The name of God in the Jewish Scriptures is an enigmatic mystery. People often pronounce the four Hebrew letters (YHWH) as “Yahweh” or “Jehovah”, but the truth is that we don’t really know how to say it. In most Bibles that word is translated as “the LORD”, and similarly when reading it in Hebrew, we always say “Adonai” instead, which means Lord. We don’t even try to pronounce it. However, close examination of those four letters is an enlightening exercise which relates wonderfully to the Messiah.

In Genesis 1, the Hebrew word for God is “Elohim”, which is the general term for god or gods and is also, rather interestingly, a plural word. In Genesis 1 Elohim is referred to as “him” (male singular) but speaks in plural (“Let us make man in our image”). However, in Genesis 2, the four-lettered name of God, YHWH, first appears, and God is mostly referred to by this unique name from there on in. 

God’s name is holy

Jewish people, by and large, prefer to avoid using any name of God, often writing the word God like this: “G-d”, so that it is not written in its entirety. Many call God “haShem”, which means “the Name”, or other similar designations. “Baruch haShem!” (which means “Blessed be the Name!” or “Blessed be the Lord!”) is a phrase one hears multiple times a day in Israel. So precious are those four letters that we even change the dates that contain two of those four holy letters in a row – the 15th and 16th of every month deviate from the normal pattern in order to respect the four-lettered name of God. Similarly, there is a tradition to avoid writing down the name of God to avoid the sacrilege of it ever being thrown away, erased or destroyed.
His name is holy.

“Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the sons 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 should I say to them?”

“God answered Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” Then He said, “You are to say to the sons of Israel, ‘I AM’ has sent me to you.” God also said to Moses: “You are to say to the sons of Israel, Adonai (YHWH) the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, has sent me to you. This is My Name forever, and the Name by which I should be remembered from generation to generation.” (Exodus 3:13-15)

I AM WHO I AM? As much as that might have been bewildering to Moses, God insists that he cannot be categorized – he just IS.

God laughs at us all arguing about whether he exists or not – he is the very definition of existence!

Opening the treasure box of Hebrew grammar

The interesting thing with verbs in the Biblical Hebrew is that they are often written in what looks like future tense to us today, but are rendered as past tense. And the other way around! Prophecy is often expressed in what looks like the past tense to modern Hebrew speakers, yet it is talking about things to come. Time and tense are not straightforward, which is appropriate because the author of the biblical text lives outside time. He can give prophecy about future events as if they had already happened, and he can describe past events in narration that actually point to future events to come – as in the stories of Joseph and the Exodus for example.

I’ll tell you something else funny about Hebrew – the verb “to be” only exists in past and future, but not in the present tense.

In Hebrew, we don’t say “I am hungry”, we just say “I hungry”. We don’t say “that table is big”, we say “that table big”. We can say “I was hungry”, or “I will be hungry”, but not “I am hungry”.

There is no “is” or “am” in Hebrew. Why?

Perhaps because in the Hebrew language, the language of the Bible, the present tense of the verb “to be” is reserved for use by God alone.

Only God can say “I AM”.

And perhaps that helps us understand some of the mystery of the Tetragrammaton, YHWH. When we look at the original Hebrew text which in English says, “I AM WHO I AM”, it looks (to the modern Hebrew reader) as if it’s in the future tense: “I will be that which I will be” (אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה). And yet it’s translated into present tense! Getting confused? The interplay between the tenses of the verb to be is illustrative of the fact that our God is, was, and always will be.

Moreover, the very letters of the four-letter name of God (יהוה) contain the Hebrew for he was, he is, and he will be! This is a fact that has, unsurprisingly, been noted by rabbis of the past.

Rabbinic interpretation

It’s interesting to see how the phrase, “I am who I am” (אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה), was also translated into present tense in the “Targum Yonatan” text, an early rabbinic translation of the Bible into Aramaic by Jonathan ben Uzziel, a pupil of Hillel and doctor of the Law in Jerusalem during the time of King Herod.[1]

He translated it into Aramaic as “אֲנָא הוּא”, which in modern Hebrew (Ani Hu – אני הוא) literally means “I He”. This is as close as you can get in Hebrew to “I AM” – the first person, present tense of the verb to be.

“God answered Moses, “I AM who I AM.” Then He said, “You are to say to the sons of Israel, ‘I AM’ has sent me to you.”

In rabbinic interpretation, it makes sense that the three times the word appears reflects the three tenses: past, present, and future.

  1. He was
  2. He is
  3. He forever shall be

In Exodus Rabba, Rabbi Isaac taught:

“God said to Moses: ‘Tell them that I am now what I always was and always will be’; for this reason is the word ehyeh written three times” [2]

I AM – Three times?

It is interesting that just as in the Shema, the name of the Lord features three times. Perhaps it’s not only about past, present and future, but perhaps it also points to the threefold nature of God:

  1. The Father
  2. The Son – God incarnate, the Messiah
  3. The Holy Spirit

Impossible? But the evidence is in the Jewish Scriptures themselves. At one point YHWH turns up in person to visit Abraham, a fact that causes great consternation among those who are adamant that God cannot become flesh. Well He did, right there in Genesis 18. It says so repeatedly. Also, Jeremiah 23:6 says that YHWH will be the name of the Messiah.

You know what else? The phrase used in Targum Yonatan as the best way to help Jewish people relate to the unusual turn of phrase God declared from the burning bush (“Ani Hu” / “I He”) crops up later in the New Testament. Quite a lot.

You know who else uses that term, “Ani Hu” (I AM)?

In John 4, Jesus meets a Samaritan woman, and they had a conversation about God, truth, and worship. She said to Yeshua, not knowing who he really was,

“I know that Messiah is coming (He who is called the Anointed One.) When He comes, He will explain everything to us.”

Yeshua’s response?

“I, the One speaking to you, “ani Hu” (I AM).”

In chapter 8, Yeshua had got caught up in a controversy with the religious leaders. Frustrated and confused, they demanded to know,

“Who are you?”

Yeshua replied, “What have I been telling you from the beginning?”

…“Abraham and the prophets died. Yet You say, ‘If anyone keeps My word, he will never taste death.’ You are not greater than our father Abraham who died, are You? The prophets also died! Who do You make Yourself out to be?”

…Yeshua answered, “Amen, amen I tell you, before Abraham was, I AM!”

[1] וַאֲמַר יְיָ לְמשֶׁה דֵין דְאָמַר וַהֲוָה עַלְמָא אָמַר וַהֲוָה כּוּלָא וַאֲמַר כִּדְנָא תֵּימַר לִבְנֵי יִשְרָאֵל אֲנָא הוּא דְהַוֵינָא וְעָתִיד לְמֶהֱוֵי שַׁדְרַנִי לְוַותְכוֹן (Targum Yonatan Ex 3:14, Aramaic)
[2] Exodus Rabba, 3:14

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