The meaning of “I AM”

And God said unto Moses, “I AM THAT I AM”: and he said, “Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, ‘I AM hath sent me unto you.'”

— Exodus 3:14 (quotation marks added)

This verse has of course been endlessly interpreted and analyzed and commented on — or at least the first half of it has — but people always seem to overlook the implications of God’s second statement.

In his first statement, God is speaking about himself, so naturally he uses the first-person pronoun “I.” But in his second statement, he is telling Moses what to say, and the pronouns used (“me” for Moses, “you” for the Israelites) make it clear that what follows is what we English teachers call direct speech. (Indirect speech would be something like “Thou shalt say that I AM hath sent thee unto them.”) That’s why I’ve added quotation marks. God is giving Moses the very words that he, Moses, is to speak — and it turns out that Moses is also supposed to speak of God in the first person — not as “HE IS,” but as “I AM.”

This means that no third-person paraphrase of “I AM” is acceptable. God is not revealing himself as “He Who Is” or “the Existing One” or “Being Itself” or anything like that. He is not equating his essence with his existence. The key point is not the verb (which is at any rate so vague in Hebrew that we can’t even be sure whether to translate it as “be” or “become”) but the fact that it is in the first person — and that, just as the speed of light remains constant no matter what velocity serves as our point of reference, “I AM” remains in the first person no matter who is speaking.

God is I. Not “I am God” — which would mean “Moses is God,” “William is God,” etc., depending on who is speaking — but “I is God.” I-ness, that which makes every person an “I,” and not a mere “he” or “she” — that is God, or at least an important aspect of God.

Perhaps we can even use the more theologically standard formulation that God is Being — but being in the sense of first-person-ness, not of impersonal “existence.” Be in the sense of “What is it like to be a bat?”

Can this conception of God be rescued from abstraction? Can it be reconciled with the fact that God is also a particular person? I’m not sure yet, but I do think it is what Exodus is saying, so I intend to give it some thought.

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