After running away from Egypt, Moses arrived in Midian. There, he met Zipporah a daughter of a Midian priest and married her. He seemed to have settled in Midian permanently. But one day, he encounters a life-changing event once again. He saw a bush, burning but strangely not consumed by the fire. So he wanted to see it closer. Then the voice of God called him and commanded him to go back to Egypt to save his people. Moses, who already settled in Midian for a long time, was afraid of going back. So he expressed some excuses why he should not go. One of his reasons was that he doesn’t even know to whom he was talking to. So Moses said, the people would ask him, “What is the name of the god who sent you to save us?”
The answer God gave to Moses is the famous name, “I AM WHO I AM.” This appears in Ex 1:14, and in verse 15, another famous title, YHWH, appears. YHWH eventually substitutes “I AM WHO I AM.”
Here are the verses
14. And Elohim said to Moses, “I am who I AM.” And he said; therefore you say to the children of Israel “I AM” sent me to you.
15. And Elohim said again to Moses, “therefore you say to the children of Israel, ‘YHWH, the god of your fathers, the god of Abraham, the god of Isaac, and the god of Jacob, sent me to you;’ this is my name forever, and this is what is remembered from generation to generation.”my own translation
The name “I AM” in v. 14 is ehyeh, 1st person common singular form of the verb hayah (or hyh without vowels), which is very similar to the verb “to be” in English. So this word can actually be translated as “I am” or “I will be.”
Since God said “I am ‘I AM,'” a clever reader could have already figured that verse 14 says “ehyeh (I am) who EHYEH (I AM).” The verb ehyeh is repeated twice.
The word ehyeh is a verb. So, as seen above, it is very awkward to use it as a name. So, another expression in v. 15, which shares the root of the word, substitutes the the name ehyeh. That is YHWH, which is also known as Jehovah. For a detailed explanation about YHWH and Jehovah, see this post.
One might easily assume that if there was no verse 15, we could have known ehyeh as the name of God. But such a chance is very low. The purpose of Ex 3 is to not record facts about what happened but instead to explain the etymology of the name YHWH, or etiology of it.
As mentioned, the name “I AM” is from the verb, hayah (or hyh), which, according to HALOT, has meanings as follows:
- come to pass, occur
- happen, occur
- be, become
The word hayah can be used in many ways in various contexts, but its basic meaning is related to “existence.” So its literal translation “I AM” is not very wrong but still highly ambiguous for a name. To clarify this ambiguity, NRSV puts a footnote to it, for example, “I will be who I will be” and “I am what I am.” It is good! Nonetheless, these explanations confine the multivalence of the name within too specific meanings, or they remove the mysterious aspects of the name by clarifying it. Maybe such phenomena are just a fundamental limitation of translation.
So we can just transliterate it as it stands; so ehyeh. Then the reader is confused because in the next verse, another name, Yahweh, appears. But I think this confusion is probably necessary because the text itself confuses the reader in the first place.