“I AM WHO I AM”: Thomas Aquinas and the Metaphysics of the Exodus


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 I 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 I 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.”

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15 Responses to “I AM WHO I AM”: Thomas Aquinas and the Metaphysics of the Exodus

  1. brian says:

    Pieper, Gilson, and Maritain were the first Thomists I learned from.
    The existentialist reading of Thomas has always seemed compelling to me.
    Norris Clarke added personalist and neo-platonic emphasis on participation to the existentialist reading. Altogether, I still think it is a strong and compelling metaphysics.
    Just like creatio ex nihilo, it engenders a more fruitful reading of revelation.

    Very glad to see DB Hart’s post, btw. I pray he is improving in health.
    I’ve been looking forward to his New Testament translation since word of it was first leaked (in Dec. 2011 I think.) This post makes me even more eager to read it.


  2. Jonathan says:

    About the icon, that looks like “Je Suis” in the flame. Is it of Francophone provenance?


    • brian says:

      Nice catch. But if God is a Frenchman, they will be even more unbearable.


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        I tend to think of French saints being something like Lancelot: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TdrEmZ35fxc


      • Jonathan says:

        I’m holding out that God is québecois. Call me a heretic, but I’ve spent some time in Montréal, and between the beer and the women, to say nothing of the awesome back-country, I think it would explain a lot. And the québecois are the only people, as far as I know, who still use words like “tabernacle” as profanity. That’s got to mean something.


  3. tgbelt says:

    Consider the ANE religious (Canaanite and Egyptian) context. It helps me understand why Moses even asks God what his name is. The Canaanites had Anat (virgin goddess of war), Dagon (god of crop fertility), Molech (god of fire), Resheph (god of plagues/healing), Baal-Haddad (storm god), and many others, including El (the most high god). Same thing for the Egyptian gods. The function of naming among pagans identified finite deities with limited responsibilities within the cosmos. Pagan deities derived their identities from the cosmos through their roles in maintaining it.

    This undoubtedly lies behind Moses’ question. “What’s your name?” means “Which god are you? Where do you fit in the scale of deities? What’s your rank? Which part of the cycle of life and death are you responsible for? What’s your job description or resume?” It seems to me that this is what’s going on in Ex 3. “I am that I am” is well-suited as revealing the categorical difference between YHWH who is addressing Moses and all the other pagan deities. God essentially says, “Look, I’m not found in any line-up of local deities.” Those gods are defined by role relative to the world’s cycle of seasons, births, deaths, marriages, fertility, etc. This One’s identity is not reducible to a function within the finitude of the world. When you think about it, this marks are truly spectacular step forward–toward a truer appreciation of transcendence.

    I don’t think this obviously entails other traditional metaphysical conclusions (about, say, God and time—what would Moses have done with “Tell them, ‘I’m timeless has sent you’”?), but that’s another conversation. And when you consider the dozen or so extension of the Name (Jehovah-Heals, Jehovah-Hears, Jehovah-Sees, Jehovah-Justifies, Jehovah-Provides, etc.) it becomes clear that it is and invitation (not a prohibition) to “name God” though in a unique way (i.e., to name some experience of God addressing us and not to define God as an object of observation or to reduce him to a function of our world).


    • Eric Jobe says:

      I think your assessment is fairly spot-on, though I would point out that Yahweh’s origins (the name, anyway) are likely just as mundane as Baal, El, or Yam. Most scholars would trace the origin of the name (and I did not write about this in detail) to a sentence such as Yahweh ṣǝḇāˀōṯ “He who causes the hosts to be” or something like that. With this association and the association with the Ark, which a palanquin of some kind that went into battle before the Israelite armies, Yahweh was likely a war deity of some kind (Scholars have long pointed out the statistical correlation between the name Yahweh and bellicose contexts in contrast to El/Elohim and more peaceful contexts). The phenomena of fire, smoke, earthquakes, thunder, and lightning of Mt. Sinai/Horeb have been linked to a possible origin as a volcano god. Also, the Kuntillet Ajrud inscriptions show that many Israelites outside of the Jerusalem cult center were quite comfortable with associating Yahweh with other deities within the Canaanite pantheon. So, if what you are saying is true (and I think it is), what it means is that Exodus 3:14 is a direct attempt to wrestle the Name from such pagan contexts to create a new, unique context in which Yahweh is understood separately from the other gods. To make this practical, we have to engage in this sort of thing on a constant basis, as popular culture always seeks to create a caricature of God and Christ.


      • Agnikan says:

        What about the hypothesis that there is a connection between “Yah” and the “Ea” of Akkadian and Babylonian ritual (and, priorly, the “Enki” of the Sumerians)? One proposal is that “Ea” is a form a “Yahweh”, both being derived from the Semitic “hyy” (and perhaps “Ea” was pronounced like “yah” as well). In the Akkadian narrative of Atra-Hasis (c. 1700 BCE), it is Enki/Ea who warns Atra-Hasis about the coming flood sent by Enlil, Enki/Ea justifying his actions as actions meant to preserve and save life.


  4. Dante Aligheri says:

    Yes. Akin to this, then Joseph Ratzinger said in his Introduction to Christianity:

    We are told that God replied: ‘I am what I am.’ This really looks like a rebuff; it seems much more like a refusal to give a name than the announcement of a name…Judges 13:18 and Genesis 32:30…Manoah asks the God who meets him for his Name. The answer which he is given is: ‘Why do you ask my Name, seeing it is a secret?’ (Another possible translation is ‘seeing it is wonderful.’ A Name is not given…It is Jacob who…asks his name receives only the discouraging answer, ‘Why is it that you ask my Name?’ Both passages are related linguistically…The God with whom Moses deals in the Burning Bush cannot give his Name in the same way as the other gods round about, who are individual gods alongside other similar gods and therefore need a Name. The God of the Burning Bush will not put himself on a level with them…a God who is quite other than ‘the gods.’ The explanation of the Name YHWH…thus serves as a kind of negative theology…Contrary to the view that God can here be grasped, so to speak, the persistence of an infinite distance is in this way made quite clear… (pg. 87)

    He gives an alternative view where he sees, with a scholar Edmund Jacob (whom I have not read), an exegesis of the Name in Isaiah: “Men…are in the end like flowers, which bloom one day and are cut off and withering away the next, while in the midst of this…the God of Israel ‘is’–not ‘becomes.’ Amid all the becoming and passing away He ‘is.'” (88) Herbert Brichto is akin to Jacob’s where he also reads it as a statement of temporal eternity as opposed to created things: was, is and will be–although F.M. Cross disputes that temporal eternity is meant at least in the original text.

    To this, Ratzinger–with others I have read–had related earlier the meaning of the other, more public name “Elohim” as meaning “the totality of Divinity,” i.e. located in a single God: “It must be pointed out that the El-faith was accepted in Israel chiefly in its extension to ‘Elohim,’ an extension which also hints at the process of transformation which even the El-figure needed…He is One, but as the exceedingly great, quite Other, He Himself outsteps the bounds of singular and plural, He lies beyond them.” (pg. 84)

    That being said, W.F. Albright and F.M. Cross both have interpreted the name YHWH as causative, either as “He Who Creates What Is” or “He Who Creates the (Heavenly) Hosts. In the variant, YHWH Elohim, such as in Gen. 2, some such David Freedman have read: “He Who Creates the Gods.”

    Even in the Ehyeh aser Ehyeh, which Eric Jobe has read, as one option, as Exodus’ exegesis of the Name and investing the Name with new content in a canonical perspective, Albright, Cross, and Freedman alternatively saw even that phrase as either meaning “I Create What Is” (which has parallels in ancient Egypt) or (with Cross and Freedman) “I Create What I Create” as a kind of double imperative.

    Even if that is the case (which I have my doubts and balance this interpretation with Ratzinger’s apophatic one), this would not, I think, restrict the received interpretation of YHWH within the Fathers or Judaism.


    • Eric Jobe says:

      “Cause to be” and “create” are not semantically far apart, so I would not see too much of a contrast between myself and Cross, et al., though I think their readings are a bit outdated. Most scholars today associate the causative aspects of the name to be in relation to the Heavenly Hosts, making Yahweh both a creator god and a war god. Whatever. I’m not terribly interested in firm opinions of such things, which are mostly speculative. The El/Elohim contrast, again, is something that can be exploited in exegesis, but linguistically, they are not distinguished, nor does context provide us with much of any distinction. “El” seems to be used more frequently in compound divine names, El-Elyon, El-Shaddai, etc, whereas “Elohim” is used mostly by itself. Linguistically, Elohim is just an expansion of El, much like the singular/plural of “father” – ab/abahot.


      • Dante Aligheri says:

        I see. I actually hadn’t intended any contrast between you and Cross et al. – at least at that point (creation vs. causation, which really has no distinction), although I can see where I might have been too vague. What I’m probably more interested in–and where I drew the line more thickly than warranted–is the canonical interpretation of Exodus–the “ehyeh asher ehyeh” statement. Although I’ve seen on Jewish websites that exegesis (“was, is, and will be”–although, in those websites, usually talking of a temporal eternity rather than apophatic or exclusive self-definition against other gods), I’ve never seen a linguistic explanation why this was.

        I have often heard some say, getting it from Nahum Sarna, I think, that the canonical interpretation should be “I will be what I will be,” namely, “I will be present here with you.” And, to be honest, I’ve always found that a rather dissatisfying and parochial interpretation compared to the more majestic Patristic one. And, then, in order to get what they believed to be the “original” meaning of “ehyeh asher ehyeh,” Cross and Albright had to do some reconstructing back into the causative to get “I cause to be what is” and “I create what I create”–which is questionable. So, your reading, like Ratzinger’s, seems a better option at least in terms of the canon. Are there any interpretative or linguistic reasons why your reading works better than Sarna’s?


  5. Christopher says:

    I recall (vaguely obviously) that this identification of the essence with existence, is one of those “scholastic” rationals that leads to all sorts of dialectical quandaries down the road – leading for example to the identification of essence and energies that St. Gregory Palamas had to refute.

    Perhaps I get this from Fr. John Romanides, or perhaps Farrell, or is it Lossky? Someone care to comment?


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      You probably got it from all three. 🙂

      You raise a difficult question, Gregory, not least of which is whether the Palamite distinction is to be found in the early Church Fathers. One certainly does find the distinction between the divine essence and the ad extra divine activities; but St Gregory Palamas appears to have wanted to say something stronger, at least so his modern interpreters insist. See, e.g., my article “Was St Gregory of Nyssa a Proto-Palamite?

      Question: Was St Gregory Palamas acquainted with the writings of St Thomas Aquinas? If not, how do we know how he might have responded to them? As I understand the matter, the issue that was debated in 14th century Byzantium was whether, by grace, the baptized are given to really share in the divine life of the Trinity. So I think the question we might want to put to Aquinas and his followers is whether his identification of essence and existence allows for such a participation. If it doesn’t, then Aquinas & Company have a problem, at least from an Orthodox perspective.


      • brian says:


        Many differences between Orthodox and Thomas appear to me to frequently be semantic, rather than substantive. I’ve never sensed a radical discontinuity between Orthodox notions of theosis and Aquinas. Certainly, in my view, participation is present at the natural metaphysical level. Graced participation in Triune Life is acclaimed the only real end for man in the interpretation of figures like de Lubac. There’s a rationalist strain of Aquinas’ epigoni that deny this, but I don’t think it is faithful to Thomas.

        Hart has two articles that touch on some of these intractable controversies. “The Myth of Schism” and “The Hidden and the Manifest — Metaphysics After Nicea” — which is Hart’s contribution to Orthodox Readings of Augustine. “The Myth of Schism” is available on-line in several places. It boasts this blistering sally lamenting the malign influence of “inane agitators like the altogether absurd and execrable John Romanides” who is charged with the splendid feat of having produced “expositions of the thought of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas that are almost miraculously devoid of one single correct statement.”

        I do not have the Orthodox Readings text and have only seen excerpts from that article. My impression is that Hart received some flack from Orthodox for his view that Palamas is unclear about the energies. In The Beauty of the Infinite, Hart expresses doubt “that Palamas ever intended to suggest a real distinction between God’s essence and energies.” Many Orthodox, of course, see the distinction as vital, including Yannaras, who I personally find insightful, despite his overly indulgent polemic against western Christendom.

        Anyway, I remain ambivalent and uncertain where the truth lies. I read synthetically and it may be I ventriloquize at times to effect too smooth an agreement. I still trust that the divine life of Christ is at work; that the kenosis of the Spirit hides hidden affinities, unforeseen agreement and the surprise of unsuspected union. Dostoevsky’s Zossima is always a better guide than Ferrapont, who is finding devils behind every bush.


        • Jonathan says:

          I have found Steven Runciman’s take on the east/west division of Christendom, as he expounded it throughout his oeuvre, to be as enlightening as it is eloquent and balanced. He was a historian, of course, rather than an academic theologian. But if anything that’s to his credit.


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