Written by Dr. Michael LeFebvre |
Thursday, February 24, 2022
In the name Yahweh, God made himself known as a present being—present with and for his people. And wherever God’s presence is invoked, that announcement is pregnant with the certainty of his attention, his care, his power, and his grace. Perhaps a helpful paraphrase of God’s words at the burning bush would be, “Say to the people of Israel, ‘I Am Present has sent me to you.’” God sent Moses to the people in Egypt with that marvelous announcement. And the subsequent exodus events would be an object lesson for all generations that God is Yahweh, present with his people in all their sufferings.
When the people of Israel were enslaved in Egypt, they cried out to God for deliverance. Then God answered their cry, using the expression “I am who I am” (Exod 3:14) to introduce himself as their deliverer. In English, that sounds like a philosophical statement about God’s existence. In Hebrew, the passage uses the verb ehyeh (a form of the word hayah), normally translated “I am” or “I will be.” That translation is, in most situations, adequate. But for the meaning of God’s name in Exodus 3 and several other places in the Bible, hayah carries the added weight of representing God himself: Yahweh, “I am.” In such contexts, more careful attention to the nuance of this verb is important.
Indeed, the Hebrews, languishing under the whips of their oppressors, did not need to know simply that God exists. They needed to know that he was present with them. And that is precisely what God announced to Moses and memorialized in his name Yahweh, as defined by the verb ehyeh.
The Meaning of God’s Name at the Burning Bush
God explained the meaning of his name Yahweh (often represented in English Bibles as “Lord” in all small caps, and sometimes vocalized as “Jehovah” or by its consonantal root “YHWH”) while commissioning Moses at the burning bush. He instructed the prophet,
Say this to the people of Israel: “I am (ehyeh) has sent me to you.” . . . Say this to the people of Israel: “The Lord (Yahweh), the 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 thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations. (Exod 3:14–15)
God explained the meaning of Yahweh by placing it in parallel with the similar-sounding Hebrew term “I am” (ehyeh, from the root hayah). Yahweh is God’s personal name, so closely identified with his being that many orthodox Jews refuse to pronounce it, instead saying HaShem (“the name”) or Adonai (“Lord”), to guard this name’s sanctity.
Scholars debate whether the word Yahweh actually derives from the verb hayah. Even if the word Yahweh does not derive from hayah, it sounds similar. And biblical authors often employed sound-alike phrases to indicate name meanings (e.g., Gen 25:25, 30). In this case, the meaning of God’s name Yahweh is explained with the sound-alike ehyeh, a Hebrew being verb usually translated, “I am” or “I will be.” But the usage of being verbs such as hayah/ehyeh in Hebrew differs slightly but significantly from the way being verbs are used in most western languages.