Painting of Moses and the burning bush.
Painting by Gebhard Fugel, via Wikimedia Commons.

What’s in a Name?

God reveals the divine name to Moses, who never repeats it to the Israelites.

When God approaches Moses at the burning bush, Moses is initially reluctant to return to Egypt to free the Israelites. He asks God, “When I come to the Israelites and say, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘what is God’s name?’ — what shall I say?” God answers with the famously enigmatic name: “Ehyeh-Asher- Eyeh” — I am that I am.

Many interpretations have been offered concerning God’s name. What is not so often noticed is that, having asked for God’s name, Moses never repeats it to the Israelites. 

Why does Moses ask? He has been surrounded by inconstancy in his life: Born under the sign of death, he grew up in Pharaoh’s palace but had to flee. He has no true home. What Moses needs to know is that God will not abandon him. He is not asking for the sake of the Israelites as much as for his own sake. God reassures him: I am that I am. What I am today I will be tomorrow, and next year, into eternity.

Moses pleads for constancy. At the outset of his mission, God promises faithfulness to God’s singular servant.

Rabbi David Wolpe’s musings are shared in My Jewish Learning’s Shabbat newsletter, Recharge, a weekly collection of readings to refresh your soul. Sign up to receive the newsletter.

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