An explanation of its meaning

K J Cronin

Introduction to Exodus 3:14

The revelation at the Burning Bush is amongst the most powerful and enduring images in human history, in no small part due to the revelatory event that is Exodus 3:14. What makes this event so memorable and so fascinating is that in response to a question regarding the way in which God should be known by name, God speaks words that are by some distance the most enigmatic to be found in the Bible. To Moses and the Children of Israel, these words conveyed a meaning so clear and so potent as to have inspired them to undertake the legendary acts of courage and faith recounted in the Book of Exodus. They are for this reason extremely interesting whatever their meaning, and they are also for this reason extremely important in Jewish and human history. The four enigmatic words of which I speak are ehyeh asher ehyeh in the first part of Exodus 3:14 and ehyeh in the second part.

However, these four words are made all the more fascinating by the fact that, despite countless efforts to explain them, their meaning has not been understood since at least the time of the writing of the Septuagint, more than two thousand years ago. Because of this, some have gone so far as to suggest that they are actually meaningless or incomprehensible, which would in turn suggest that the words God addresses to Moses on the occasion of his prophetic commissioning and the single word with which he was to demonstrate to the Israelites his knowledge of their God both were and are meaningless or incomprehensible. That is highly improbable, especially when we consider the events these words are said to have inspired. Moreover, neither Moses nor the Israelites appear to have had any difficulty in understanding them because neither he nor they comment upon them at all, and so the implication of the biblical text is that the words of Exodus 3:14 were both highly meaningful and readily comprehensible to those who first heard them. Furthermore, because they relate to so timeless and universal a concern as the way in which God should be known by name, there is every reason to believe that they would be just as meaningful for us today if only we understood them and no reason to believe that they would be any less comprehensible.

This article is henceforth comprised of two parts. Part I is a review of Jewish translations and interpretations of Exodus 3:14 undertaken during the last 2,300 years. It begins with a separate analysis of early Jewish translations into Greek and an early Christian translation into Latin because these are useful for highlighting the interpretive difficulties that attend upon this verse and for demonstrating how these difficulties have been tackled. Those who are not already convinced of the importance of Exodus 3:14 may wish to postpone their reading of Part I until such a time as they are, and they may rest assured that they can do so without detriment to their appreciation of the most important content of Part II. To them I would only recommend reading the summary at the end of Part I for the background against which the contents of Part II may best be appreciated.

Part II contains my reason for writing this article. It is comprised of my own analysis of the relevant biblical text, the identification of the Divine name in Exodus 3:14, a comprehensive explanation of the meaning of this name, an analysis and interpretation of the remainder of the verse in the light of this meaning and the translation of the verse that my interpretation implies.

In what follows I designate the distinction between the first and second part of Exodus 3:14 as Exodus 3:14a and Exodus 3:14b respectively. From the start of the verse to the end of ehyeh asher ehyeh is 3:14a and 3:14b is the remainder of the verse.[1] I also refer to the ehyeh of 3:14b as the absolute ehyeh because it is a first person singular of the verb occurring without a predicate.

Throughout this paper I refer to God in the masculine. This is not an attribution of gender to God. Rather it is a reflection of the religious language with which I am most familiar and that feels most natural to me.