The Evolving Name Of God

The divine name that God tells Moses at the burning bush expresses the different and evolving relationship that God has with every individual.

Print this page Print this page

Ibn Ezra (12th century Spanish commentator) suggests that Moses well knew the many different names of God, and what each name represents. Therefore, he was simply asking which name to use, that is, which name will best convince the people that God will save them with great miracles and wonders.

But Ramban disagrees. He feels that if this was the case, Moses should have known that the name 'El Shaddai ("God Almighty") would suffice. Instead, Ramban feels that Moses's question indicates that he was already an advanced prophet.

Moses perceived that the people would want to know which attribute of God they can expect to encounter; that is, what their experience of God will be, and what is going to happen to them. God's answer, then, leaves things open-ended. Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh is based on the future tense conjugation of the Hebrew verb meaning "to be." Often translated as "I Am Who I Am," the phrase is more accurately translated as "I Will Be That Which I Will Be." The people will come to know God through their unfolding experiences together.

Ramban uses a Midrash to explain that this name is, in of itself, a model of the covenantal relationship between God and the people. The name Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh teaches us that God will be with the people of Israel in the same way as the people will be with God. If the people are giving, God will be giving. If the people are not giving, then God will not be giving to the people.

Elsewhere the Midrash (Sh'mot Rabbah 3:6) provides another explanation. Noting that the word Ehyeh appears three times in verse 3:14, the Midrash teaches that God answers Moses's question by saying, "I am the One who has been, Who is now, and Who will be in the future."

The Rabbis explain that, for God the Creator, past and future are all conceived of in terms of the present. God does not live in time as we humans do. God simply "is." As Maimonides expressed it, "God is the true Being" and Moses, "grasped the truth of God's being." Moses, who saw God "face to face," in his advanced wisdom was able to recognize God as is, without any connection to the actions or functions which are attributed to God.

But the Israelites, like us, were not this advanced. They needed to know what to expect of God in much more concrete terms. Hence the plethora of names of God that have developed. These are not all actually God's names, but simply ways that we can relate to God in human terms.

The only thing that is clear about God's name as presented in our parashah this week is that it is unclear. It seems to tease us, saying, "You want to know my name, just wait and see!"

But God, in relation to the people of Israel, is inextricably linked to Revelation, and Revelation, like this name, is progressive. We come to know more and more about it as time goes on, slowly, slowly, unraveling each mystery one by one, coming to increasingly higher levels of understanding as our experiences demand. God may simply "be," but God is conceived of by each generation in a different way, and in a different way by each person in that generation.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Jordan D. Cohen

Jordan D. Cohen is the rabbi of Temple Anshe Sholom in Hamilton, Ontario. Previously, he worked as Associate Director of KOLEL - The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning in Toronto, Canada. Prior to his return to Canada, Rabbi Cohen served as Rabbi of the United Jewish Congregation of Hong Kong, and Associate Rabbi of the North Shore Temple Emanuel in Sydney, Australia.