will assume that the name has meaning “as is” to the Hebrew People.

7 thoughts on “Psst…. Yahweh Doesn’t Mean “I AM”

  1. The Dandler says:

    Interesting. Well, I vote for view #2: HE IS. Because it’s cool, and it makes sense, right? I mean, would the writer put the YHWH name right after God tells Moses, “Tell them I AM has sent me to you” and have the two “names” not be related? Keep in mind, God DOES actually call himself I AM in the above passage, and then goes on to use YHWH when He says, “Say this to the people: YHWH, the God of Israel . . .etc.” So while it would make sense that the two sentences (one with I AM and the following one with YHWH) would use names that, though different, are related in meaning. Whereas if YHWH means HE WHO CREATES, it seems a bit unrelated to his previous statements of self-existence. Am I making sense?

  2. The Dandler says:

    Oh, I just reread the passage. I see…so people who re-define YHWH ALSO redefine the previous sentence. Duh. I should have picked up on that. So basically the WHOLE passage references the creator – it’s not just about the name. Got it.

  3. The Dandler says:

    It’s a bit frustrating, all this Hebrew stuff…because if we can’t REALLY know what the name of God means, then what CAN we know? There has to be some kind of concrete understanding somewhere, right? Are there any rabbinical texts that tell us what the name means or comment on this? I feel that the fact there are two possibilities for what His name means, and that both possibilities mean very different things, is unsatisfactory. God should have waited until the Hebrew language developed a bit, don’t you think?

    1. I understand people’s frustration when they want a clear answer and get choices that they don’t know how to wade through… but it is what it is.

      The Rabbis had a legal form called Haggadah… they made serious points by using the text in creative ways that were not always so serious. This is how I think of this issue. I like to think of the double possibility in both senses. I preach both, for both are true statements of God, I just don’t know which was specifically intended by the use of the name in the text. For me its a win win… two great truths about God in one name. YHWH!!! Hallelu-jah!!!!

      1. The Dandler says:

        “but it is what it is”

        I think I just found another option for the NAME… People of God: Wait, WHO sent you? Moses: You know, IT IS WHAT IT IS. hehe

        Thanks for your thoughts! I do have a follow up question. What did the Hellenic Jews think? How did they translate the “I am what I am” statement in the Septuagint? Also, does this therefore affect our view of the “so-called” seven “I-AM” statements of Jesus, which supposedly equate Him with the god who revealed Himself to Moses?

        1. No it doesn’t affect that… as you noted and I said earlier, he does call himself I AM… though you might by your question be suggesting that Jesus’ appeal to this in a clearer way contextually is a basis for suggesting its interpretation by HIM and by JOHN… good point for the discussion.

          I’ll have to dig a bit to answer the other question more pointedly… I can say that among those willing to use the name of God we find Yahweh… he who causes to be… I can’t say at this point what they make of the earlier I AM statement. Worth a look though. when I find it I’ll get back with you.

          Thanks for all your comments. It makes this a bit more fun for me.

          1. The Dandler says:

            Hey, thanks very much! I look forward to more. 🙂

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