What do you mean God speaks?

S4E3: What does the name "YHWH" mean, and why it matters

February 23, 2024 Paul Seungoh Chung Season 4 Episode 3
What do you mean God speaks?
S4E3: What does the name "YHWH" mean, and why it matters
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Consider what it means for things to have names. Names point to things, and at least to some extent, tells us what they are. But, what could possibly be the name of God? After all, it would need to "point to" all of reality as a whole.

According to the Bible, the name of God spoken to Moses is "I am that I am," which in turn is presented as the meaning of the Hebrew name of God, "Yahweh." This passage has fascinated theologians and philosophers, because of the concept of "Being" and "existence" that it presents. However, this meaning presents something more immediate to our lives; it points to our experience of reality that unfolds around us, and invites us to a journey to find out what will unfold in our lives.
 3:59     What it means for God to speak from the burning bush             
 9:47     How Moses can know whether God really spoke to him             
 16:51     Why "miracles" God shows Moses is only the first step             
 23:07     What does it even mean to name God?             
 32:16     It / He Just IS, and what that means             
 37:30     Name of God calls us to see what reality unfolds       

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Tetragrammaton, this mysterious and mystical-sounding term has an unexpectedly plain meaning—at least, if you know its Greek etymology; it means: “four letters.” But, the “four letters” here refer to four Hebrew letters that comprise the name of God in the Bible: “Y-H-W-H,” which was most likely pronounced “Yahweh,” according to biblical scholars. In the English translation of the Bible, this four-letter name is transcribed as “LORD,” all-capitalized, or in rare cases, “GOD,” again with all the letters capitalized. Some of you also may have encountered this name in English as “Jehovah.” 

So, why all these substitutes in English? Well, firstly, it is tradition in Judaism, when you read the Bible aloud, not to speak the name of God, as a sign of reverence and respect. So, instead of saying the name, “Yahweh,” the readers would say, “Lord.” But, there’s also a Hebrew word that actually means, “Lord,” so the translators capitalized all the letters to indicate that the word here does not mean “Lord,” but is referring to the name of God. But, sometimes, the original Hebrew text in the Bible would say something like “Our Lord, Yahweh,” which would then be translated as “Our Lord, LORD,” and that’d sound awkward. So in this case, they use the word, “GOD,” and capitalize all the letters, so it’d go, “our Lord GOD.” Follow me so far? 

Ok, but, what about the name, “Jehovah?” Well, Biblical Hebrew writing has no vowels, only consonants; you’re supposed to figure out what the word is and supply the vowels yourself when you’re reading it. But, this can be rather difficult, so later Jewish scribes marked the vowels with little dots and lines underneath the letters. But, when it came to the Tetragrammaton—the name of God—the vowels they inscribed under its four letters were the vowels for the word, “Adonai,” which is the Hebrew word for “Lords,” to remind the reader that you’re supposed to substitute the name with this word. But, when non- Jewish readers translated the Bible, they used these vowels with the Tetragrammaton letters. So, the vowels of “adonai”—“ah, o, ae”—were added to “Y-H-W-H,” so that it became “Yahowah.” Still with me? Now, over time, English changed its pronunciation of the letters “Y,” or “I,” in the Bible with “J”—for example, “John,” was originally “Yohan”— and also “W’ with “V.” Don’t ask me why it did that; English can be really weird. So, the name, “Yahowah,” which was already a mispronunciation, became “Jehovah.” 

Hey, but, it’s not like it’s the first time we English-speakers mispronounced names; even “Jesus” is a mispronunciation, as it should be “Ye’su,” or “Yeshua.” 

But, enough with the pronunciations. What is of far greater importance and interest to us is: what does the name of God, the Tetragrammaton, mean? Because the meaning of this name sums up our experience of all of reality, and how God speaks to us. 

So, we’ll explore the conversation between God and Moses where, among other crucial things, the meaning of this name was revealed, in this episode of… 

[ music / ]

"What do you mean, God speaks?" where we explore important ideas, insights, and stories in Christianity, for the skeptics who want to understand religion, to the Christians who have questions about their own beliefs. And everyone in between. 

I am Paul Seungoh Chung, and this is our third episode of the fourth season, “What does the name of God, ‘Yhwh,’ mean, and why it matters.” 

[ / music ]

Exodus reports that God spoke to Moses from the burning bush. Specifically, the angel of “Yahweh”—the special entity that speaks what God is speaking, but in particular time and space, to particular individuals—appeared in its flames. This flame, which Moses first saw from a distance, would have posed an inexpressible yet compelling meaning for him. The bush was on fire, but it was not burning up, which would’ve reminded him of his own people in Egypt, oppressed and suffering, yet somehow not destroyed. And because the bush was not consumed, this small fire in the distance continued to burn, quiet, yet constant, without being extinguished. The small flame that did not die would have also been for Moses, a glimmering image of his own love for his people, and his hope for their deliverance, which continued to somehow burn deep inside his heart, even though his hands were no longer capable of helping them. 

Such a flame, an undying fire alighting a bush that will not burn away, calls to people; this flame is whatever it is that lights your way in life—whether it’s a dream, a conviction, a love, or something—even when everything seems go against it. We often can’t even articulate what this exactly is—because we often do not know what is in our hearts that continues to move us, but it is like this flame, however small, that will not die. And when we do notice this fire, it catches our attention and holds it fast, stopping us in our tracks and pulling us in. It is profoundly personal, and in that sense, it calls to us by our names. I think that was the purpose of the flame—why the angel of “Yahweh” appeared to him in the flame of the burning bush. So, when Moses caught sight of it, he turned aside from his tracks, to go and see it, and Exodus reports that it was when he did so, God called to him by name, saying: “Moses, Moses.” 

So, Moses answers, and God speaks to him, “Do not come any closer, and take off your sandals for you are standing on holy ground.” The burning bush marks a holy place, because wherever we find an inextinguishable flame of our heart, that tends to be the personal contact point between each of us and all of reality—because here’s where you find the deepest, unchanging love or truth in your heart; it sums up how you live—how you engage reality. So, this place, or this occasion, is different than anything else you’ll experience, the most significant part of your life. That’s what it means for something to be holy—or rather, this is where it starts. And Moses was on that holy ground, something he cannot simply tread upon like other things in his life—with his shoes on, so to speak—nor approach carelessly.

However, all of this is still just a start, an occasion in which God may speak to us. We know this: just because some dream or hope is deeply meaningful or important to us, does not mean it will therefore come true; likewise, just because some love or passion we’ve held on to is incomparably precious to us, does not mean that it will never lead us astray or become toxic. Like the flame, it simply calls to us. But, because it calls to us, it is something from which God tends to speak to us, and speak in a way that transforms us. The catch is: it still needs to be God that speaks from that flame. To put it differently, what burns in our hearts, however bright, is still judged by reality; what we hope for and aim for, must in turn be something that reality unfolds. And God is Reality.

But, how do we know that it is God speaking from the flame? Well, the first part of that answer is something we explored in our third season. God has spoken to people in the past; the Bible narrates an inter-generational journey in which what God spoke to the previous generation is then continued in the next. So, Abraham heard a voice, which spoke to him a promise; then, reality unfolded what the voice spoke—even seemingly impossible things—so that he learned that this voice is God that speaks forth all things. The same voice spoke to his son, Isaac, and his son, Jacob, and again, reality unfolded what was spoken to them. And each time, God that spoke to them spoke a promise that was passed down to the next generation: their descendants will become a numerous people, and they will inherit a land of their own. 

So, the first words that God speaks to Moses after calling him were: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.” What calls to Moses from the flame is the voice that has spoken to his previous generations, and unfolded everything that happened in their lives. But, how can Moses know this? How can he know he really is speaking with God that spoke to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? It would turn out that the answer to that question is rather distressing for Moses. 

[ Short Pendulum ]

After declaring that He is the voice that spoke to his ancestors, God speaking from the flame addresses the very question that seemed to have burned like fire in Moses’s own heart—the question regarding his people and their suffering. God says: “I have indeed seen the misery of my people, and I have heard them cry out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned for their suffering.” 

This meant that the flame that burned, quietly and constantly for Moses all these years was indeed something that God set alight, and was speaking to him. Moses mourned over the misery of his people, and was concerned for their suffering. And God too, even more so, knew the misery of his people and was concerned for their suffering. But, what then? Moses’s own efforts for his people as a prince of Egypt had been in vain; he was rejected by his own people, unmasked by Egyptian authorities, forced to flee and live in exile in this desert until he was no longer the same person. 

Yet God continues speaking. “So, I have come to deliver them from the Egyptians and bring them out of their land to a new land, to a good and spacious, and prosperous land, to the country of the Canaanites…”—then, the proverbial hammer drops. “So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” 

Moses does not like the last part, and immediately objects: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelite out of Egypt?” And God responds: “I will be with you.”

The Exodus account presents an interesting idea in this exchange: God declares that He will deliver the Israelites from their oppression in Egypt, but that also means Moses is to go and do just that; one means the other. Except Moses already tried to save the Israelites and failed—and he was a prince of Egypt back then. Now, he’s nobody; what can he possibly do? And the answer is, God will be with him; that is, this time, what Moses will do, God will do; reality will unfold what Moses will try to bring about—that is, if he follows what this voice speaks. Yet, here we may ask, why bring Moses into this at all? Why doesn’t God—you know—do it Himself? 

And here is where I find that most people don’t quite catch the full significance of the idea. One answer I’ve heard is that God wants to work with human beings, to involve them in His work, like a father taking his child along, and that is indeed part of it. But, there is an even more fundamental reason, which underlies that answer. And it has to with the point that is repeated ad nauseam in this series: all of reality is God speaking. But, this also means: anything that God speaks and does around us is some thing or other in our reality—whether it’s something in Nature, or something that’s beyond our knowledge, or something we humans do. See, we have this tendency nowadays to imagine God doing anything as invariably some “Superman-like” entity sweeping into the scene; but, a proper understanding of God for this is again the analogy of the author, speaking forth a story. [1] So, everything in a story is the author speaking, but that also means, anything the author “does” in a story are things that happen in the story, done by things in that story—whether it’s forces, or circumstances, or characters; yet, all of that is still the author. So, then the question is: in a story about us human beings—in this case, the deliverance of Israelites from their slavery—what things would God be speaking forth in that story? Which things, or characters, would need to be part of it?

If it’s not Moses, it’d still be something or someone in our reality, because that’s what it means for God to speak and act. Now, other things can presumably bring about the deliverance of Israelites from their slavery—whether it’s some natural catastrophe, or some incomprehensible phenomenon. And I suppose things like, say, hailstorms or swarms of flies, aren’t going to talk back to God like Moses did, going, “Do we have to? Can’t it be something else?” The behavior of these things, after all, would more strictly follow something like the laws of nature, the “Logos”; and the Logos is God speaking. [2] So then, why is God speaking to Moses, who’s unwilling and makes objections, to send him to speak with Pharaoh, who will refuse to listen, and then lead the Israelites, who will disbelieve? Because it’s their story; or, to put it more bluntly, it’s their life

Now, the Jews and the Christians have experienced that God that speaks with them is like a loving father, so that God often “involves” us in what He does, but this isn’t God taking us along for a tour of his workplace; this is God speaking to us, saying: “This is your life I am speaking forth, so pay attention and listen, to live in a way that you won’t regret!” See, there are things in this world we have to take part—whether we want to or not. Reality does not “push us,” so to speak, to take part in, say, the ignition of stars; I mean, maybe we will in some far distant future, but it’s not like it’s mandatory. But, it is mandatory for things that ignite within us and God speaks to us regarding those. So it is for those things that God speaks to Moses, and to us, saying: “Go, I am sending you.”

But still, how do we know that this voice that is sending us is God speaking? I mean, what if we’ve just become delusional—that can happen, after all, when we become so obsessed over something that it burns like an undying fire in our hearts! What if we do go and reality does not unfold what the voice spoke? And the Exodus account presents a rather unsettling answer, as God then speaks to Moses: “This is how you will know that it is I who sent you. When you bring the people out of Egypt, and return here to this mountain to worship God.”[3] That is: Moses won’t know until reality unfolds what was spoken to him. We don’t know; but, we won’t ever know until we go where we are sent. 

[ Short pendulum ]

God is sending Moses to bring about something he deeply hopes will happen, but is terrified to do it himself. And what is worse is that Moses won’t truly know that it is God that is sending him, until everything is finished. Well, it turns out that what he thinks is the finish line is nowhere near that, but he wouldn’t realize that for some time yet—which if anything, makes it even worse. Moses is understandably afraid, and makes many objections. Why would Pharaoh, the ruler of all of Egypt, the most powerful empire of his time, listen to nobody like him? Forget the Pharaoh, why would even his own people listen to him?

In response, God speaks to Moses and shows him miraculous signs. His staff becomes a snake when thrown on the ground, then back into a staff when he picks it up; his hand becomes leprously white when he puts it into his cloak, then restored when he does so again. Moses is to go to Egypt and show the first sign to the Israelites—to their elders, their community leaders—and if they don’t listen to him, he is to show the second sign. If they don’t listen to him even then, Moses is to pour some water from the Nile River to the ground, which will turn into blood. But, wait: what does God mean, “if”?   

There is uncertainty in what God speaks to Moses. If they do not listen, Moses will have to show these signs. When everyone is freed from their slavery and return here, Moses will know that God spoke to him. Yet, God clearly says He will be with Moses, and that God will deliver the Israelites out of Egypt. The ambiguity we are confronted with when we follow God, which we explored in Season Three with the life-story of Abraham, now confronts Moses. Is it really God that is speaking with him? Will reality unfold what was spoken to him? On the one hand, the flame of the burning bush continues to blaze, and there are these miraculous signs; but on the other hand, neither guarantees that he will succeed in freeing his people, or that they will even give him a hearing.

But, there is something else here that those of us living in our modern era miss. For the ancients, those living in the time of the Exodus account, the miraculous powers, which God enabled Moses to do, were rare, but not unheard of. That is, there were others who could do it too—the select few who were trained in esoteric knowledge, such as the magicians and priests of the Egyptian royal court. This is entertainingly shown in a 1998 animated film about Moses, The Prince of Egypt. When Moses throws the staff on the floor before the Pharaoh, and it becomes a snake, the Pharaoh becomes amused and calls in his two priests. Then, with much greater theatrics and showmanship, they do the same thing, turning their staff into serpents, while singing to Moses, “You are playing with the ‘Big Boys’ now!” Now, the snake of Moses then proceeds to devour their serpents, but it does not dissuade the Egyptian court.

These powers and wonders, like turning staff into snakes, or water into blood, would have been for the ancients, how most of us today tend to imagine, say, what top-tier cyber hackers can do with computers and security systems—at least, how they are portrayed in our movies and such. That is, if we were to encounter a character with such skills, they will seem like magic to us, but we’d also know there are others like them. In that sense, these miraculous signs do not make Moses unique—not yet. 

What it does is to push Moses into taking the next step in his journey, by convincing him that God really seems to be speaking with him. After all, while turning the staff into snake is something others can also do, it’s not something he could do before. A large number of miracles of God in the Bible are like that; again, remember what we explored in the eighth episode of the third season: miracles are essentially about communication. They are first and foremost about confirming that God is speaking with us—that what we hear is truth, and not some delusion or wishful thinking. Here’s a personal example: publishing a book in a prestigious university press is a difficult achievement, yes, but nothing that’s especially out of this world; thousands of such books are published each year. Yet, my book being published by University of Notre Dame was a miracle for me­, because publishing my book in that specific press was something God “spoke” to me do, and because during high school, I was someone who scored at rock-bottom of my class in writing assignments. 

This again brings us back to the answer that the Exodus account presents regarding how we are to know whether it is God that is speaking to us: we won’t know until we take the journey. And there are terrifying uncertainties to this journey. It may turn out that God was not speaking to us; reality may not unfold what was spoken, and we will discover that we were mistaken or deluded about everything. But, it may turn out that God is speaking to us. Even then, we don’t know what the journey holds, what reality will unfold, and how it will bring about what was spoken to us. However, there will be enough reason for taking the next step. You will have to hope that once you do take that step, reality will unfold for you something that leads to yet another step.

And it is not an accident that it is during this exchange—specifically, before God shows Moses the miraculous signs—that God reveals to Moses the name of God.

[Pendulum ] 

Consider what it means for things to have names. Firstly, there is a relational aspect of calling things by name. After all, we don’t have names for things we never relate to in any way; for example, things we’re not even aware of, have no names—not for us. Also, names are words that point to things, even if some of those may be purely conceptual. And because they point to things, names distinguish one thing from another; so it points to “Paul,” and not “Peter,” “Thor” and not “Loki,” and in doing so, they inform us to some extent about what they are.  

But then, what does it mean to name God? Because in case you didn’t know, “God” is not a name; it is a general word for an entire class of entities—namely, gods like “Thor” or “Loki”—except even that’s problematic since “God,” with a capital-G, is not a “god.” Again, for monotheistic religions like Christianity, God is not some entity in our reality, no matter how powerful it is; God is reality. So, to name “God” is to name all of reality as a whole. But, what does it even mean to do something like that? What could that name possibly point to, let alone describe for us?

Here’s one way to think about this. The words that refer to God in the Bible describe or point to how we experience reality as a whole—how we experience God speaking. It is these experiences that are being put into words. So, when God speaks to Moses from the burning bush, God is first called the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”—pointing to their experience of how reality unfolded in their lives, how a voice spoke to them and whatever was spoken—however impossible it seemed—came true. Exodus reports in a later chapter though that God appeared to them back then as “El-Shaddai.” Now, “El” is the generic word for god or deity in Hebrew, and so, “El-Shaddai” may simply mean that what Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob experienced was a god that is almighty, able to bring forth whatever that was spoken. But, “El” was also the name of the supreme god of the people living in that region, the Canaanites—the god that created the cosmos, and was the father to the other gods—which is why the generic word for god was “El”. This deity was also called, “El-Elyon,” “the most-high-god,” who rules atop the mountain at the center of the cosmos, and “El-Shaddai,” may be a title that refers to this mountain. And if this is true, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, may have concluded that the one speaking to them greatly resembles this supreme, creator deity, worshipped by the people living around them. Christian missionaries have often done something like this throughout history— they identified God in their Bible with a god of the peoples they evangelized, if this god is believed to have created the world and rules over all things. Some examples of this are “Shang-Di” for the Chinese, and “Haneunim” for the Koreans. 

But, the Bible goes further by making the following point clear: “God” is not a god—not a god among other gods, not even the most powerful god that created the world and rules over it. God of the Bible resembles the god, “El,” in the Canaanite pantheon, but they are not the same. Hence, in the Bible, the Hebrew word for “God,” with a capital-G, is “Elohim,” which means “gods,” plural, as in all the gods—except this word is used as a singular. That is, “God,” singular, is like “all the gods” together, with all of their power and majesty. But, this returns to our problem about names: “Elohim” is not a name like “El”; if anything, it’s a refusal to have any name. After all, names point to things, which distinguishes one thing from another. Names of gods likewise point to one power or another—“creation,” or “light,” or “darkness,” or “storm,” or “war”—and to one domain or another —the “sun,” or the “sky,” or the “sea,” or the “earth.” Yet, the word, “Elohim” in the Bible encompasses every power, and every domain, as well as the relation between them all. But, then what would it even mean to name all of that in a single name? What experience could possibly encompass all that, and then be put into words? 

And the Exodus account presents the following answer. Moses asks God for His name, and God replies, “Eh’Yeh, asher Eh’Yeh,” or “I am that I am.” Now, “I am that I am,” is not quite a complete translation; that’ll become important as we’ll see at the final section of this episode. Anyway, the Bible presents this phrase, “I am that I am,” as the meaning of the Hebrew name of God, the Tetragrammaton, the letters of “Y-H-W-H,” or, “Yahweh.” 

But, why would this phrase be the meaning of the name, “Yahweh”? Well, the Hebrew for “I am,”—Eh’Yeh (pronounced eh-hi-yeh)—is the first person singular of the root verb, “Ha-Yah,” which means “To Be”. And you probably noticed the similarity of that root verb to the name, “Yah-weh.” And scholars have theorized that “Yahweh,” is actually a variant of the third-person form of this verb, and so it means, “He is.” [4] Again, “He is,” is not quite the complete translation, but we’ll get to that later. Now, this linguistic connection is a theory; we are basing it on what we know about the Hebrew language. What the Bible presents is a conversation between Moses and God, where God presents His name. 

Here’s how it happens: Moses is again trying to avoid going to Egypt, so he objects that the elders of the Israelite community there will be skeptical of him, and ask him for the name of God. So, Moses asks: “If they do that, what should I tell them?” 

Then, God speaks to Moses: “I am that I am. This is what you are to say to them: ‘I am’ has sent me to you. Say to the Israelites, ‘Yahweh, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, the name you shall call me, from generation to generation.”

And so, the phrase, “I am that I am,” is explicitly connected with the name, “Yahweh,” which is then identified with God that spoke to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Then the passage drives home this point by reciting what seems to be a liturgical formula: “This is my name forever, the name you shall call me, from generation to generation.” 

So, what is so significant about this name: “I am that I am”? 

Well, philosophers and theologians throughout the ages have been fascinated with this meaning of God’s name. For this profoundly simple phrase, “I am,” without any further elaboration, points to the concept of “Being itself.” 

So, take a moment to think about this: what does anything—anything at all—that we’ll ever experience have in common? Well, they exist; they are. We could even say that imaginary things exist too, at least in our minds. “To be,” or “Being,” is a word that points to what is the most universal and fundamental to everything—to all of reality. If there’s a name to God with a capital-G, a singular phrase that describes our experience of “reality as a whole,” we’d be hard pressed to come up with something other than, “Being.” 

And this opens up many, many topics in philosophy, with many, many technical terms, and we don’t want to turn this into some advanced course in metaphysics or ontology. So, let’s limit our exploration in this episode to this most pressing question: What does this actually mean for those who, like Moses, speak with God? What does it mean for God named, “I am that I am,” to send us on a journey of life that we’re embarking?  

[Short pendulum ] 

Have you ever had a kid do this to you—or did it yourself when you were younger—ask a long chain of “why”? So, “why” is the sky blue? And maybe you’ll explain to them that when sunlight hits the Earth’s atmosphere, it is scattered by the all the particles in the sky, and because blue light is scattered more, it appears blue to us. But then, the kid may ask, “Why does the blue light scatter more?” Or, “Why are there particles in the sky?” We may then go into how light is made up of differing wave-lengths, or about how matter is made up of atoms and molecules. But, the questions can continue: “Why are things made up of atoms?” or “Why do we see colors from light waves?” And so on and on. In the end, we’ll end the chain, by saying, “That’s just how it is,or “It just is.” 

There was a well-known 20th century radio debate between the philosophers Bertrand Russell, an atheist, and Frederick Copleston, a Catholic. When Russell was asked how the universe came to exist, his answer was basically: “The universe just is.” Of course, that’s not quite correct according to science today, namely the contemporary Big Bang cosmology. But, let’s take his answer to be the following: we can answer how various things in the universe, and maybe the entire universe, came to be, by going into laws or principles that science discovers. But, in the end, we’ll reach something—some ultimate set of physical laws—and when we’re asked why that exists, we’ll just say “it just is.” The name of God in the Bible points to this “Isness” of reality. That is, at the most fundamental level, reality “just is.” 

Atheists often misunderstand the concept of God, thinking that saying, “reality and its structures just is,” will somehow make “God” unneeded. However, their answer actually is the name of God, “Yhwh.” What I mean is that when we reach the most fundamental level of our reality, and we find cannot go deeper, what we experience at that point is what the Bible describes as the experience of encountering “YHWH”: it just is—except reality speaks personally with us, and so what we experience are the words, “I am that I am,” rather than “It is.” This concept is so significant, that you’ll find a parallel in nearly every world religion and philosophy: for some examples, the idea of “Necessary Being,” in Western philosophy, or the teaching on Tathaghata, or “Thusness,” in Buddhism. [5]

Now, before you think this is just some abstract, philosophical discussion, here’s one implication to this idea that all of us are dealing with, everyday in our daily lives. Have you ever heard the phrase, “It is what it is?” One sense we use this phrase is not very healthy; they’re words of resignation and defeat. “We won’t ever reach the sky; humans got no wings; we can’t fly; it is what it is.” But, there’s a deeper sense to it that’s crucial to how we live. So, we’ve actually learned to fly—but we did so because we asked, why can’t we fly, and learned about gravity, and about aerodynamics, and discovered that we can fly in the sky after all. We learned what “really is what it is.” 

There are many things about which we say, “It is what it is,” but it turns out that it, well, is not what it is. When we engage reality, we find what really iswhat it is”—how things really are, what is possible, and what is not. But, as we do so, we will eventually reach a point, about which we can only say, “It is what it is,” namely the point in which reality speaks to us, saying, “I am that I am.” That is something we have to accept and work with—it is God speaking. We did not need to accept that we can’t reach the sky, but for us to reach it, we did need to accept and work with laws of aerodynamics and gravity.   

God just is; reality just is. And that means there is a level to reality, which we cannot go around nor ignore; we must face it, “It is what it is,” or rather, “He is that He is.” This will become crucial for what happens to Egypt and what the Pharaoh does.  

But, there is one more aspect to this name, which gets at how we experience reality through time, as we live out our lives. To understand this though, we must first get grammatical!

[Short pendulum ] 

Remember that the words, “I am that I am,” is not quite a complete translation? Firstly, it may also mean, “I cause to be, what I cause to be,” or “I bring forth what I bring forth.” This is because the verb “To be,” may also indicate “to bring into being,” depending on the context, this is especially so since God speaks forth all things. But, more to the point, “I am that I am,” can also mean “I will be who I will be.” 

This is because there is no tense in biblical Hebrew—so, verbs do not indicate whether it’s past, present, or future; you have to figure that out by context. Instead, Hebrew verbs have what is called an “aspect,” which indicates whether the action is complete, or ongoing—which is technically called “Perfect” and “Imperfect”, but I think my wording makes more sense. Here’s an example. “Yesterday, I ran around the neighborhood.” Here, the action of running has already taken place—it’s complete. But, if I say, “I was running around the neighborhood when I saw an old friend,” the action is incomplete; that is, at least in my story, the action of running is still ongoing. In everyday life though, ongoing actions are something that will still be happening in the future, since, you know, it’s still ongoing. The Hebrew phrasing of “I am that I am”—Eh’Yeh asher Eh’Yeh—indicates an incomplete, or ongoing verb, hence the translation “I will be who I will be.” However, in the Bible, Hebrew verbs that indicate future actions also tend to have this small prefix, but what God speaks to Moses does not have that prefix, and that implies a present tense. So, faced with this ambiguity, most translators opted for “I am that I am.” But, it’s literally something like: “I am being that I am being,” but that would sounds awkward.

Why is all this important? Well, have you ever wondered about the specific wording of these following lines? “God unfolded everything in their lives,” or “Reality unfolds like a story.” Why the word, “unfold”? If you’ve never thought about this before, it’s because this imagery—that of “unfolding”—comes naturally to us; it seems intuitively true. Why though? Here’s one way to think about this. The word, “unfold,” implies that there are things that were “folded up,” which are revealed when they unfold. So, what was folded up? Simply put, possibilities: possible things that can exist, possible things that can happen, possible ways things could go. They were folded up with the future, and so, as future unfolds into the present, some possibilities become actualities for us. 

Remember how the very first episode of this series noted that reality encompasses not only everything that exists, but every possibility, and God is Reality? “Folded up” within reality is an infinite possibility, and as we journey through our lives, some possibilities will become actualities as time unfolds. And that is God speaking—and this speaking, is ongoing, through time. That is what it means for God’s declaration, “I am,” to be an ongoing verb. Because God’s declaration, “I am that I am,” can also mean, “I bring into being whatever I bring into being”; in the Hebrew mindset, the verb “To be,” usually also means to manifest something, something that we can experience. [6] Reality just is; but, we experience specific things that exist or happen in reality, and that is God speaking. So, when Moses asks God who He is, God’s answer is that, he will find out by what has, and will continue to, unfold in his life—it’s a continuous, and ongoing process

Names point to things; but, the name of God, points how we experience all of reality as a whole. So, if the Israelites were to ask Moses to point to God with a name, he cannot point this or that god—not even a creator deity atop a cosmic mountain, though that was usually the best people could come up with. “God” that spoke to their ancestors, has no boundary to his domain, no purview to his power, which a name could point to— this “God” is thus, simply “Elohim,” like all the gods, but One. If he must describe this God, he can only say, “He is,” “He just is,” because if we ever delve deep enough, that is how reality is—it just is. But, if Moses must point to something with a name, he must point to everything that has, and will happen around them; God will be bringing into being whatever God will. But, the real question is: what will that be?  

And this is why God previously said to Moses, “I will be with you.” The Hebrew word here is the same verb, as “I am that I am,” an ongoing verb of “to Be.” That is, God is that which unfolds reality from an infinite possibility, but, what will unfold, is what God has promised to Moses from the burning bush. Reality is a Who, that says to us, “I am with you,” and not merely an “It” that simply is.

At least, that is what Moses hears from the burning bush. But, he cannot know whether all of that’s true until he takes the journey that this voice is calling him to, and find out for himself what reality really does unfold. No wonder why he does not want to go. And this is why God then shows him miraculous powers; now, it will turn out that these powers were not unique, nor do they guarantee that everything will unfold as Moses hopes. But, they light the way for Moses to take the next step in the journey, from the flame of the burning bush, to his people in fiery suffering in Egypt. Because Moses will never find out whether God really is speaking to him until his feet take him from where the bush burns with that inextinguishable fire, to what that fire will alight next.

[ Music ] 

So join me next episode as Moses takes his journey to Egypt, and witnesses what unfolds from there, and finds out for himself who God will be.

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[1] (Again, remember the limit of this analogy; God is not some author-like entity outside of our world since there is no outside to all of reality God is speaking).

[2] Now, this series has explored the idea that everything in our reality, from the stars in the sky to elementary particles, from forces of nature, to each human being, exist within a kind of set parameter, or principle—which scientists call the “laws of Nature”—and all of that is God speaking, the “Logos”. And within this parameter, each thing and each of us may be ourselves and act freely. Human beings have a greater “range,” which means they have a greater freedom than say, rocks or hailstorms, to do or not do specific things that God speaks to them. But, this is more a matter of degrees

[3] “I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”

[4] The Egyptologist and author of a historical novel (likely Ramses, volume 2, The Temple of a Million Years, by Christian Jacq), uses a Pharaoh’s words to critique the concept saying, Egypt has a more sophisticated concept that includes even the god “who is not.” This is typical ignorance; an embarrassing failure of understanding just what this concept is trying to communicate. As we will examine later in this episode, “I am,” is not something that is being put forth as an opposite of “I am not.” 

But, first, what this author (Jacq) is likely referring to is the Egyptian god “Atum,” one of the nine main deities of the Egyptian city Heliopolis, the creator of the cosmos, who first awakened in the ocean of primordial energy, and described as "He who is total, complete," "He who is and he who is not." Atum was the one who would start creation, and was "self-created." As he was a solar god, he was related to God Amun Ra, and Atum represented the evening sun, together with Ra of the midday, and Khepri as the dawn. The name, “Kephri,” which appears often in the Pyramid texts, with the scarab hieroglyph, likely has connection the verb "to come into existence," or, "to change", "to happen" etc.

This is obviously a very sophisticated concept; too bad Jacq do not seem to recognize how sophisticated, let alone that this is actually aiming for what the name, “Yhwh,” is articulating. “The god that is not,” tends to be something that designate a possibility of what has not yet happened. In the case of the Egyptian god, Atum, this possibility is still bound in a particular thing, in reality—namely, the sun. Here’s some examples outside Egypt: the Mireuk, or matreya buddha, who is “not” but will be, because he is the future Buddha; or, “Wu-Chi” in Chinese philosophy, which literally means, “Non-Being,” but what it really means is that reality at its most primordial level is unbounded possibilities, that has not yet been bounded into actuality. 

The name, “YHWH,” as “I am that I am,” and “I will be that I will be,” denotes this very dynamic; everything that is, is God speaking, but every possibility is within God, “folded up,” and thus, “not yet is,” or but may at any time, “come into being.”  

[5] Following is me just musing to myself - Other examples of similar concepts can be found in Hinduism is the Vedantic notion that the experience of the ultimate reality, Brahman, is Sat-cit-ānanda, (Being, Consciousness, Bliss); or how Chinese philosophy, from Daoism to Neo-Confucianism describe the “Great Ultimate,” or Tai-Chi. But, it would be more accurate to say that the idea is so fundamental that parallel examples would be both too many to list, and too diverse to make adequate comparisons. One illustration would be what I mentioned as the teaching on “Thusness,” or the experience of the ultimate reality in Buddhism; Buddhist thinkers would deny that this “reality” is something that “exists,” in the Western sense of the term. But, the “structures” of reality, which they call as “Dharma,” is not an existing thing, but neither is it something that does not exist—the key is that it’s not a thing. Then again, same can be said of Judeo-Christian notion of God, when we understand that God is not an entity in reality, but that all of reality is God speaking. God speaking is not quite an existing thing, but neither does it not exist—best we can articulate here is that God that speaks forth all things just is

[6] This is a general point, but I’m using the specific wording from Dr. Michael LeFebvre,  February 15, 2022, https://hebraicthought.org/meaning-of-gods-name-i-am-exodus/ 


What it means for God to speak from the burning bush
How Moses can know whether God really spoke to him
Why "miracles" God shows Moses is only the first step
What does it even mean to name God?
It / He Just IS, and what that means
Name of God calls us to see what reality unfolds