Did you know that God has a name? Many Christians have never even thought about that question. If you were to ask them what God’s name is, their reply would probably be something along the lines of, “His name is God, of course!”
Actually, for a Christian to think God’s name is “God” is like a 2-year believing that his father’s name is “Daddy.” When you were that age, the idea that “daddy” had an actual name, like Robert or Adam or Sam, probably hadn’t seeped into your mind yet. Well, just as your father is not really named “Daddy,” the Bible tells us that our heavenly Father is not named “God.”
Moses was the first person to learn God’s real name. He lived in a time when people typically thought there were many gods, each of them reigning over a particular nation or people. When he was given the mission of delivering God’s people from slavery in Egypt, Moses knew that the Israelites would demand to know which God he represented before they would follow him. But he didn’t know what to tell them. So, being a direct kind of fellow, he took the simplest route out of his dilemma – he asked God what His name was.
Exodus 3:13-15 Then Moses said to God, “Indeed, when I come to the children of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they say to me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14 And God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And He said, “Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.'” 15 Moreover God said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the children of Israel: ‘The LORD God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is My name forever, and this is My memorial to all generations.’
There is a lot packed into these verses! A lot of awe and wonder; but also, even today, a lot of mystery as well. So let’s look step-by-step at God’s answer to Moses.
“I AM WHO I AM”
The wonder starts with the very first thing God told Moses, an incredibly profound statement about God’s own nature. “I AM WHO I AM” (Hebrew: “ehyeh asher ehyeh”). If you are anything like me, you are already having difficulty wrapping your brain around exactly what that means. Scholars are agreed that it is a statement of the absolute self-existence of God. He is simply Himself, not in any way dependent on anything else.
19th century Scottish minister Alexander Maclaren put it this way:
He says, “I AM THAT I AM.” All other creatures are links; this is the staple from which they all hang. All other being is derived, and therefore limited and changeful; this being is underived, absolute, self-dependent, and therefore unalterable forevermore.
To me, in this crisp three-word statement, God is letting us know that He is not like anything else. The moment you say, “God is like …” you have already misspoken. We can’t categorize or catalog or compare Him to anything else. We cannot define Him. All we can do is to receive and seek to understand, with awe and reverence, what He chooses to reveal of Himself.
The Hebrew word translated “I AM” is ehyeh. It is a very rare word in Scripture, occurring only here in Exodus 3:14, and in Hosea 1:9. Scholars are still unsure of where the name ehyeh came from, but most believe it is derived from the Hebrew verb hayah, which means “to be.” Therefore ehyeh, or “I AM” is seen to refer to God’s timelessness. By naming Himself “I AM,” God is letting us know that He is not a being trapped in time, as we are, with a beginning and an end. Rather He is the inventor of time, and totally outside of it. No beginning, no end. He simply and always IS.
In verse 14 God instructed Moses to tell the children of Israel that “I AM” had sent him. But in verse 15, God commands Moses to tell the Israelites that “The Lord” sent him, and goes on to say, “This is My name forever.” The word translated in most Bibles as “The Lord” is not ehyeh, but a word that is much more widely used in Scripture: YHWH. (Ancient Hebrew was written using only consonants). This, God says, is His name. So …
The personal name by which God is known throughout the Hebrew Bible is YHWH.
Ready for some more mystery? No one really knows how YHWH should be pronounced, because from ancient times devout Jews wouldn’t pronounce it. They believed that the surest way to observe the commandment to not speak the name of God in vain was to not speak it at all. So, the tradition arose that whenever God’s name, YHWH, appeared in the reading of Scripture, the word Adonai (“Lord”) was spoken in its place. Later, when vowels were added to written Hebrew, YHWH was written using the vowel sounds of Adonai. The result is the pronunciation most often used today, Yahweh.
This substitution of “Lord” for the personal name of God is still honored in our modern Bibles. In most translations, where YHWH appears in the original Hebrew text, you will see “the LORD” (in small capital letters) in the English text. Where Adonai appears in the original, “Lord” is used in English. And when Adonai and YHWH appear together, as they do 310 times in the Bible, that combination is rendered in English as “the LORD God,” thus avoiding the awkwardness of “the Lord, LORD.”
By the way, because it consists of four consonants, YHWH is called the Tetragrammaton, from a Greek word that means, oddly enough, “having four letters.”
Much of the most influential biblical scholarship of the past several centuries was done by German scholars. In that language the Tetragrammaton is written JHWH, and pronounced “Jehova.” So, when YHWH was imported into English by way of German, the pronunciation “Jehovah” also entered the language. “Jehovah” then, is simply the German/English way of saying Yahweh.
The meaning of Yahweh
Obviously, God didn’t answer Moses’ question about His name one way in verse 14 (ehyeh), and an entirely different way in verse 15 (YHWH). These two renderings of His name must be closely linked in some way. Well, just as they are still unsure of where ehyeh came from, scholars are still pulling their hair out trying to figure out where YHWH comes from. YHWH and ehyeh are etymologically closely related, and both essentially mean “I AM.” So, what’s the difference? Here’s the way I look at it:
My name is Ronald. In its Gaelic or Scottish roots, it “means one who rules with counsel.” I don’t know whether my parents chose that name because they hoped it would be an accurate description of the person I would become, but let’s assume that they did. Let’s assume also that their prediction came true, and I am indeed one who rules with counsel. Thus, “Ronald” and “one who rules with counsel” are equivalent terms that signify who I am. However, please believe me that I don’t go around introducing myself as “one who rules with counsel.” My personal name is Ronald, and that is the name by which I am known. But if my name accurately reflects who I am, then when you hear “Ronald” it should remind you that the possessor of that name is “one who rules with counsel.”
That’s how I see the relationship between ehyeh and YHWH. Ehyeh is rarely used in Scripture, but its meaning is fully embodied in YHWH, which is the most common designation for God in the whole Bible. In other words, God doesn’t introduce Himself to us as ehyeh, but He wants us to think “I AM” whenever we speak of YHWH, or Yahweh, or Jehovah, or The LORD.
Jesus, the I AM!
One of my favorite episodes in Scripture occurs when Jesus applies God’s name to Himself so neatly and effectively that it almost got Him stoned. Some of the people were chiding Him about His claim to represent God. They even accused Him of having a demon. Jesus put that lie to rest with just two impactful words.
John 8:56-59 Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.” 57 Then the Jews said to Him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?” 58 Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was,
I AM.” 59 Then they took up stones to throw at Him; but Jesus hid Himself and went out of the temple, going through the midst of them, and so passed by.
Did you catch what Jesus did? He didn’t say, “before Abraham was, I was.” That in itself would have been an amazing statement for Him to make. And it would have been the appropriate grammatical construction (“before Abraham was, I was”) for making what was essentially a claim to immortality. But Jesus took it so much further than that. “Before Abraham was, I AM.” His words in Greek (Ego eimi), are in the present tense, signifying boundless, continuous existence. He was not saying that His beginning was before Abraham’s beginning. In those two words, “I AM,” Jesus proclaimed that He had no beginning and would have no end, and took upon Himself the very name of God. It was, of course, a declaration that He is God. And the crowd understood exactly what He was saying. Since they didn’t believe He was God, they heard His words as the rankest blasphemy, and took up stones to kill Him.
So, now you know that God’s own, personal name is YHWH, or Yahweh. It is, as He told Moses, His name forever. And we should forever celebrate that name. For He is indeed, the great I AM!