In Exodus 3, God asks Moses to go to Pharaoh and tell him to let the people of Israel leave Egypt. Moses is hesitant and asks God for his name, in order to be able to tell the Israelites who sent him to free them. God reveals his name to Moses as “I am who I am,” in Hebrew eheye asher eheye אהיה אשר אהיה (Exod. 3:14). And God adds: “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’” (Exod. 3:15).
The Egyptians had many gods with many names. And Moses wanted to be sure he knew the name of God in order to convince the Israelites that God had sent him to them.
God called himself “I AM,” eheye. It is likely that the Tetragrammaton, the four holy letters YHWH יהוה, was derived from this form eheye אהיה. The Tetragrammaton ended up being the most holy name of God among the Jewish people. In Hebrew there is a wordplay between “I AM” and the Tetragrammaton, YHWH. Both forms are understood as a form of the Hebrew verb “to be,” haya היה. The Tetragrammaton (often translated LORD) became so holy in Jewish tradition that it was not allowed to be said aloud. The only exception was when the high priest entered the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur. When reading aloud from the Scriptures, the name was pronounced Adonai.
The name I AM, which Moses receives from God, is not a noun, as we might have expected, but a verbal form. Almost every translation renders the verbal form in the present tense, I AM. The biblical Hebrew form of the verb is an “imperfect” tense. This is the oldest verbal form used in biblical Hebrew. In today’s modern Hebrew, the form is used for the future tense. But biblical Hebrew had only two main verbal tenses, imperfect and perfect. These two forms did not primarily describe tenses in our modern way of thinking about time. The two forms described rather the aspect of the verb, whether the action was seen as punctual or durative.
In our text from Exodus, God uses the imperfect tense of the verb to describe his name. Maybe this discloses some of the name’s secret. The imperfect form has no beginning and no end. God is from eternity to eternity. He is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. He is the One who is unchangeable in a changeable world.
This article originally appeared on the Caspari Center, April 1, 2016.