“God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The LORD, 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, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.”
For most of us, our names have particular significance and meaning, but aren’t all that descriptive. For example, my namesake is the prophet Samuel of the Old Testament, but my parents didn’t call me Sam because of any special divine intervention. My daughter is named after one of our very good friends, but we’re actually not 100% sure what her name means—to us, it’s just her name.
But for many characters in the Bible, and particularly so for God himself, names are very significant. They’re often descriptive, and they give us a window into who the person actually is.
God’s first mention of his personal name—the name by which he is to be remembered throughout all generations—comes to Moses from the oddly-named burning bush. (Oddly named, that is, because it doesn’t burn up; v. 2.) In this encounter with Moses he promises the salvation of the Israelites, which he is about to accomplish through Moses himself, no less (v. 10).
Moses is worried about the reception he’ll encounter back in Egypt, so he puts forward a very personal and relational request:
“If I come to the people of Israel 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?” (v. 13)
God’s answer is a bit mysterious, as if by his very nature we can know God personally but not entirely pin him down. Ask three different Hebrew scholars about the syntax of the phrase “I AM WHO I AM” and they’ll give you five theories about what it means, for various grammatical reasons—interesting stuff, if you’re into that kind of thing.
What’s clear, though, is that God is giving his name: not just an arbitrary label, but a name bound up with who he is on a very personal level. Elsewhere God is described as the same yesterday, today, and forever; “I AM WHO I AM” covers the same territory. God has always been the kind of faithful God he shows himself to be; he is the one true God and is present now to Moses as he always is; and he will be the God of his people into the future.
God tells Moses to reply along these lines to anyone who asks:
“Remember how all those generations ago, God promised to our forefathers some amazing things: a land to call home, a great nation, and blessing (Gen 12:1-3)? Well, that God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—he’s the one who spoke to me out of this crazy bush-that-didn’t-burn and sent me to come to you. He’s called ‘Yahweh’. And he’s promised not only to save us from the Egyptians, but to be the God of that covenant with Abraham forever.”
That is, Moses and the Israelites were supposed to think about those promises to Abraham and his descendants when they heard the personal name of God. Yahweh (“I AM”) is the covenant name of God.
(So throughout the Old Testament, whenever you see LORD in small capital letters, that’s where the Hebrew says “Yahweh”. Whenever that name crops up you should think “God of the covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”.)
Knowing God’s name means that we’re interacting with more than an anonymous force or principle. Yahweh is a personal being who has made promises he intends to fulfil; a person with whom we can have a relationship. So when Jesus says in John 8:58, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am”, the Jews tried to stone him because they recognized what he was actually saying: Jesus is one with the Father. He is the one who fulfils the promises to Abraham, who has brought about the salvation of his people not from Egypt, but from sin and death itself. He is the one we will call on as Lord for all generations:
God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:9-11)