An explanation of its meaning

K J Cronin

Exodus 3:14 in Jewish Bible Translations

On account of the universally experienced perplexity in regard to the meaning of the four enigmatic words of Exodus 3:14, and on account of the varied and often diametrically opposed approaches to their interpretation, it will come as no surprise to learn that Jewish Bible translations of the verse have varied greatly ever since it was first translated in the Septuagint some 2,300 years ago.

The early Greek translations – most notably the Septuagint, Aquila, and Theodotion – have already been considered in Early Translations above. Amongst the Aramaic Targums, both Onkelos and Neofiti retain the Hebrew ehyeh asher ehyeh of 3:14a in their translations.[5][6] Onkelos also retains the Hebrew ehyeh of 3:14b, while Neofiti renders it in a highly periphrastic manner as the Aramaic equivalent of, “The one who said and the world came into existence from the beginning; and is to say again: Be, and it will be”. Neofiti’s rendering of this ehyeh clearly articulates his understanding of its root meaning as ‘to be’ in the sense of ‘to exist’ and he finds the most fitting context for this meaning in the Creation narrative of Genesis Ch.1, in relation to which see the Diagram in Part II of this website. Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, by contrast, gives periphrastic renderings of both parts of the verse, with ehyeh asher ehyeh rendered in similar terms to Neofiti’s rendering of the absolute ehyeh alone as, “He who said and the world was, (who) said and everything was”, which also reveals this translators understanding of the root meaning of ehyeh as ‘to be’ in the sense of ‘to exist’.  Pseudo-Jonathan goes on to render the ehyeh of 3:14b as “I am who I am and who will be”, thus seeming to understand it as indicating the immutability of God and hence along the same lines as the second interpretation in Midrash Rabbah 3:6, for which see Talmud and Midrash below.[7] Lastly, the Syriac Peshitta, like Onkelos, retains the Hebrew ehyeh asher ehyeh of 3:14a and ehyeh of 3:14b.

The earliest and best-known translation of the Bible into Arabic was undertaken in the 10th century by Saadia Gaon. Saadia’s translation (Tafsir) is recorded in the London Polyglot of 1657 as its Arabic component, which I am unable to read, but it is there accompanied by a corresponding paraphrase in Latin. The Latin paraphrase of Saadia’s version of Exodus 3:14 reads in its entirety as follows, “Dixit ei, Aeturnus, qui non praeterit”, which translates as, “He said to him, The Eternal, who does not pass away”.[8] Moses Mendelssohn gives a slightly more expanded rendering of Saadia’s words in his comments on Exodus 3:14, where he states that, “Saadia Gaon writes that the explanation is, “who is not past and will not pass away, because He is the first and the last””.[9] From the two it is evident that Saadia’s brief rendering of the verse is a very loose paraphrase of the entire verse in which there is no apparent distinction being made between the declarations of 3:14a and 3:14b and that it is framed in terms of the eternality of God.

It was Mendelssohn who in the 18th century undertook the first Jewish translation of the Bible into High German. His rendering of Exodus 3:14 is also highly periphrastic and like Saadia’s reflects a philosophical approach to exegesis. Indeed his version of the verse was evidently influenced by Saadia’s, because it reads in English as follows: “God spoke to Moses: “I am the being that is eternal”.  He said further: “Say to the children of Israel, ‘The eternal being, which calls itself, I-am-eternal, has sent me to you”, the merits of which I will consider under Modern Jewish Philosophy below.[10]

Mendelssohn’s translation of the Bible was heavily criticised by the Jewish orthodoxy of his day and again in the early 20th century by the Jewish philosophers Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, who went on to produce a German translation of their own. Buber and Rosenzweig rejected all philosophical interpretations of Exodus 3:14, maintaining instead that the verse is simply a statement of God’s abiding presence with and providence towards Israel. The English translation of their German translation of Exodus 3:14 reads as follows: “God said to Moshe: I will be-there howsoever I will be-there. And He said: Thus shall you say to the Sons of Israel: I-Will-Be-There sends me to you”, the merits of which I will consider under Modern Jewish Philosophy below.[11]

Jewish translations of the Bible into English began to appear in the late 18th century but up until the 20th century were mostly based on the Christian King James Version and so translated Exodus 3:14 as it is translated in the King James Version.  The first enduringly important Jewish translation into English was the 1917 Jewish Publication Society Bible, which also retains the KJV translation of the verse and reads, “And God said unto Moses: ‘I AM THAT I AM’; and He said: ‘Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel: I AM hath sent me unto you'”.  “I AM THAT I AM” has remained a commonplace translation of ehyeh asher ehyeh despite the fact that it has no discernible meaning. In stark contrast to this is the New Jewish Publication Society translation of the Bible, published in 1985, which has opted for the convention first employed in Targum Onkelos. Like Onkelos it retains the Hebrew of the four enigmatic words of Exodus 3:14, thus bringing us full circle and in so doing eloquently reflecting the continuing lack of consensus in relation to the meaning of these words.[12] Also published in the 1980’s was Everett Fox’s Schocken Bible, a literal translation based upon Buber-Rosenzweig’s German version in which Exodus 3:14 is translated as in their version.[13]

Two final highly noteworthy examples of Jewish Bible translation into English reflect two strongly contrasting approaches to the rendering of the text but with a very similar result. The first is the ArtScroll Tanakh, a non-literal translation especially popular amongst more traditional and Orthodox Jews. Its rendering of the verse corresponds to the interpretation of Rashi and to the translations of Aquila and Theodotion and reads as follows: “Hashem answered Moses, “I Shall Be As I Shall Be.” And He said, “So you shall say to the Children of Israel, ‘I Shall Be has sent me to you”.[14] “Ha-Shem” is Hebrew for “The Name”. It is a surrogate employed by Orthodox Jews in place of the Divine name YHWH and it is adopted in the Artscroll translation of this verse despite the fact that the name YHWH does not feature in the Hebrew original, which in my opinion is highly unsatisfactory. The second of the two translations is William Propp’s in his 1998 translation of the Book of Exodus in The Anchor Bible series. His is a very elegant literal translation that occupies a current high point in the scholarly rendering of the text. Like the ArtScroll version, his translation of ehyeh asher ehyeh and ehyeh is based upon those of Aquila and Theodotion and so his translation of Exodus 3:14 reads as follows: “Then Deity said to Moses, “I will be who I will be”.  And He said, “Thus you will say to Israel’s Sons: ‘”I-will-be” has sent me to you'”.[15] I will consider Propp’s translation in more detail under Contemporary Jewish Interpretation below.

From the above it will be clear that, at least on the evidence of Jewish Bible translations produced during the last 2,300 years, there has been no enduring or widespread consensus within Judaism as to how the four enigmatic words of Exodus 3:14 should be translated and no consensus at all on their meaning. The fact that this remains the case down to the present day will be further demonstrated by what follows in the remainder of Part I.