God's Proper Name

God's Self-Disclosure at the Burning Bush

Introduction

Now that we have laid the foundation with numerous posts on systematic theology (what it is and its primary topic), we finally come to a beginning point in theology proper––the study of God in himself. As previously said, this topic often covers God’s attributes and triunity. In this article, I will attempt to begin our series on theology proper––the study of God in himself––by focusing on perhaps one of the clearest manifestations of the nature of God’s being: his very own name. By looking at God’s name and understanding what it means––though we look through a glass dimly, being limited by finitude and fallenness––we can begin to know that God’s name informs creatures that he is one who is wholly over and distinct from them due to the nature of his being. This article will aim to discuss what God’s name is, what it informs us about his being, and what it implies about his relation to creatures.


Note: I must confess, this is perhaps more technical than I would like it to be. To see a sermon on this topic, see pastor John Piper’s sermon (with audio and manuscript), “I am who I am” in which he expounds on the meaning and implications of God’s name.



Thesis

To follow the train of thought in this essay that seeks to understand the nature of God’s being by the self-disclosure (i.e., revelation) of his name, I shall present a thesis to guide the rest of this article’s content: God’s name––YHWH (Yahweh)––signifies that God absolutely exists in and of himself. This means that God’s essence is not different than his own existence. God absolutely, simply, and self-sufficiently is

While this is beyond comprehension, we can have true and accurate (albeit incomplete [ectypal]) knowledge of God's nature (1) because God has revealed himself, (2) we have the Spirit who searches and knows the depths of God (1 Cor 2:10–13), and (3) we have the mind of Christ (2:16). So while this is a daunting and incomprehensible task, take courage, for God's Spirit gives understanding even when it is about difficult things.

The Burning Bush Narrative: “Yahweh … This Is My Name….”

John Webster wrote, “In its praise, testimony, and action, the church confesses: God is.”[1] While this is evident in creation (Rom 1:20), Scripture also clearly shows that God exists, and furthermore, exists differently than creatures. That is, he not only exists, but he absolutely exists in himself. One text that shows this is Exodus 3:

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 [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, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations. (Exod 3:14–15)

In this divine revelation, God states three things about himself: the nature of his being, the identity of the being who sends Moses, and his name.

Starting with verse 14, God says, “אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה” (’ehyeh ’ăšer ’ehyeh) “I AM WHO I AM.” The word, “אֶהְיֶה,” (’ehyeh) is a conjugation of the Hebrew verb, “הָיָה” (hāyāh), which means, “to be” (to exist).[2] The next word in this glorious phrase is “אֲשֶׁר” (ăšer). This is a pronoun meaning, “who” or “what” describing the “whoness” or “whatness” of God.[3] Then, the final word of the phrase, “אֶהְיֶה” (’ehyeh) has the same meaning and effect as the first word. Thus, what God is saying is that he is who or what he is.[4] Replying to Moses’ question, “What is your name?” God first replies by redundantly stating the nature of his being—one who is that which he is.

Second, in the latter half of verse 14, God replies, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM [אֶהְיֶה;’ehyeh] has sent me to you.’” Here, God tells Moses that he must say to the people that the God who is, is precisely the one who sends him. This one who is is not distant (contra Deism), but, rather, is present.

Finally, in verse 15, God directly answers Moses’ question by giving his name. “God also said to Moses, ‘Say this to the people of Israel, “The LORD [יְהוָה; 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, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.’”[5] The word, “This” (זֶה; zê) points back and refers to the proper noun, יְהוָה (Yahweh). Therefore, God is telling Moses that his name is “יְהוָה” (YHWH; Yahweh).[6] When you read your English Bibles and you see the word LORD in all capital letters, that is the translation of the word YHWH (Yahweh). So when you read all caps LORD in the Old Testament, you should read it as, YHWH (Yahweh)––the God who is. The word, “יְהוָה” (YHWH)—God’s name—comes from the same word that אֶהְיֶה (’ehyeh; [I AM]) comes from—הָיָה (hāyāh)––meaning “to be” or “to exist.” Hence, God’s name, in human language, is in the form of a “to be” verb. In other words, God’s name comes from a verb that denotes existence.

So What Does This Mean? Absolute Existence and Differentiation

Here, one may ask, why is it important that God’s name, in Hebrew, comes from a “to be” verb? The answer, according to St Thomas Aquinas, is that God’s name signifies not only that he exists, but that he is Existence itself, which is similar to the fact that the Son not only lives, but has life in himself like the Father (John 5:26), and is Life itself (14:6). In other words, God’s name denotes that he absolutely exists. Aquinas says, “For [God’s name] does not signify form, but simply existence itself. Hence … the existence of God is His essence itself, which can be said of no other….”[7] Or, as Bavinck states it, “[God’s] name is ‘being.’”[8] God’s name denotes that he absolutely is. As Webster says, “God simply is, originally, authoritatively, and incomparably, and no creature can say as God, ‘I am who I am.’”[9] God absolutely exists and this means that God’s existence is his essence, that is, God’s nature is his very existence of who he is: “I AM WHO I AM.” 

Consequently, God's life is wholly realized, that is, he is full and complete, there's nothing to add or subtract or become, for God already and eternally is completely realized as he is––he is who he is. He is not something that could be something else, “I am this, but I can be this.” He simply says, “I am who I am.” God absolutely exists in and of himself and thus, God is pure perfection, not lacking or needing anything. He is pure and true reality, the source and cause  of (and therefore distinct from) all other derivative realities.

Conclusion: Therefore…

What should immediately come to mind then is that God is distinct from creatures, that is, God is different than all of creation. God is not creation and creation is not God. Here we maintain the dogmatic rule of the Creator-creature distinction. God’s absolute existence that he declares in his word shows that he is in a unique class of his own.[10] So, then, what is it about God’s existence that distinguishes him from creation? There are multiple implications of his absolute existence that distinguishes him from creation. God’s distinctive qualities are often referred to as the divine perfections or incommunicable attributes. These perfections are incommunicable (cannot be communicated or shared) in that they are unique to God and to God alone. They distinguish God from creatures and thus, “cannot be understood to be true, even analogically, of creatures.”[11] These distinctive attributes often include: aseity, immutability, infinitude, impassability, and simplicity.

The following articles will discuss and expound each of these attributes that belong only to God. But before we go on to those, let us stop and marvel, the God who is distinct from creation has made himself known through his name and most poignantly through his Son. It is this one who has made himself known and saves us. He condescended and spoke to us in a language that we can understand and told us his very nature and character. Amazing grace. There are many more implications of his name––he is present, covenantal, salvific––but here, we only got to focus on what his name reveals about his nature. I encourage you to dive deep in the biblical narrative and see all that it says about God and his nature.


For a sermon on this text and topic (with audio and manuscript), see pastor John Piper’s sermon, “I am who I am” on DesiringGod.org.





[1] John Webster, God without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology vol. I God and the Works of God (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 159.

[2] This is a qal imperfect. Thus, it can mean, “I will be” due to the often-used tense of the qal imperfect, which is the future tense. However, since it is a stative verb, and due to context, it has a present tense force, even though it designates eternal duration, and consequently, a present tense is an accurate reading—“I AM.” See John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries: Harmony of Exodus Leviticus Numbers Deuteronomy vol. II trans. Charles William Bingham (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House Company, 2003), 73.

[3] That is, metaphysically speaking.

[4] Victor Hamilton says that there are 9 other ways one can translate “אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה,” if the word “אֲשֶׁר” is translated as “who.” The following are, according to Hamilton, legitimate translations: “(1) ‘I am who I am’; (2)‘I am who I was’; (3) ‘I am who I shall be’; (4) ‘I was who I am’; (5) ‘I was who I was’; (6) ‘I was who I shall be’; (7) ‘I shall be who I am’; (8) ‘I shall be who I was’; (9) ‘I shall be who I shall be’” (Victor P. Hamilton, Exodus: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011) 64).

[5] Emphasis added.

[6] Scholars refer to the name of God, יְהוָה (Yahweh; YHWH), as the tetragrammaton due to its four consonants Y–H–W–H (Hamilton, Exodus, 65).

[7] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica trans. Fathers of the Dominican Province (New York, NY: Benziger Bros., 1948), 1.13.11.

[8] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. II, God and Creation, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 154.

[9] John Webster, “Life in and of Himself: Reflections on God’s Aseity,” in Engaging the Doctrine of God: Contemporary Protestant Perspectives ed. Bruce L. McCormack (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 109.

[10] The incommunicable attributes (following Michael Horton) are: wisdom, knowledge, power, holiness, righteousness, justice, jealousy, wrath, goodness, love, and mercy (Horton, Pilgrim Theology: Core Doctrines for Christian Disciples [Grand Rapids: Zondervan 2011], 82–83).

[11] Ibid., 74.