Soon to be doctor Eric Jobe has posted a blog article on the divine Name revealed to Moses—“YHWH Among the Gods.” The Tetragrammaton, we learn, is a third-person singular verb, probably originally meaning “he causes to be” or “he causes to exist.” But Exodus 3:14 also offers a canonical interpretation of the Name:
While I have explained some possible meanings of the name in association with hypothesized origins of it, the Israelites had their own understanding of the name, which appears in Exodus 3:14, where Moses asks God what His name is, and the reply is ˀehyeh ˀāšer ˀehyeh. Contrary to what you might think, this is not actually the Name itself, but an interpretation of the Name, “I am what I am.” In this phrase, the simple form of the verb HWH/HYH is used rather than the causative. It is given in the imperfect conjugation, which signifies incomplete action, so it may mean something like “I was what I was, I am what I am, and I will be who I will be.” It is tautological, meaning that, to the Israelites, He is defined by no one other than Himself alone. In later Hellenistic Jewish tradition, this phrase was translated into Greek as ὁ ὦν, “He who is/exists,” and it is this version of the phrase that has been transmitted throughout the Christian tradition, especially in the East. But, it is important to understand that these are interpretations of the name and not the name itself.
The NETS translation of the Septuagint renders Exodus 3:14 in these words: “And God said to Moyses, ‘I am The One Who Is.’ And he said, ‘Thus shall you say to the sons of Israel, “The One Who Is has sent me to you.”‘” As Jobe observes, the LXX rendering has profoundly shaped Christian theological reflection. Very quickly Church theologians began to offer what might be called metaphysical readings of the sacred name (see “Philosophical Interpretations of Exodus 3:14“).
St Gregory of Nazianzus, for example, insists that God cannot be named. “The ancient Hebrews used special symbols to venerate the divine and did not allow anything inferior to God to be written with the same letters as the word ‘God,’ on the ground that the divine should not be put on even this much of a level with things human. Would they ever have accepted the idea that the uniquely indissoluble nature could be expressed by evanescent speech?” (Or. 30.17). He then identifies “He who is” as the most apt name for God, as it bespeaks the “absolute existence, independent of anything else,” of the One who delivered Torah to Moses (30.18). Gregory thus seems to interpret the divine Name is announcing God’s transcendent self-existence. He elaborates in one of his festal homilies:
God always was and is and will be, or rather always “is,” for “was” and “will be” belong to our divided time and transitory nature; but he is always “he who is,” and he gave himself this name when he consulted with Moses on the mountain. For holding everything together in himself, he possesses being, neither beginning nor ending. He is like a kind of boundless and limitless sea of being, surpassing all thought and time and nature. He is only sketched by the mind, and this in a very indistinct and mediocre way, not from things pertaining to himself but from things around him. Impressions are gathered from here and there into one particular representation of the truth, which flees before it is grasped and escapes before it is understood. It illumines the directive faculty in us, when indeed we have been purified, and its appearance is like a swift bolt of lightning that does not remain. It seems to me that insofar as it is graspable, the divine draws [us] toward itself, for what is completely ungraspable is unhoped for and unsought. Yet one wonders at the ungraspable, and one desires more intensely the object of wonder, and being desired it purifies, and purifying it makes deiform, and with those who have become such he converses as with those close to him,—I speak with vehement boldness—God is united with gods, and he is thus known, perhaps as much as he already knows those who are known to him. (Or. 38.7)
God is self-existent Being who transcends all creaturely categories of time and existence (also see my discussion of Oration 38).
St Jerome follows the Septuagint fairly closely in his Vulgate translation of Exodus 3:14: Dixit Deus ad Moysen: Ego sum qui sum. Ait: Sic dices filiis Israël: Qui est, misit me ad vos (“God said to Moses: I AM WHO AM. He said: Thus shalt thou say to the children of Israel: HE WHO IS, hath sent me to you” [Douay-Rheims]). In one of his letters, Jerome expounds on God’s self-identification as essence:
There is one nature of God and one only; and this, and this alone, truly is. For absolute being is derived from no other source but is all its own. All things besides, that is all things created, although they appear to be, are not. For there was a time when they were not, and that which once was not may again cease to be. God alone who is eternal, that is to say, who has no beginning, really deserves to be called an essence. Therefore also He says to Moses from the bush, “I am that I am,” and Moses says of Him, “I am has sent me.” As the angels, the sky, the earth, the seas, all existed at the time, it must have been as the absolute being that God claimed for himself that name of essence, which apparently was common to all. (Letter 15)
Jerome clearly identifies the One God as Being. He alone deserves to be called Essence. And thus was set the long Western tradition of the metaphysical reading of Exodus 3:14. St Thomas Aquinas famously continued this tradition:
Every thing, furthermore, exists because it has being. A thing whose essence is not its being, consequently, is not through its essence but by participation in something, namely, being itself. But that which is through participation in something cannot be the first being, because prior to it is the being in which it participates in order to be. But God is the first being, with nothing prior to Him. His essence is, therefore, His being.
This sublime truth Moses was taught by our Lord. When Moses asked our Lord: “If the children of Israel say to me: what is His name? What shall I say to them?” The Lord replied: “I AM WHO AM…. You shall say to the children of Israel: HE WHO IS has sent me to you” (Exod. 3:13, 14). By this our Lord showed that His own proper name is HE WHO IS. Now, names have been devised to signify the natures or essences of things. It remains, then, that the divine being is God’s essence or nature. (Contra Gentiles I.22.9-10)
And from the Summa Theologiae:
God revealed his name to Moses as He who is. And this is a most appropriate name inasmuch as it derives not from any particular form but from existence itself [ipsum esse], and its manner of expression does not as other names do delimit God’s substance, and represents God’s existence in the present tense as knowing neither past nor future. (I.13.11)
On the face of it, Thomas’s analysis doesn’t seem to be much different from that of the Nazianzen’s. Both interpret the divine Name as signifying the self-existence of divinity. Yet the scholars tell us that Thomas in fact has taken the metaphysical reading of the “He who is” and given it an existential twist: God is the act of existing; his essence is identical to his existing, his existing identical to his essence. Thus Aquinas commonly refers to God as actus essendi (“act of being”) and ipsum esse subsistens (“subsistent act of existing itself”). The key word here is esse, whose meaning is often obscured in English translation. Esse is a verb; it is a doing word. Whereas every creature is a composition of existence and essence and therefore radically contingent, God exists necessarily because there is in him no distinction between what he is and that he is. We might even be so bold as to say that God does not have a nature: the Deity simply is the infinite act of existing.
The metaphysical reading of the sacred Name may seem far indeed from the original meaning of the ˀehyeh ˀāšer ˀehyeh. The enslaved Hebrews in Egypt were certainly not in a position to leisurely meditate upon a lesson in divine ontology. But E. L. Mascall, following Etienne Gilson, argues that Aquinas’s construal of the divine being as the doing of existence represents an exciting recovery of the God of the Scriptures, albeit in philosophical idiom:
The real question is not whether the Hebrew text of Exodus iii, 14 means what St. Thomas and many Christian writers before him thought it meant, but whether what they took it to mean is what is meant by the Bible as a whole. It is, I think, putting the whole question on too narrow a basis simply to assert with Gilson that if there is no metaphysic in Exodus there is nevertheless a metaphysic of Exodus, but it is, I believe, profoundly true to say that there is a metaphysic of the Old Testament and that it is substantially expressed by the Exodus text as St. Thomas interprets it. For although the Old Testament is written almost entirely in ethical and hardly at all in metaphysical terms, the declarations which it makes about the activity of God have very far-reaching metaphysical consequences, and however imperfect may have been the attempts of pre-Thomist writers to express in the Exodus text as they understood it the Biblical truth about God, I believe that St. Thomas did succeed in this task through his radically existentialist outlook. (Existence and Analogy, pp. 13-14)
St. Thomas’s great work as a Christian metaphysician was to purge philosophy of the last traces of Platonic essentialism and to affirm with complete and deliberate clarity that God is not merely the ens perfectissimum, the Supreme Being in the order of essences, but maxime ens, that which supremely is. Whether or not Qui est is an accurate translation of the Hebrew name of God revealed to Moses in the third chapter of Exodus, there is … little doubt that St. Thomas’s radically existential interpretation of Qui est, as signifying not a static perfection but the absolutely unlimited Act and Energy, is thoroughly in line with Hebrew thought; it is that that underlies his assertion that God is pure act. … St Thomas’s uncompromisingly existential interpretation of the “sublime truth,” as he calls it, that the most proper name of God is “He who is,” without rejecting whatever is true in Christian Platonism, brings back into Christian thought a sense of the divine energy and activity which comes ultimately from the Hebraism of the Bible and which it cannot afford to ignore. I do not think that Luther was the first person to realize this. (pp. 51-53)
Before the world was made, if the world had never been made, God eternally is the absolute act of existing—YHWH: “I am who I am.”