How Does God Answer the Question: "What Is Your Name?"
Moses Wants to Know God’s Name
God speaks to Moses for the first time at the burning bush:
שמות ג:ו וַיֹּאמֶר אָנֹכִי אֱלֹהֵי אָבִיךָ אֱלֹהֵי אַבְרָהָם אֱלֹהֵי יִצְחָק וֵאלֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב...
Exod 3:6 He said, "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob."
God then tells Moses that he has taken note of the suffering of the Israelites and has decided to free them from bondage and bring them to a good land and that he is sending Moses to tell Pharaoh about this and take charge of Israel’s release.
Unsurprisingly, Moses is nervous about whether he can accomplish this goal (v. 11). God reassures Moses that, “I will be with you” (כִּי אֶהְיֶה עִמָּךְ, v. 12). Moses then expresses another reservation:
ג:יג וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל הָאֱלֹהִים הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי בָא אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתִּי לָהֶם אֱלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵיכֶם שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם וְאָמְרוּ לִי מַה שְּׁמוֹ מָה אֹמַר אֲלֵהֶם.
3:13 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?"
Elohim is a generic term for “god(s),” and Moses is concerned that he will have no credibility among the Israelites if he tells them only that their ancestors’ elohim appeared to him, and he doesn’t know God’s personal name. Thus, in v. 13, he is asking God a very specific and pointed question: “What is your name?” God’s answer, however, is anything but straightforward:
ג:יד וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים אֶל מֹשֶׁה אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה.
3:14 And God said to Moses, “I am what I am.”
וַיֹּאמֶר כֹּה תֹאמַר לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶהְיֶה שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם.
And He said, “Thus shall you say to the Israelites, ‘Ehyeh sent me to you.’”
Ehyeh asher Ehyeh: God’s Non-Sequitur
God’s answer seems like a non-sequitur. Ehyeh asher ehyeh is not God’s name. As God will soon make clear, and as is obvious throughout the Hebrew Bible, God’s name is YHWH. In fact, nowhere else in the entire Hebrew Bible is Ehyeh asher Ehyeh—or even just Ehyeh—used as a name for God. That YHWH is, in fact, God’s name is made clear in the very next verse:
ג:טו וַיֹּאמֶר עוֹד אֱלֹהִים אֶל מֹשֶׁה כֹּה תֹאמַר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתֵיכֶם אֱלֹהֵי אַבְרָהָם אֱלֹהֵי יִצְחָק וֵאלֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם זֶה שְּׁמִי לְעֹלָם וְזֶה זִכְרִי לְדֹר דֹּר.
3:15 And God said further to Moses, "Thus shall you speak to the Israelites: ‘YHWH, 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.”
According to this, the answer to Moses’ question is actually “YHWH” and God specifically tells Moses that this is what he should say to the Israelites. God even emphasizes that this name, YHWH, is his one name forever and for all time.
Moses is told to use the name YHWH again in v. 16, when he is told to give this message to the Israelite elders, and again in v. 18, when he is told that this is how God should be introduced to Pharaoh.
An Explanation of the Name YHWH?
Most commentators, ancient and modern, assume that God’s initial answer “ehyeh asher ehyeh” (v.14) is a foreshadowing introduction explaining the meaning of the name God is about to reveal. This is a cogent interpretation of the passage, nevertheless, the text never actually says that ehyeh asher ehyeh is an explanation of the name YHWH. In fact, nowhere does Moses use this information to explain the name YHWH to anyone else—not to the Israelites and not to Pharaoh (even when the latter asks in 5:2). Moreover, the second half of verse 14 implies that Moses was supposed to introduce God as Ehyeh.
The fact that v. 14 does not fit its context well—Moses did not ask about the meaning of God’s name, only what it was—and that no later verses make use of this name or etymology, implies that the verse may not have been original to the text. In fact, removing v. 14 entirely yields a coherent text.
וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל הָאֱלֹהִים הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי בָא אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתִּי לָהֶם אֱלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵיכֶם שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם וְאָמְרוּ לִי מַה שְּׁמוֹ מָה אֹמַר אֲלֵהֶם? וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים אֶל מֹשֶׁה // כֹּה תֹאמַר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתֵיכֶם אֱלֹהֵי אַבְרָהָם אֱלֹהֵי יִצְחָק וֵאלֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם זֶה שְּׁמִי לְעֹלָם וְזֶה זִכְרִי לְדֹר דֹּר.
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?" And God said to Moses // "Thus shall you speak to the Israelites: YHWH, 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.”
This reads smoothly and offers the expected answer to Moses’ question; it also fits with the rest of the story, in which God is always introduced as YHWH. Thus, v. 14 should be considered a redactional supplement.
Explaining God’s Personal Name: Biblical Speculation about the Meaning of YHWH
What motivated a later scribe to add this etymology for the name YHWH?
On one level, this scribe may simply have wanted to offer his thoughts on what was and has remained an important question for millennia – what is the meaning of God’s name? Picking up on the apparently obvious connection between YHWH and the root of the Hebrew word “to be” (ה-ו-י or ה-י-ה), the author of this supplement offered a philosophical midrash of sorts, suggestion that God “is what God is,” in other words, an unknowable being.
“I Will Be with You” (אהיה עמך)
The scribe may have been inspired by the use of the word ehyeh which appears three other times in this account, once before v. 14 and twice after, all in response to Moses’ fear that Pharaoh would not listen to him.
שמות ג:יב כִּי אֶהְיֶה עִמָּךְ.
Exod 3:12 I will be with you.
שמות ד:יב וְעַתָּה לֵךְ וְאָנֹכִי אֶהְיֶה עִם פִּיךָ וְהוֹרֵיתִיךָ אֲשֶׁר תְּדַבֵּר.
Exod 4:12 Now go, and I will be with you as you speak (lit. with your mouth) and will instruct you what to say.
שמות ד:טו וְאָנֹכִי אֶהְיֶה עִם פִּיךָ וְעִם פִּיהוּ וְהוֹרֵיתִי אֶתְכֶם אֵת אֲשֶׁר תַּעֲשׂוּן.
Exod 4:15 I will be with you and with him (Aaron) as you speak (lit. with your mouth and with his mouth), and tell both of you what to do.
The imagery of YHWH being with a particular person appears in many places throughout the Bible. YHWH communicates this to two of the Patriarchs:
Isaac (Gen 26:3)
גּוּר בָּאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת וְאֶהְיֶה עִמְּךָ וַאֲבָרְכֶךָּ
Reside in this land, and I will be with you and bless you.
Jacob (Gen 31:3)
שׁוּב אֶל אֶרֶץ אֲבוֹתֶיךָ וּלְמוֹלַדְתֶּךָ וְאֶהְיֶה עִמָּךְ.
Return to the land of your fathers where you were born, and I will be with you.
It also appears as a standard trope in the Deuteronomistic History:
Joshua (Deut 31:23)
וְאָנֹכִי אֶהְיֶה עִמָּךְ
And I will be with you.
Joshua (Josh 1:5, 3:7)
כַּאֲשֶׁר הָיִיתִי עִם מֹשֶׁה אֶהְיֶה עִמָּךְ
As I was with Moses, so I will be with you.
Gideon (Judg 6:16)
כִּי אֶהְיֶה עִמָּךְ וְהִכִּיתָ אֶת מִדְיָן כְּאִישׁ אֶחָד
I will be with you, and you shall defeat Midian to a man.
David (2 Sam 7:9)
וָאֶהְיֶה עִמְּךָ בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר הָלַכְתָּ
And I have been with you wherever you went.
In the prophets, we see this imagery applied to the people as a whole. In Hosea 1:9, YHWH pointedly tells Israel that he will not be their God:
כִּי אַתֶּם לֹא עַמִּי וְאָנֹכִי לֹא אֶהְיֶה לָכֶם.
For you are not My people, and I will not be your [God]."
Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel use the phrase “I will be your God” (אֶהְיֶה לָכֶם לֵאלֹהִים) or “I will be their God” (אֶהְיֶה לָהֶם לֵאלֹהִים) or some variation thereof, multiple times.
A Distant Unknowable God?
If the ubiquity and weight of this imagery influenced the scribe, he also made a conscious decision to forego this more concrete imagery—YHWH being with Moses or with Israel—and instead to invoke a more abstract image of God as “being” and self-referential. This fits with a trend we see in later biblical texts, especially the Priestly texts, to describe God in more ephemeral terms.
Did Moses Not Know God’s Name?
On a deeper level, the scribe was likely motivated to add his redactional gloss here to solve an exegetical problem. Abraham uses God’s name, YHWH (Gen 12:7-8, 13:4, 18 etc.), as do Isaac (Gen 26:22, 27:7, etc.) and Jacob (Gen 27:20, 28:16, etc.). Why doesn’t Moses know the name of his people’s God?
Indeed, Ramban (Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, 1194-1270), noting that Moses must have known God’s name, suggests that Moses was really asking a deeper question:
ודרך שאלה בקש שיודיעהו מי השולח אותו, כלומר באי זו מדה הוא שלוח אליהם.
He was using a shorthand by asking him who was sending him, in other words, through which divine attribute was he being sent to them.
In a similar vein, in his Be’ur, Rabbi Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) suggests that Moses was asking for a philosophical proof of God to share with the Israelites, who had become idolatrous during their years of slavery:
ואם יאמרו ישראל אלי מי שלחך, ומה שמו המורה על אמתתו קדמותו ונצחיותו, ושהוא מושל ומשגיח על הכל, מה אומר אליהם?
And if the Israelites ask me: “Who sent you? And what is his name such that it demonstrates his reality, his eternality, and his perpetuity, and that he rules and watches over all” – what should I say to them?
It is likely that the same problem that bothered Ramban and Mendelssohn, bothered an ancient scribe. Thus, he may have been trying to recast Moses’ question as asking God not his name but the meaning of his name, by having God answer with an etymology of the name YHWH.
The Torah Pre-Combination of the Sources
But how did we end up with a text that has Moses not knowing the name YHWH if it was well known among the Israelites for centuries? Documentary scholars have long noted that certain passages in Genesis and Exodus assume that God went by the name YHWH from the very beginning while others assume that the Patriarchs only knew him as Elohim or El Shaddai. In the originally independent E source, God revealed his name, YHWH, for the first time when Moses stood before the burning bush (the P version of this occurs 6:2).
When the J source, which insisted that the Patriarchs already knew the name YHWH, was combined with the E (and P) source, according to which the name of YHWH was unknown to the Patriarchs and first revealed to Moses, this conversation between Moses and God became incomprehensible. Moses was now asking God to reveal a name that he—and everyone else—already knew! Thus, the combination of the sources is likely the impetus for the later scribe to recast the conversation as one about the meaning of God’s name instead of one about God’s name itself.
Ehyeh Sent Me
Understanding v. 14 as a supplement raises new questions. The second part of the verse in particular remains problematic:
כֹּה תֹאמַר לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶהְיֶה שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם.
Thus shall you say to the Israelites, “Ehyeh sent me to you.”
This command turns God’s etymological introduction into another divine name. Moreover, it contradicts the command in the very next verse, in which Moses is to tell the people that YHWH (not Ehyeh) sent him. Several traditional commentators already appreciated this problem.
Bekhor Shor – A Parenthetical Comment to the Readers
The 12th century French peshat commentator, R. Joseph Bekhor Shor (12th cent.), interpreted the first command (tell them Ehyeh sent you) in light of the second (tell them YHWH sent you):
ולא שיאמר זה הלשון ממש, אלא השם בן ד' אותיות, אלא כינהו באהיה כדי לקרות ולהבין.
It isn’t that he should actually say these words, rather he should say the standard four letter name (=YHWH), but God refers to it as Ehyeh in order for us to read and understand.
According to Bekhor Shor, this half verse was never said to Moses, but was written as a kind of commentary for the reader on what was to follow. Needless to say, this is an awkward reading of the verse. The first command is phrased in exactly the same terms as the second, only shorter and with a different name, and seems to communicate the same message: “tell them Ehyeh (not YHWH) sent you.”
Rashbam – God’s Name for Himself is אהיה
A different solution is offered by Rashbam (1085-1158), whose view is best summarized by Bekhor Shor.
רבי שמואל פירש דאהיה עיקר השם, אלא שהקב"ה אומר אהיה ואחרים כמו שכתוב בכל מקום. כמו שיאמר אדם על עצמו אעשה ואחרים אומרים עליו יעשה.
Rabbi Samuel explained that God’s main name is “Ehyeh” [in the 1st person], but that this is what the Holy One calls himself, whereas others [would speak about him in the 3rd person] as we see it written in all other places. This is just like how a person says about himself “I will do” and others say about him “he will do.”
This is a creative explanation but, as Bekhor Shor himself points out, in every other place in the Bible in which God refers to himself, the name YHWH rather than Ehyeh is used.
Redacting the Redaction: Making Moses Communicate the Right Name
In keeping with the redaction model above, I suggest that the second half of the verse is actually an even later gloss on the first half by a scribe who understood the intent of the earlier supplement as God communicating his actual name when he says “Ehyeh-asher-Ehyeh.” This scribe was then bothered by why this name was not included in God’s subsequent command to Moses to communicate his name to the Israelites. Thus, he added the command between the supplement and the command to speak to the Israelites.
Despite the awkwardness of two consecutive commands in which Moses must communicate two different names of God, this scribe likely reasoned that it would be better for God to have Moses communicate two names to the Israelites than to have Moses never communicate the very special name of God, Ehyeh, about which he had literally just asked.
His view that the name Ehyeh was significant was likely influenced by the ubiquity of the phrase "I will be with you (אהיה עמך)" and its variants in biblical literature. If God keeps saying it, it must be an important clue to understand Him. These phrases may even be the reason this scribe uses Ehyeh alone, and not Ehyeh asher Ehyah, as the name.
The Redactions and their Wiederaufnahmen
Here is the development of the text as I reconstruct it (the underlining is meant to draw attention to parallel phrasing):
וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל הָאֱלֹהִים הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי בָא אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתִּי לָהֶם אֱלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵיכֶם שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם וְאָמְרוּ לִי מַה שְּׁמוֹ מָה אֹמַר אֲלֵהֶם.
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?"
וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים אֶל מֹשֶׁה:
And God said to Moses:
אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה
"I am who I am."
וַיֹּאמֶר כֹּה תֹאמַר לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל: אֶהְיֶה שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם.
He said, "Thus shall you say to the Israelites, 'Ehyeh sent me to you.'"
וַיֹּאמֶר עוֹד אֱלֹהִים אֶל מֹשֶׁה
And God said further to Moses,
כֹּה תֹאמַר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל: יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתֵיכֶם אֱלֹהֵי אַבְרָהָם אֱלֹהֵי יִצְחָק וֵאלֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם זֶה שְּׁמִי לְעֹלָם וְזֶה זִכְרִי לְדֹר דֹּר.
"Thus shall you say to the Israelites: ‘YHWH, 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.’”
Both scribes made use of a Wiederaufnahme (resumptive repetition), in which a scribe makes use of a line already in the text in order to frame the redaction and return to the original text.
- The scribe of the first supplement added another “and God further said to Moses” to introduce the original message.
- The scribe of the second supplement copied the wording of the original command, “Thus shall you say to the Israelites,” for his new command.
A Summary: One Redaction Leads to Another Redaction
The original text was simple: Moses asks God his name as he is only familiar with the generic term Elohim and the fact that he is the God of Israel’s ancestors. God answers that his name is YHWH, that this is his true name and should stand for all time. This text once stood as part of an independent document (E), in which this revelation was the first communication of the name YHWH to any human being.
Once this text was combined with J, however, the conversation became incomprehensible, as Moses ostensibly already knows God’s name, YHWH. A later scribe, wishing to make sense of Moses’ question, assumed that Moses was asking about the meaning of the name, and thus, took the opportunity to explain to the readers its meaning and import by adding a sentence of preamble (“I am who I am”).
Since this midrash on the name appears as a direct response to Moses’ request for God to reveal his name in v. 13, an even later scribe believed that this phrase was, in fact, meant as God’s name, and added the inevitable command for Moses to reveal this name to the Israelites as well. From this process, the speculation about God’s double name, Ehyeh and YHWH, was born.
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January 20, 2017
November 13, 2019
Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is a fellow at Project TABS and editor of TheTorah.com. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures (Hebrew Bible focus) and an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period focus). In addition to academic training, Zev holds ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter, BZAW 457) and the editor of Halakhic Realities: Collected Essays on Brain Death (Maggid).
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