- “But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” God answered: I will be with you; and this will be your sign that I have sent you. When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will serve God at this mountain. “But,” said Moses to God, “If I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what do I tell them?” God replied to Moses: I am who I am. Then he added: This is what you will tell the Israelites: I AM has sent me to you” (Exo. 3:11-14).
In this passage of sacred Scripture we find one of the most pivotal points in all of salvation history; when God draws nearer to His people by allowing them to draw nearer to Him by revealing to them who, where, what, and why He is. I call this passage one of the most pivotal a moments in salvation history for two reasons. First, the Israelites had been in Egypt for over four hundred years by now (Cf. Exo. 12:41), and had become familiar with, if not influenced by, the names of many different deities; therefore when God reveals Himself to be “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh” (I Am who Am / To Be / YHWH) He immediately distinguishes Himself from the deities of Egypt and beyond. The second reason why this is one of the most pivotal moments in salvation history is simply because of the implications tied into it from the Gospel of John, which uses “I Am” (Greek: ego eimi) twenty-four times in connection with Jesus of Nazareth (Cf. Jn. 4:26, 6:20, 6:35, 6:41, 6:48, 6:51, 8:12, 8:18, 8:23 (twice), 8:24, 8:28, 8:58, 10:9, 10:11, 10:14, 11:25, 13:19, 14:6, 15:1, 15:5, 18:5, 18:6, 18:8.).
Many have regarded God’s answer to Moses in this passage as Him revealing His name, but what I’m going to argue in this paper is that God actually didn’t answer Moses’ question at all. Much like we would find Jesus doing in the Gospel narratives, God completely ignored His interlocutor’s query, asked Himself His own question and answered it in a way that completely remolded our framework of thinking about God.
Using exegetical tools, I will demonstrate that the Divine and the human author(s) intended to communicate by “I Am” was not the ‘calling’ name of God, but the meaning (the essence) of His name.
The Book of Exodus
Exodus is the second book of the Pentateuch, and it recounts the oppression of the Israelites in Egypt, the call and commission of Moses, the contest with Pharaoh, the departure of the Israelites from Egypt, the journey in the Wilderness to Sinai, the covenant and legislation at Mount Sinai, the apostasy and Covenant renewal, the building of the Tabernacle, and God’s descent upon it.
The Essence of God is “I Am”
YHWH might have been tickled by Moses’ initial question, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and lead the Israelites out of Egypt?” (Exo. 3:11), as if who Moses was, was even relevant to the delivery that YHWH had in store for His people. Yet, that Moses was to be used as a vessel for YHWH’s glory was something that was immediately made very clear to him. To paraphrase God’s answer to Moses, ‘I will be in you Moses, all the way, and I will lead my people out of Egypt and they will worship me, lest the delivery belongs to you and they worship you’ (Cf. Exo. 3:12).
Moses then anticipated the Israelites way of thinking, “. . . if they ask me, “What is His name?” what am I to tell them?” (Exo. 3:13) If YHWH was tickled at Moses’ first question, then it pales in comparison to how funny I find the visual of Moses here, standing barefoot on Holy ground, talking to a burning bush, in the presence of He who is all Holy, and this was actually the best question that it can muster?
Granted, and this is one of the concepts that the human author intended to communicate, that back in Egypt, there was a pantheon of gods with many different names; so Moses’ question here did have some merit, but you’d think that he had to be kicking himself later for not asking God the more profound questions, such as, ‘What are you?’ or ‘Why are you?’ To the contrary, Moses knew that the Holy God had just met a man of dirt on dirt’s level and that this Holy God had a very keen interest in interceding on His people’s behalf. It was, perhaps, at this moment that Moses must have first realized that, ‘Who He is, What He is, and Why He is – is Love’. Holy love is the very essence of God.
Many Fathers of the Church (e.g. St. Athanasius, Letter concerning the Councils of Rimini and Seleucia (361/362 AD), St. Gregory of Nazianz, Orations (380 AD).) agree with the argument being made here that YHWH did not communicate His name to Moses, but, rather, it was His true essence that was being condescended to the Israelites. In a beautiful poem from the fourth century, we also find St. Ephraim addressing this theological perspective in his, Hymns Against Heresies:
“To Moses He revealed His name:
WHO AM, He called Himself, which is the name of His essence.
And never did he name any other with this name, as He did with His other names,
With which many were named; therefore, by this one exclusive name
He lets it be known that he alone is Being: which can be said of no other.”
Around 381-397 AD, in his On Twelve Psalms, St. Ambrose of Milan argued similarly in regard to it being not His calling name that YHWH communicated to Moses, but, rather, something altogether more profound. St Ambrose wrote:
“When Moses asked, “What is your Name?” he wanted to know what is peculiar to God, and to know something special about Him. God, knowing what was on his mind, did not, therefore, tell him His name but His occupation. That is, He expresses a thing, not an appellative when He said: “I Am who Am”; for there is nothing more peculiar to God than always to exist.”
God is Everlasting Because He is “I Am”
For other Fathers of the Church, such as St. Hilary of Poitiers (The Trinity 356/359 AD), St. Gregory of Nyssa (Against Eunomius 380/384 AD), St. Jerome (Commentaries on Ephesians 386/387 AD), and St. John of Damascence (The Source of Knowledge 743 AD) in this passage of sacred Scripture they saw YHWH communicating His everlasting existence, His eternalness, His timelessness, and His Tri-unity. To this point, in his Psalms, St. Augustine of Hippo wrote:
“He did not say: “The Lord God, almighty, merciful, and just”; which, if He had said it, would certainly be true. Rising to the heights of all that God could be named and called, He answered that He is to be called Being Itself; and as if this were His name, He says, “Tell them this: ‘He who Is sent me. For He exists in such a way that in comparison to Him created things do not exist.”
God’s Love Flows from out of Holiness Because He is “I Am”
The words in the Nicene-Constantinople Creed, “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,” speaks to the nature of God; that Jesus is the very same substance as God the Father and the Holy Spirit proceeds from that very same substance as well. The Apostle John’s manner of speaking in regards to God’s nature was to write, “God is Love” (1 John 4:8, 16). Also speaking about His nature, the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah called God’s Love “everlasting” (Isa 54:8; Jer. 31:3). Indeed, if we were to apply labels to the nature of God there are two that we would use before any others; those being (1) holy, and (2) love. The call to be Holy (Catholic, whole, one, perfect, complete), “So be perfect, just as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48), is also the call to Love, “This I command you; love one another” (Jn. 15:17).
In every single way that our human minds can perceive and define God, we must first prefix our words with the word ‘Holy’. In other words, God is Love, that is, Holy Love; God the Father is the Holy Father; God is Holy Light; God is Holy Good at all times. In addition, when speaking about the nature and the substance of God, we must call it a Holy nature and a Holy substance.
This encounter between YHWH and Moses communicates the truth that love is the first principle that flows from out of God’s second principle of holiness. This is why long before YHWH reveals to Moses how much He loves His people; enough to be in tune and in care about their trails; enough to care to intercede on their behalf, and enough to condescend the name of His essence to them, He first has to communicate to Moses that He is Holy. This is why He tells Moses, “Come no nearer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground.”
The intent of the Divine and human author here is to communicate that the first and primary understanding we must have with God is that He is Holy, and it is only by understanding that God is Holy, that we have any chance to comprehend that God is love. In other words, we can affirm that wherever and whenever the intersection of God’s love occurs, it is only because God is (first and foremost) Holy. Holy love is the true meaning behind the phrase “I Am’ that He communicated to Moses at the Burning Bush.
When I say that the meaning of the name of God is Holy Love, it does not follow that I have inferred a contradiction; that I have named He who cannot be contained in spoken words. Inasmuch as the fullness God cannot be contained, paradoxically, the only thing that allowed Him to be contained in the womb of the Virgin Mary was divine love. In fact, in the incident of the Annunciation the Archangel Gabriel, prior to communicating to Mary the act of love that God was calling her to cooperate with, he prefaced it by proclaiming that she was holy (Cf. Lk. 1:28).
For generations, people have contemplated the reality of suffering and wondered how God could be all loving and allow such misery to occur. The answer to this timeless question has always been that God is not the author of suffering; rather, He is the answer to it. This fact was demonstrated on high by our Holy Lord on the Cross. It was the love that flowed from His holiness that compelled the Father to send His Son to deliver His children from bondage to sin and death, and it was love that compelled Him to send Moses to free His children from bondage to Egypt.
God is Catholic Because He is “I Am”
When asked what my name is, I would say Yoseph Daviyd, and a person who is well versed in languages or name meaning would thereby come to know me through the meaning of my name – a meaningful first impression of such. When asked the same question by Moses, God said, “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh” (I Am who Am / To Be / YHWH). Inasmuch as God’s answer to Moses’ question was more of a holy statement than the name, I believe that the fullness of the revealed name is unveiled in the Greek word katholokos (catholic).
To explain why God is catholic because He is “I Am”, we must return to the first principle that God is Holy before He is anything else. The implication of this divine truth can be brought to life through the visual image of God pointing to Himself (which is His substance) and saying the word “I” as He inhales deeply. It is true that “I” (or “To”) here means ‘Holy’ (i.e., one, complete, whole, Catholic, full, perfect, all in all). Next, God stretches His arms outward and perpendicular and breathes out the word “Am” (or “Be”) as He exhales fully. It is true, “Am” must follow “I” with God, because Am is the natural outpouring of His Holy Nature and out of God’s Holiness (oneness, completeness, wholeness, catholicity, fullness, perfection, and allness) proceeds His Love. Therefore, the proper meaning of the spiritual translation of the divine name of God, as revealed to Moses, “I Am who Am,” is “Holy Love who Loves,” and “This is what you shall tell the Israelites: Love sent me to you.”
It has been said that if we can use words to describe it then it is not God, and I agree that God is far above human words, images, and whatever else is intrinsically human, for He is God. Yet, love is that one concept, idea, thought, emotion, feeling, and belief that God has given us to understand Him and His divine will.
What the Divine and human authors intended to communicate through this encounter with YHWH and Moses is that the essence of the name of God is who God is in praxis. God actually is who He says He is.
According to the Fathers of the Church, “I Am” denotes His eternal nature and the essence of who He is. I’ve gone a step further than the Fathers by not looking at “I Am” as just a phrase, but, rather, taking each word as a definitive statement that we can then combine back together to make a whole. The essence of a thing tells what it is, how it is, where it is, and why it is. Therefore, when we say that meaning of “I Am” is Holy Love it answers all of the questions pertaining to its essence, and it was this answer that He was communicating to the Israelites when He said, “This is what you will tell the Israelites: I AM has sent me to you” (Exo. 3:11-14).