Updated: Sep 13, 2020
“What’s in a name?” In Shakespeare’s play, “Romeo and Juliet,” this is the question that Juliet ponders when contemplating the obstacles to her relationship with Romeo.
What if we were to ask the same question of the name of God? What’s in God’s name? The answer is, well, everything. When God discloses his name to Moses, he says, “I Am That I Am” (Exodus 3:14 KJV). Two verbs and a pronoun. What do these words mean?
To understand the meaning of the name of God, it helps to know the story. Pharaoh had enslaved the Hebrews. Pharaoh’s actions were nothing short of cruel. The Hebrews groaned and suffered miserably. God didn’t merely hear their groaning and imagine their suffering, God felt it—completely. Their suffering was God’s suffering. This is what God shared with Moses.
Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, was a priest of Midian. Moses was leading Jethro’s flock and brought the flock to Horeb. There, he saw a bush that was burning. God called Moses from the bush. God told Moses that he was experiencing the suffering of the Hebrew slaves. God knew their pain thoroughly. This was not a mere head-knowing, an aloof cognitive understanding. The Hebrew word, to know, is yada. It means to experience fully, entirely, absolutely. It’s not a flippant or dis When God says that he knows the suffering of the Hebrews, God suffers the real, harsh, intolerable please-when-will-it-stop agony that the Hebrew people are suffering.
As their conversation continues, God informs Moses that God plans to deliver the Hebrews from their suffering and lead them to their own homeland, a land flowing with milk and honey. To accomplish this, God calls upon Moses for assistance in this critical venture. Moses is to appear before Pharaoh on God’s behalf and demand the release of the Hebrew slaves.
This will also involve Moses’ returning to the Hebrew slaves and sharing with them his calling and mission. Moses is aware that the people will require some explanation. In preparation for this, Moses asks God: If the people ask about your name, what shall I tell them? It is here that God discloses his name: “I Am That I Am.” God’s name consists of two identical first person singular verbs (I Am), separated by a pronoun (That).
The name of God embodies acres of meaning. To understand, a little grammar helps. The word in the middle—That—is a pronoun. A pronoun stands in the place of a noun. For example, a person can say, “John is a professor.” The person can also say, “He is a professor.” In this case, “He” is a pronoun. It stands in the place of the noun, John. The pronoun “that” is a demonstrative pronoun. Don’t let the four-syllable word intimidate you. A demonstrative pronoun demonstrates something by pointing to it. This and that, these and those are demonstrative pronouns. God uses them when instructing Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. You may eat of these trees, but not of that tree.
In the name of God, the demonstrative pronoun, That, is flanked by two verbs, I Am. These two verbs are remarkable both for what they tell us and what they do not. What they do not do is to define God. There’s a reason for this. When we define someone, we are categorizing, classifying, or labeling the person. Once we have defined the person, it becomes difficult to see the person as anything beyond our definition. We see this in our world today. We use words like Republican, Democrat, Conservative, Liberal, Protestant, and Catholic, to label, classify, and categorize each other. Once we have categorized each other, we tend to see each other as objects instead of people.
God’s name, I Am That I Am, provides no definition. Instead, it embodies a relationship between two verbs. The demonstrative pronoun creates the relationship: “I Am That I Am.” God’s name, in this context, embodies God’s relationship to the Hebrew slaves, whose suffering God is experiencing. God’s name shows us three things at once. First, God is. Second, the Hebrew slave also is; the Hebrew slave is an I Am. Third, there is the demonstrative pronoun, through which God’s name establishes a relationship between himself and the Hebrew slave: I Am That I Am.
In the name of God, the first I Am, refers to God. The second I Am refers to the Hebrew, who is suffering. When God says, “I Am That I Am,” God is in effect saying, “I know the suffering of that Hebrew slave because I Am That Person.” God’s name embodies the personhood of God, the personhood of the Hebrew slave, and the relationship between the two. God’s own being—God’s is-ness, or am-ness—is connected to the person of the slave. God identifies the two as one. God and the slave are not only connected, they are connected absolutely, and God is ever-conscious of this connection. God identifies himself completely in the identity of the other person. “I Am. That person is also an I Am. And I Am That I Am. There is an essential one-ness between that person and me.”
God’s name not only doesn’t define God, it doesn’t define people either. By refusing to define, label, classify, or categorize a person, I am free to know the person as she is. Labels and definitions condition our awareness. God’s name shows us that God’s awareness is unconditioned. There are no filters in God’s perception or awareness. God is able to perceive truly because God sees me as I Am, just as God is able and willing to see you as You Are. Unconditioned awareness and perception lie at the heart of God’s being, serving as the condition for God’s free will.
The consequence is that God’s name embodies the life-generating organic energy that flows between God and people. This same energy flows in and through the book of Exodus. It can be felt as we read the book of Exodus from cover to cover, which is how the book is composed. No book in the Bible is a collection of mere sentences or “verses,” and to remove the sentences from the flow and context of the book is to remove it from the flow of organic energy which the book of the Bible embodies. It’s like removing a cell or organ from the human body. The cell and organ only have meaning in the vitality of their connection within the energy flow of the entire body. This is why God’s name involves a relationship, for the relationship is essential. God’s name at once embodies the relationship between God and other I Am’s, the unconditioned awareness of God, the presence of God, the life of God, the understanding of God, and finally, God’s action.
One of Jesus’s insights is that this relationship between two I Am’s (I Am That I Am) is at the heart of the foundation of the world. We see this in Jesus’s Parable of the Final Judgment, the climactic parable in the Gospel of Matthew (25:31–46). When the Son of Man sits on his throne in glory in the company of all the angels, he gathers all the nations before him. In Greek, “all the nations” reads panta ta ethna. Notice that Jesus’s wording assumes that we are connected to each other. We are a community that is responsible for each other. The nations are then separated from one another as a shepherd separates sheep from the goats, placing the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left.
Jesus tells the sheep to come and inherit the kingdom prepared from the “foundation of the world.” The word Jesus uses for foundation, kataballein, means “to lay a foundation,” the same way a builder first lays a foundation when building a house. He then tells the sheep the criteria for belonging to the kingdom of heaven: I was hungry, and you fed me; thirsty, and you gave me drink; naked, and you clothed me; sick, and you cared for me; a stranger, and you welcomed me; in prison, and you came to me. The sheep then express astonishment: When did we see you hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, a stranger, or in prison and cared for you? Jesus responds that when we did this to one of the least of his brothers or sisters, we did it to him.
Matthew provides many remarkable insights into the criteria for membership in the kingdom of the heavens. I’ll mention two. The first is that when Jesus says, “When you did it to the least of these my sisters and brothers, you did it to me,” he is showing us that he is an I Am who is also That I Am. In the criteria for judgment, the criteria for membership in the kingdom of the heavens, Jesus shows us that he, Jesus, is that person who is hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, a stranger, or in prison.
The implications of this are breathtaking. Jesus is showing us that the person we encounter who is living in poverty is Jesus. The person who is sick and in need of health care is Jesus. The refugee at our border is Jesus. The woman or man in prison is Jesus. That that is because Jesus is that person. Jesus is That I Am. When we care for others, we care for Jesus.
The second breathtaking implication pertains to the nature of the foundation of the world when Jesus says, “Come, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” The foundation is the relationship we have to one another in Christ. The foundation is God’s self-revelation to Moses: I Am That I Am. The name of God embodies the ways in which God relates to people—all people. I Am That Person. God’s name embodies God’s attention, God’s energy, and God’s action. It now only directs ours, it provides the criteria for membership and participation in the kingdom of the heavens, right here, right now.
What’s in a name? When it comes to the name of God, God’s name embodies the foundation of the world in which we live, move, and interact with one another.