Dr. Michael LeFebvre

“I Am Who I Am”? The Real Meaning of God’s Name in Exodus

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.
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Jesus’ Concept of the Law in the New Testament

Written by Dr. Michael LeFebvre |
Friday, November 5, 2021
To understand the function of Torah in its Old Testament context is to discover the basis for its New Testament reception by the followers of Jesus. The Apostles saw the person of Jesus in the Law (Matt. 22:37–40). And when Christians understand the Law in its ancient Near Eastern context, it continues to be a source of delight for those who hope in Christ and wait for his Kingdom to be finished.

In 1922, archaeologist Howard Carter discovered the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun. Once the tomb was opened, Carter uncovered piles of breathtaking treasures inside. Among those treasures, he found 130 ornately carved staffs.
Some believed those staffs were symbols of power, like scepters. But in 2010, CT scans of the pharaoh’s mummy revealed that he had a malformed foot. This finding combined with others confirmed that the staffs were walking sticks the pharaoh actually used. They weren’t symbols of power after all, but reminders of frailty.
Interpreting the artifacts of past cultures requires alertness to their original context—as well as caution against imported assumptions.
One of the most important biblical artifacts to understand in context is the “Torah,” Israel’s law collection found in the first five books of the Bible (the Pentateuch). The Hebrew word torah roughly translates to “law” in English. But biblical law is not like modern legislation.1
To understand the Torah, we must observe how it was used in its own context in Old Testament Israel—and how law in the New Testament period came to be used differently. In fact, distinguishing the original use of the Law from its reinterpretation in the Greco-Roman era offers important insight into the conflicts between Jesus and the Temple leaders of his day. Many who read how Jesus challenged the scribes and pharisees think that Jesus was introducing new interpretations of the Law in the New Testament. It turns out, Jesus was reaffirming the original understanding of the Law.
Law Books, Now and Then
Today, law books are used for regulation. Modern nations compile law codes to establish social order, and they enforce those law codes by police and courts. But nowhere in the biblical narratives do we find law writings used in this way. Israel’s written law served several purposes, but not as legislation to be used by judges and cited in courts.
One of the scholars working in this field, Bernard Jackson, catalogued references to judges and to law books in the Bible. He found that Israel’s law books were used for archival, didactic, and ritual purposes, but not to adjudicate justice.2 Based on the records in the Bible, Hebrew judges enforced unwritten norms, but there is no indication that they enforced law using written texts. When some of those unwritten norms were written down (as in the Mosaic law writings), they were written for public instruction not for judicial enforcement. Thus the written law faithfully reflects Israel’s judicial norms, even if not itself the basis for rendering verdicts.
In fact, as far as we know, written law was not used in courtrooms anywhere in the ancient world until the fifth century B.C. That was when Greece invented democracy and the rule of law.3 Law collections in Israel and other ancient lands were compiled to inspire the people’s hope and to instruct their obedience to God’s ways, but not for civic regulation.
The Psalms as Guide to the Law’s Use
The Psalms provide a helpful window into Israel’s use of the Torah. In fact, the book of Psalms is structured into five parts as a companion for the five-book Torah.4 And the first psalm introduces the Law’s purpose to inspire hope. “Blessed [or happy] is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked . . . but his delight is in the law of the Lord” (Psa 1:1­–2).
The individual in that psalm is surrounded by injustice. Wickedness, sin, and scoffing are on every side (v. 1). The Law is clearly not regulating that society. Nor is the Law something the person in that psalm appeals to for justice in court.
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