Mosaic in St. Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai. (Jim Forest/Flickr)

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.

Commentary on Parashat Shemot, Exodus 1:1 - 6:1

We begin reading now from the second book of the Torah, called “Exodus” in English. This is from the Greek translation of the Rabbinic name of the book, Sefer Yitziat Mitzraim (“the book of the going out from Egypt”). In Hebrew the book is called Shemot (“Names”), following the tradition of naming a book or portion after the first significant word. Therefore, this first portion of Shemot is also called Shemot.

Shemot begins directly where Bereshit (Genesis) left off: listing the “names” of the descendants of Jacob who came down to Egypt after Joseph. Seventy members of Jacob’s family went down to Egypt, but we are told they were very fertile and increased greatly in Egypt.

The action really begins when we are told that a new king comes to the throne in Egypt. Fearing that this growing band of Israelites might prove to be a threat, he enslaves and oppresses the people. When that did not succeed in curbing their growth, he issues orders to the midwives to kill at birth all newborn Israelite boys. But, fearing God more than Pharaoh, the two midwives refuse the order, setting the stage for the birth of Moses, the man who will become the great leader of Israel.

Moses is Born

Born to the tribe of Levi, the infant Moses survives his birth and is hidden for a few months after he is born. When she can no longer hide him, his mother leaves him in a basket floating on the Nile, under the watchful eye of his older sister Miriam. He is found by the daughter of Pharaoh, who adopts him and hires his mother as a wet nurse. Thus Moses emerges as a man living in two worlds: the world of the Israelite slaves in which he was born, and the world of Egyptian royalty, in which he was raised.

The text then jumps ahead. Now a man, seeing a taskmaster beating an Israelite slave, Moses kills the Egyptian and then must flee. He runs to Midian, where he is welcomed by a Midianite priest (Jethro) and is given the priest’s daughter Zipporah as a wife. She gives birth to a son.

While tending his new father-in-law’s flocks, Moses is called by God from the burning bush. God instructs Moses to return to Egypt to free the Israelites from slavery. Moses returns and is reunited with his brother Aaron. Together they go and pay their first visit to Pharaoh. But Pharaoh dismisses Moses and his God, and increases the workload of the slaves.

In Focus

Moses said to God, “When I come 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?’ what shall I say to them?” And God said to Moses, “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh (I will be what I will be).” (Exodus 3:13-14)


Moses, as can be expected, is overwhelmed by his theophany at the burning bush. Moses is not quite sure what is being asked of him, or who is asking.

The voice coming out of the bush identifies itself as “the God (Elohai) of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Like the English word “God,” the use of the Hebrew El or Elohim denotes the basic generic idea of “god.” God here is self-defined by the relationships with the patriarchs; “I am the same God who was worshipped by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” But a proper name is not given.

It is then explained that God has noted the plight of the Israelites in Egypt and that Moses is the one that God has chosen to go before Pharaoh to release the people from slavery. Moses then first demands to know why he has been chosen, and is assured that God will be with him.

Moses then asks again for the voice to identify itself, this time phrasing his inquiry as a request on behalf of the Israelites: “What shall I say to them?” Coming from the polytheistic environment of Egypt, Moses is not just satisfied knowing which god is speaking to him from the burning bush. He wants a proper name. This time God answers somewhat cryptically: Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh. This appellation, which is most often translated as “I am who I am,” is not explained. God then continues, “This shall be my name for ever.”


The name of God remains something of a mystery to us. Our tradition, beginning with the Torah, refers to God in so many different ways. Some of these designations may be proper names, some titles, others references to one of God’s many attributes or characteristics, and yet others simply terms that we humans use to try and describe the unknowable.

The true name of God is thought to possess awesome power, and has only been used sparingly and carefully. Hence this somewhat ambiguous exchange between God and Moses at the burning bush. Moses seems to understand the power of the name and its importance in convincing the Israelites themselves to follow. God does not seem to want to be nailed down to one fixed reference. God’s answer is a miracle in of itself, pushing the linguistic boundaries of the Biblical Hebrew language to allow for the greatest range of possible meanings.

Without going into a complete review of every way our tradition refers to God, we can begin by asking what motivated Moses to inquire of God’s name, and then, hopefully, we can better understand God’s answer. Did Moses not know?

Ramban (Nahmanides) points out that if the people of Israel knew God’s name, Moses most likely knew the name as well, his knowledge being equivalent to theirs, and therefore telling them God’s name would prove nothing. Likewise, if they did not know it, if Moses told them, it would not better convince them to believe him. So why bother asking?

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.

That is also why, in the Avot prayer at the beginning of the Amidah, we say, “…the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob…” Why not just say, “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”? It is the same God, after all. But God was known by each of the Patriarchs (and Matriarchs) in a unique and individual way. Each had a different experience of God, as did Moses, all those who left Egypt, and all those who followed (including us).

The text here really is brilliant. In choosing the future tense of “to be,” (which is also, by the way, the only truly gender neutral tense in the otherwise gender specific Hebrew language) the Torah allows the linguistic structure itself to transmit the message. While God is absolute, there are no divine absolutes; each of us, in our own time, will come to know God in our own way.

Dvar Aher

Moses came to Mount Horeb (or Sinai), where the Torah was ultimately to be given. God appeared to him in the form of fire, within a bush, but the bush was not consumed by the fire. Chizkuni (R. Chizkiya ben Manoach, mid 13th century commentator) and Rabbi Bechaye ask: Why did God appear through fire? Because when the Torah would be given it would be accompanied by flames.

Moses said, “I will go to see why that bush is not consumed.” God called to him, “Moses, Moses,” and he replied, “I am here.” God then told him, “Remove your shoes from your feet, for the earth upon which you are standing is holy.”

Why did he hear his name twice? Because the voice of heaven is very powerful, and sounds like two separate voices. Another reason is because the first time a man hears a heavenly voice he is overwhelmed and is rendered speechless, so he must be called a second time.

God told him, I am the God of your father (3:6). With this He informed him that his father was dead, because God does not couple the divine name with the name of a person still living. Why did God tell him that his father was dead? Because God knew that out of deference Moses would refuse to assume any authority as long as his father was alive. (From Tz’ena Ur’enah)

Provided by KOLEL–The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning, which is affiliated with Canada’s Reform movement.


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