5.5. The Meaning of God’s Name (3:13-15)

 (13) Moses said to God, “When I come to the Israelites 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?”

(14) And God said to Moses, “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh.” He continued, “Thus shall you say to the Israelites, ‘Ehyeh sent me to you.’ ”

(15) And God said further to Moses, “Thus shall you speak to the Israelites: 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 shall be My name forever, This My appellation for all eternity.

(13) Moses said to Go: Moses continues to offer arguments in support of his refusal.

“When I come to the Israelites and say to them ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is His name?’: This weekly portion Shemot, which means “names,” includes a discussion of the names of God. This passage itself contains a number of those names, all of them derived from the verb H-W-H, howeh, “to be,” indicating that the Almighty is the very essence of being in all its various forms.

What shall I say to them?”: This is not about some secret name, for if Moses does not know it, then neither do the Jews. But as we’ve already mentioned, in contrast to the Greek understanding of a name as “the essence of the person or thing so called,” the Jewish concept is that a name represents the meaning and purpose of the person or thing named. When Moses initiates dialogue with the Jews to bring them God’s message, they will ask, “What is His name,” demanding that Moses explain God’s objective; that is, the reason that God wants to bring them out of Egypt.

(14) And God said to Moses, “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh”: The Torah here invokes the Divine Name Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, “I will be that which I will be,” a double future form, as it were, of the verb howeh, “to be.”

This Divine name is often translated as “I am Who I am, “I Am the Essence, “I am He Who is existence itself, Whose being is eternal” (absolute, autonomous, etc.) and other similar renderings. But these translations ignore the fact that the verb ehyeh in this Name is in the future tense: Not “I am,” but “I will be.”

It would be more correct to translate this name as “I will be He Who I wish to be.” The greatest power, the maximal opportunity, and the fullest self-realization is in our ability to become everything that we want to be, to advance according to our own individual aspirations[1].

This name of God is associated also with the concept of freedom. This is itself understood as the ability to move and develop in any direction, to make decisions regarding oneself. But because only God has absolute freedom, only He establishes freedom as an ideal for all of humanity.

It is now clear what it means for a person to “know God’s Name.” That Name must reflect the Divine quality to which every human being, created in God’s image and likeness, should strive. Which in this case, within the context of the Exodus story, suggests that the fullness of self-realization is precisely that Divine quality whose approximation is the goal of the Exodus.

He continued, “Thus shall you say to the Israelites, ‘Ehyeh sent me to you.’ ” This one-word name, the simple future tense of the verb howeh, “to be,” is a reduced and simplified form of the previous three-word name. It too connotes aspiration for future advancement, but without emphasizing the aspect of “becoming who one wants to become.” Thus, after first revealing His Name to Moses at its very highest level, the Almighty then instructs Moses to present it to the people in a somewhat reduced form.

(15) And God said further to Moses, “Thus shall you speak to the Israelites”: In the end, however, calling the Almighty by His name “I will be” is not alone sufficient. The people must be given a more detailed elaboration.

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: Here are a few of the Almighty’s characteristics, since the people will need a more detailed explanation.

The Lord: The Tetragrammaton, YHWH, is the absolute form of the verb howeh, “to be,” a combination, as it were, of all three tenses: past, present, and future. It is, in a sense, the timeless form of this verb: God as the ultimate Being of the entire universe.

The name Ehyeh, which looks to the future, must be supplemented with the Tetragrammaton, which speaks also of the present.

The God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob: This addendum indicates that our connection with God lies not only in our faith and in rarefied theological conceptions, but, more fundamentally, in our very physical existence. That connection through birth is incomparably more powerful than the connection that exists only at the level of ideas. The Almighty is here presented as the “God of the Patriarchs,” the progenitor and creator of the Jewish people.

The three Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, are respectively associated with three aspects of the manifestation of Divinity: Chesed (Mercy), Gevurah (Might or Judgment), and Tiferet (Splendor)[2]. Our dialogue with God and our self-realization must embody those three directions of Divine ideals. The Almighty revealed Himself differently to each of our three Patriarchs, with each Patriarch symbolizing a separate aspect of Divinity. The words “the God of” is therefore repeated here alongside the name of each Patriarch individually. But our understanding of God should be based on the unification of all those aspects.

This shall be My name forever, this My appellation for all eternity: Literally, “and this is my remembrance in each and every generation.” How are name and remembrance to be contrasted? A name, directed toward the future, represents a goal. But memory turns to the past, to our experiences and the ideas that result from them.

Our understanding of God is connected with three Divine aspects: (1) the Lord – the Almighty’s four-letter name; (2) the God of our ancestors generally; (3) the God of the Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. These are three levels of memory (i.e., remembrance).

God first tells Moses “This shall be My name forever,” corresponding to the first of God’s names just mentioned, “I will be, that which I will be,” which sets the goal and direction. Following that, “this My appellation for all eternity” is the formulation of a more detailed representation (the “pedagogical aspect”), as contained in the words “The God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”

It should be noted that the opening passage of the Amidah, the central prayer of Jewish liturgy, addresses God using that same construction.

[1] For this idea I would like to thank Prof. Boris Shapiro. In the language of the paradigmatic theory of his own devising, he has formulated this quality (and the Name Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, 3:14) as “owning the full paradigm of oneself” – the ability to make of yourself whatever you want to be. This most important Divine property represents an unattainable ideal, but which a person must nonetheless strive to achieve to the greatest extent possible.

[2] See the scheme of the Sefirot at §1.4 above.

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Bible Dynamics, VOL. 2. EXODUS Copyright © by Orot Yerushalaim / P. Polonsky / English translation of the Torah by the Jewish Publication Society, New JPS Translation, 1985. With sincere gratitude for the permission to use. All Rights Reserved.

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