Is God’s Name “I AM”?

In Scripture a name is more than what you put on your letterbox. We have an expression, “he made a name for himself”. This means he had done something or had become something that enhanced his reputation or a bad name for a bad reputation

At the burning bush Moses was told to return to Egypt to lead God’s people to freedom but Moses feared the elders of Israel would reject him so he asked God what he should say when they asked the name of the God who had sent him. Not the sort of name you would put on a letterbox but what reputation and power does he have, something that describes him.

In the Hebrew scriptures God’s answer was, “ehyeh-asher ehyeh” which can be translated as I AM WHAT I AM or more correctly according to the eleventh century rabbi Rashi – I WILL BE WHAT I Will BE. This is because in Hebrew there is a perfect tense and an imperfect tense. The perfect tense is used for completed actions and the other for actions that are uncompleted and therefore embraces both present and future. This gives yet another translation – I AM WHAT I WILL BE or again I WILL BE WHAT I AM – An unchanging God. Therefore I AM or EGO EIMI in the Greek New Testament is not a faithful but rather an incomplete translation of ehyeh in Exodus.

In most translations it says that Moses was to say that I AM had sent him. So does this mean that this is God’s name or should it be I WILL BE ? The name we associate with God is the word that Jews never read aloud, YHWH (and we use Jehovah, Yaweh or print as LORD in capitals and it appears thousands of times in the Old Testament). Instead they read ADONI (Lord) for it. Jewish sages say that these four letters represent the phrase HAYAH HOVEH YI’YEH – He was, He is, He will be.

Years ago I went into a Christian bookshop in Glasgow and asked for the Septuagint. The manager said that no one had ever asked for the Septuagint in all the years he had been there so I quipped, “then John, Peter and Paul haven’t been in lately?”, I could have added Jesus and all the New Testament writers because most of the Old Testament quotations are from the Greek Septuagint.

When a language is translated there is a choice to be made to get the right shade of meaning for that particular context – my Young’s concordance shows that some Hebrew words are translated in several and in some cases many different ways i.e. NEPHESH (soul)– ten ways in the KJV. How  the context is understood would tend to shift as time goes by.

The Septuagint or LXX as it is known was commissioned for the library in Alexandria around 285 BC and was a translation from Hebrew into common Greek which had become the language of the empire that Alexander the Great had conquered. It was said to have been the work of about seventy Jewish scholars, hence LXX (Roman numeral for 70). It seems likely that it was only the first five books of the Bible (known as the Pentateuch) that these scholars translated, the other books of the Bible and the Apocrypha were added later.

Greek had become the common language of the people including the Jews who made up a considerable proportion of the population of Alexandria and so they took to this translation. Remember, Hebrew was written without the vowel points that were first introduced hundreds of years later to help folk pronounce the sacred text so for those who were unfamiliar with the sounds to be inserted between the consonants the Septuagint was a godsend – Greek does have vowels. The Septuagint was therefore translated from very old manuscripts by men who understood the nuances of both languages.

Its popularity remained among the Jews both at home and abroad until the early Christians disputed with them about certain passages such as – a virgin conceiving a child in the Greek but “young woman” in the Hebrew.

As the old song goes – it was good for Paul and Silas so it’s good enough for me. Throughout the New Testament the LXX is either quoted or paraphrased.

In the LXX, Exodus 3:14 it says – EGO EIMI hO OWN – that is how it sounds but was originally written in Greek capital letters (cursive / small letters were introduced centuries later)The translation being – I AM THE BEING and say that THE BEING has sent you. So His name from the Greek text is THE BEING or WHO IS as in Revelation Holy,Holy,Holy is the Lord God Almighty WHO IS, WHO WAS AND WHO IS TO COME.

It is therefore clear that whenever someone says EGO EIMI or I am, that they are not claiming to be God but just using an ordinary language construct.

John 8:58 is usually translated as, “Before Abraham was I AM” and the Jews wanted to stone him, but not for saying I AM, but for claiming to be older than Abraham.

Jesus said several things about himself just as you would be required to in an interview that start with I am as it is the first person singular of the present tense of the verb to be. So whenever Jesus says,” I am”, that is proof that he is God, according to some, but whenever anyone else says,” I am” that’s just normal speech.

When he spoke to the terrified disciples who saw him walking on the sea he called out to them EGO EIMI or It’s me. When the man born blind in John 9 was healed by Jesus the Pharisees were in an uproar. Some said it was him and others said it was someone like him but the man himself said EGO EIMI – it is me. He got thrown out of the synagogue for his cheek (although what he said was right) but not for claiming to be God. We all use I am; at an interview for a job they want to know all about you and so you have to tell them – I am this, that and the other but your “I AMs” are not claims to be God.

So for the early Christians who used the Septuagint, THE BEING or WHO IS represents God – his attributes, what he is and not a letterbox name but certainly not I AM.

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