Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”
14 God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ ”
15 God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord [YHWH the I AM], 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, the name by which I am to be remembered from generation to generation. (NIV84)
I find that this is one of the most interesting passages in the Bible. I love the Bible and it’s been a lifelong ambition of mine to know just what the Bible really says. I have endeavored never to go beyond what is written (1 Corinthians 4:6), I have never cared overmuch what other Bible readers think, and I don’t care what anyone’s doctrine is. I want to know what the Bible says, I want to know the truth, that is, exactly what God has revealed to us through the Bible. I want more than anything to hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” God is my focus, and I want him more than the acceptance of my peers.
To see and understand what is going on in the above passage, we have to put ourselves into Moses’ shoes, as it were. Moses knew God as The God of his fathers. At the point in time that this story occurs I don’t know how much Moses really knew about God. I can’t imagine that he knew God very well, because at the time there really weren’t any holy Scriptures for him to read. Above, God had just told Moses that he was his chosen instrument for freeing the enslaved Israelites, and Moses didn’t see himself in that role. Later, Moses shows himself to be a big player in the biblical story, and so it is easy to miss that he was actually a shy and humble man. The Bible tells us was actually the most humble of any man alive (Numbers 12:3). He didn’t see himself as a man that could stand up to Pharaoh. He wanted God to pick someone else. He was a prince of Egypt, but viewed that as more of an accident than anything else. He knew himself to be really the son of slaves. I myself am a very shy person and I can understand Moses’ feeling in this. Who wants to be a public speaker? Who wants to stand front and center before the most powerful ruler in the world and dictate to him what he must do? Moses didn’t, and I can understand that.
Egypt had many gods and each god had a name. I am sure that Moses wanted to know what God’s name was. He, being shy like he was, didn’t want to ask this of God directly, so he asked in this roundabout way.
There is something about names that you should consider in this context. Names have a powerful psychological effect on humans. There is nothing more frightening than to be at the mercy of some powerful unknown adversary. People want to know what they are up against. The first step to that end is to have a name for what we are dealing with. Imagine going to the doctor with some serious symptoms, and the doctor tells you that medical science has no idea what your disease is. Yikes! The unknown is horrible. How much worse might it get? Am I going to die? How long do I have to live? It’s better to know, and the first step of knowing is to have a name for what you are dealing with.
Like it or not, each of us is at the mercy of the Creator. He created the world and everything in it, and he controls the game each of us must play, and the rules by which we play it. Moses knew that much, and maybe a bit more, but not a whole lot more. God had just told Moses that he was his chosen instrument to rescue the Israelites, and that news was along the lines of a shy man’s personal nightmare. Imagine if you saw a burning bush that was not being consumed and a voice came out of it and told you to take a thin stick and enter the tigers’ habitat at the zoo, and bonk each tiger on the head. “Yep, that’s just what I want to do! Right! Okay then. Who did you say you were again?”
Moses was afraid of going to Pharaoh, and before he did anything, wanted to know who God was. It seems to me that asking God his name was pretty brave of Moses. Given the circumstances, I don’t know what I would have done. I guess that I would at least like to know who was sending me off to die. Every god that Moses had ever heard of had a name, and so I can understand his wanting to know what The God of his fathers name was. Like I said before having a name is psychologically important to people. It gives us a sense of control. When we have a name for something or someone it feels like we understand it, at least a bit.
In the above passage we see a frightened Moses trying to get a handle on God, so he meekly asks God what his name is. Remember, Moses is a humble and shy man and isn’t going to ask God directly for his name, but he nonetheless wants to know.
Anyway, Moses asked and God replied by saying what he said above. Basically God told Moses that it is not possible to put a name on him. God is not some god that can be controlled and manipulated. God told Moses that he was who he was, and that he, Moses, would have to accept, unconditionally, God’s ultimate right to be God.
“I AM WHO I AM,” says God. Then he answers Moses question telling him to tell the Israelites that God is the, I AM god. It isn’t really a name at all, is it? In fact, this I AM name doesn’t even really say I am. It’s more subtle than that. This name is made up from four Hebrew characters, that is to say, letters, that when the sounds are rendered with Latin letters are YHWH. I, am not at all a Hebrew scholar, so I can’t really say for sure, but I have read that the four letters are not really a word. There are no vowels among the letters, and also the four letters are almost an acronym, that is, are some kind of word puzzle.
The four letters mean I AM, with a touch of I WAS, and a dash of I WILL BE. There is an eternal timelessness to the meaning, I AM. It is a statement of God’s omniscient nature and of his eternal omnipresent nature. The name YHWH, as it appears in the Bible, is huge with meaning and possibilities.
Another very significant aspect to this name is that it is completely unpronounceable. Without vowels it is impossible to say a word. Vowels are the letters in a word that give the word sound. Vowels produce sound from our vocal cords. Consonants (like the Y H W H) are modifiers that change the sound with the use of other parts of our mouths and throats. Take for example my name, Mark. The M doesn’t make a noise, it changes the sound with the lips and nose. The A is the vowel, and when I make the A sound, and modify it with the M, then that with the R and K, we get the sound Mark. God’s name doesn’t have any sound. It’s unpronounceable. Try saying MRK without making a sound in your vocal cords. It’s just like that.
Another very interesting thing about this name is that it is used so many times in the Scriptures. I understand that it is used in the Old Testament 6828 times. That’s a lot of times. That name is by far the most used name in the Bible. How strange that God’s most significant name, is used 6828 times, and is unpronounceable. That’s pretty interesting. By the way, being unpronounceable means that it isn’t really a word. Words are sounds rendered into letters. Like I said, it’s more of an acronym than anything else, but it’s not even that. This name of God’s is a mystery that cannot be fully understood by us. Which, in my opinion, is God’s point in choosing it.
People have added to the Bible, vowels, to make these four letters pronounceable. They have added the A sound, and the E sound, making the four letters into six. The result is the now a pronounceable YaHWeH, that is, Yahweh, and so have rendered the unpronounceable pronounceable. I haven’t any idea how YHWH was rendered pronounceable into Jehovah, but those four unpronounceable letters were rendered pronounceable into Jehovah by someone and that tradition endures.
It seems to me that people have added those vowels to make God more equal to us. If we can name it then we can eventually control it, or at least understand it, people psychologically think. The unknowable God suddenly becomes more knowable. It might be argued that God wants us to know him, and so it’s okay to make this modification, but I think that God wants us to know him in our hearts, rather than in our brains. My heart is perfect fine with the unpronounceable name, but my brain balks. My heart understands the I AM, I WAS, I FOREVER SHALL BE.
In my opinion, it is going beyond what is written, to render God’s name pronounceable. He said, My name is YHWH and that is that.
However, that being said, I sympathize with translators. What to do about the four letters? Some translations have gone with Yahweh, and others with Jehovah, but most English translations have gone with Lord. Take a look at what the preface to the NIV84 Bible says:
In regard to the divine name YHWH, commonly referred to as the Tetragrammaton, the translators adopted the device used in most English versions of rendering that name as “Lord” in capital letters to distinguish it from Adonai, another Hebrew word rendering “Lord,” for which small letters are used. Wherever the two names stand together in the Old Testament as a compound name of God, they are rendered “Sovereign Lord.”
Okay, do you see what I mean? They “adopted the device” because they didn’t know what else to do. I think their confusion came from the notion that God’s name needed to be pronounceable.
Names are very important to people. Everyone has a name and everything has a name. We name our pets and any and everything else. People want a translatable name for God. It seems to me that the I AM, I WAS, I FOREVER SHALL BE name, is probably the best, but that name doesn’t flow very well with the Scriptures in the Bible. For example: The name The Lord My Shepherd written sometimes as Jehovah-Raah doesn’t work well with I AM My Shepherd. Do you see what I mean? It doesn’t flow. When we think of God being our shepherd, in a name format, we could use YHWH My Shepherd but then we lose the meaning of the letters. The same is true with Yahweh My Shepherd. The name Yahweh becomes only a sound. The translators wanted to give meaning to the four letters and make them pronounceable, so most went with Lord. I think that the problem was in the fact that we have no word that is adequate. We have no name/word that means The All Powerful Eternal Ever Present God. Some might argue that Yahweh or Jehovah is such a word, and I can understand their argument, however, I think the problem is that both those sound/names aren’t understood for what they mean. I think the thing that bothers me most, is that the name is supposed to be unpronounceable and it has been changed into a pronounceable name. I think that the best name is YHWH the I AM. YHWH the I AM is my Shepherd. It works for me. It makes me stumble a bit and think of the real meaning of the name.
I think that when reading any translation of the Bible you should substitute the above name for God wherever it appears. When you see Lord then think YHWH the I AM and if reading a different translation and you see Yahweh or Jehovah you should do the same. With respect to God it is more important to be cognizant of the meaning, over and above the sound.
I find it very strange that many people feel themselves superior to others because they KNOW the true name of God. That, to me, is like feeling superior because, you know some famous person. I’m tickled pink that I know God and he knows me, but not because I know anything. As Paul says, what do we have that was not given to us? Only God is superior.
“I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” (NIV84)
Knowing what we now know concerning the true name of God gives us new insight into the meaning of the above statement by Jesus. Jesus could have made the point of his preexistence in any manner of ways, but he chose to use the name, I AM. He used the name that most accurately describes God.