I Am Who I Am
It was a big deal when God revealed his name to Moses at the burning bush (Ex. 3:14-15). Names were viewed as associated with one’s character in the ancient world. They weren’t just connected with your identity for communication purposes—rather they were seen to communicate something essential about you. In the well-known Babylonian Epic entitled Enuma Elish, the piece ends with the gods of Babylon declaring the 50 names of the chief god Marduk. These names articulated his powers, attributes, jurisdiction, nature and destiny. The name was believed to carry power over the person.
Bruce Wells explores these issues in the following entry from ZIBBCOT:
When Moses asks, "What is your name?" God’s initial answer seems evasive: I am who I am." He is hinting at the real answer, though, since the Hebrew words for "I am" sound a bit like "Yahweh," the name finally revealed in Exodus 3:15. Two aspects of how divine names were utilized in ancient Egypt may relate to this revelation of God’s name.
First, ancient Egyptians believed in a close relationship between the name of a deity and the deity itself. That is, the name of a god could reveal part of the essential nature of that god. In Egyptian texts that refer to different but important names for the same deity, the names are often associated with particular actions or characteristics, and the words used tend to sound similar to the names with which they are associated. One can say there is wordplay between the action or characteristic and the name.1
For example, one text says, "You are complete [km] and great [wr] in your name of Bitter Lake [Km wr]. … See you are great and round [šn] in (your name of) Ocean [Šn wr]."2 One can discern a similar wordplay at work in 3:14. The action God refers to is that of being or existing. The wordplay consists in that the statement "I AM" comes from the Hebrew consonants ‘-h-y-h, while the name in 3:15 contains the consonants y-h-w-h. Both words come from the same verbal root, and the linguistic connection would be immediately clear to an ancient listener or reader. It is not that God’s name is actually "I am" but that "Yahweh" reveals something about the essence of who God is—an essence that relates to the concept of being and to the idea of one who bring others into being. Thus, on the one hand, there really is little more to the statement "I AM WHO I AM" than wordplay. On the other hand, note that in the ancient world "wordplay was regarded as a highly serious and controlled use of language, for language was understood to be a dimension of divine presence."3
A second aspect of divine names in Egypt may be relevant. Deities sometimes had secret names, and special power was granted to those who knew them.4 Certain Egyptian magical texts (e.g., the Harris Magical Papyrus) give instructions on how to use the words of a god and thereby wield a degree of that god’s power. "It was of course especially effective if instead of using the usual name of the god, the magician could name his real name, that special name possessed by each god. … He who knew this name, possessed the power of him who bore it."5
In The Legend of Isis and the Name of Re (from the 1200s B.C.), the goddess Isis devises a trick to learn the secret name of the god Re. She fashions a serpent that bites Re. Then she comes to him as he is writhing in agony and says, "Tell me thy name, my divine father, for a person lives with whose name one recites (magic)."6 Re responds: "I am he who made heaven and earth, who knotted together the mountains, and created what is thereon."7 Re lists a long series of accomplishments, but, like Yahweh in Exodus, Re is evading the point. Isis answers him: "Thy name is not really among these which thou hast told me."8 She finally convinces Re to tell her, and he does (though the text does not reveal it). Isis, now that she knows Re’s secret name, commands the poison to leave Re and heals him.
It would have been unusual in the ancient Near East for a deity quickly and easily to reveal his name (see, e.g., Gen. 32:29); this may be part of the reason for the delayed answer here in Exodus. Nevertheless, Yahweh’s name is not meant to be kept secret, and it is vitally important for Moses to have this knowledge. He is to speak Yahweh’s words (6:29), wield his power (7:17), and function like Yahweh to both his brother Aaron (4:16) and to Pharaoh (7:1). (Excerpt from Bruce Wells, Exodus in the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, forthcoming)
While we may not think about names in the same way today, even the words of Jesus assume the sort of significance conveyed in these ancient texts. In the Lord’s Prayer, hallowing the name of God leads off the list. We are further told that there is power in the name of Jesus and that his name should be used with the greatest of care. The authority vested in a name is not unlike the authority that is invested in the series of numbers on your credit card. That number gives authority to the person using it and consequently that number is treated confidentially. It would be a great act of trust to give someone access to your credit card number. Consequently we can understand what a great act of grace and trust it was for God to give his name to his people.
1 J. Assmann, The Search for God in Ancient Egypt, trans. D. Lorton (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 2001), 83–87.
2 Ibid., 85 (citing the Pyramid Texts, spell 366, §§628–29).
3 Ibid., 87.
4 For what is still one of the more detailed discussions of this point, see E. A. W. Budge, Egyptian Magic (New York: Univ. Books, 1899), 157–81; see also E. Hornung, Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many, trans. J. Baines (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 1982), 86–91.
5 A. Erman, Life in Ancient Egypt, trans. H. M. Tirard (London: MacMillan, 1894), 354.
6 ANET3 13; see COS, 1.22:34.
Bible Backgrounds is a series of weekly blog posts leading up to the fall 2009 release of the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Old Testament. Each post is written by John H. Walton, the general editor for the five volumes. ZIBBCOT is the product of thirty international specialists; their work and expertise will also be represented throughout this series.
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