What is the meaning of 'I AM WHO I AM' in Exodus 3:14?In Exodus chapter 3, God, in the form of a burning bush, appeared to Moses and told him He was sending Moses to free the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt. Moses worried that the people would not believe that God had sent him, so he asked if "they ask me, 'What is his name?' what shall I say to them?" (Exodus 3:13). Moses asked God for His name. Having been raised in Egypt as the adopted son of Pharaoh's daughter, Moses would have been familiar with the names of dozens of Egyptian gods like Ra, Anubis, and Hathor. Having fled to Midian and raised sheep there for many years, Moses would have also known the names of Canaanite gods like Baal and Asherah. Each of these foreign gods had a particular name and was associated with a particular domain. Ra was the god of the sun, Baal was the god of war, and so on. When Moses asked God for His name, the response was a surprising "I AM WHO I AM… This is my name forever" (Exodus 3:14–15).
This response set God apart from all the foreign gods the people may have known. This God is not limited to a first name or a particular domain. This God was not created by human hands nor named by human language. The statement "I AM" comes from the Hebrew verb "to be or to exist." With this statement, God declared that He is self-existent, eternal, self-sufficient, self-directed, and unchanging. But this statement also declared that He is present. Despite His nature being so different from humans and their man-made gods, God is present with His people. He was aware of their suffering, He desired to deliver them, and He intended to be known throughout all generations (Exodus 3:7–15). Revealing His holy name to Moses implied an intimate relationship as first names were often only shared with those in covenant relationship. This God had been present and would always be present with His people, ready to intervene on their behalf.
From the statement "I AM WHO I AM" (spelled he, yod, he in Hebrew) in verse 14, God formed a holy proper name, Yahweh (spelled yod, he, vav, he in Hebrew), in verse 15. This name was considered so holy that it could not be spoken aloud or even written in its entirety. In fact, when a Jewish scribe copied the Scriptures and came to the holy name, he would set aside his quill and get a brand new one that would write only that name and then break the quill afterward so that no other word would ever flow from it. God's name Yahweh, from "I AM WHO I AM," always evokes the memory of the events recorded in Exodus of this faithful, wonder-working God being present with His people and showing His power on their behalf.
Jesus self-identified as part of this holy, present God in John 8:58 when He said, "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am." The Jews recognized this reference to God and were ready to stone Jesus to death for such blasphemy (John 8:59). Of course, because Jesus is fully God, it was no blasphemy for Him to claim the name I AM. As God, He was not created but is self-existent (Colossians 1:17). He is eternal, existing before Abraham and now seated at the right hand of God the Father for eternity (Colossians 1:16, Hebrews 8:1). He is self-sufficient, needing nothing, and self-directed, accomplishing His will as He sees fit (Job 41:11; Psalm 135:6). And He is unchanging, "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever" (Hebrews 13:8). May we join with the psalmist in Psalm 30:4 and "Sing praises to the LORD [Yahweh], O you his saints, and give thanks to his holy name."
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