In Exodus 3, Moses asks God what his name is. God tells Moses,
And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you. And God said moreover unto Moses, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, The Lord God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, hath sent me unto you: this is my name for ever, and this is my memorial unto all generations. Go, and gather the elders of Israel together, and say unto them, The Lord God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, appeared unto me, saying, I have surely visited you, and seen that which is done to you in Egypt… (Exodus 3:14-16)
Students often ask, what does this mean? What does God mean when he says, “I AM THAT I AM?”
Frank Moore Cross explains that “the accumulated evidence … strongly supports the view that the name Yahweh is a causative imperfect of the Canaanite-Proto-Hebrew verb hwy, ‘to be.’ Therefore, the divine name Yahweh, according to this view, literally means “He who causes to be” or even “He who procreates.” 1
There are so many ways to look at this divine name, but I do like the idea that God is portrayed as a being who acts. In Exodus 3, we see in God’s name the idea that God is one who brings things into being. He creates, he is the one who causes things to be. This brings to mind the discussion that Lehi has with Jacob when he tells Jacob that there are two types of beings: those who act, and those who are acted upon. God sent us here to earth to learn how to be the type of being God is. We need to learn to act, and not to be acted upon. (2 Nephi 2:26)
I appreciate Christine Hayes‘ perspective on this dialogue between Moses and God:
Moses says: May I say who sent me? He asks for God’s name. The Israelites will want to know who has sent me, and God replies with a sentence, “Ehyeh asher ehyeh.” This is a first person sentence that can be translated, “I am who I am,” or perhaps, “I will be who I will be,” or perhaps, “I cause to be what I cause to be.” We really don’t know, but it has something to do with “being.” So he asks who God is, God says, “I am who am I am” or “I will cause to be what I will cause to be.” So Moses, wisely enough, converts that into a third-person formula: okay, he will be who he will be, he is who he is, “Yahweh asher Yahweh.” God’s answer to the question of his name is this sentence, and Moses converts it from a first-person to a third-person sentence: he will be who he will be; he is who he is; he will cause to be, I think most people think now, what he will cause to be, and that sentence gets shortened to “Yahweh.” This is the Bible’s explanation for the name Yahweh, and as the personal name of God, some have argued that the name Yahweh expresses the quality of being, an active, dynamic being. This God is one who brings things into being, whether it’s a cosmos from chaos, or now a new nation from a band of runaway slaves. But it could well be that this is simply God’s way of not answering Moses’ question. We’ve seen how the Bible feels about revealing names, and the divine being who struggled and wrestled with Jacob sure didn’t want to give him his name. So I’ve often wondered if we’re to read this differently: Who am I? I am who I am, and never you mind. 2
I really like this interpretation. I really think all of the above views can work: God is a being who acts, and he is also a person who is telling Moses, “I am who I am, don’t worry about it Moses, just get to work.”
1.Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, p. 65. See also David Bokovoy, Ye Really Are Gods”: A Response to Michael Heiser concerning the LDS Use of Psalm 82 and the Gospel of John. FARMS Review 19/1 (2007): 281.
2. Christine Hayes, open Yale Courses, lecture 7, chapter 5, Descriptions of God in the Bible.