13 Then Moses said to God, "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?" 14 God said to Moses, "I AM WHO AM." And he said, "Say this to the people of Israel, 'I AM has sent me to you.'" (Ex 3:13-14)
58 Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am." (Jn 8:58)
God revealed His name to Moses: "I Am." Sounds curious, but it’s a remarkable name. From Moses' revelation, the Israelites referred to God as "He Who Is." In Hebrew, this is the name Yahweh. The name is sacred among Jews and they generally do not say it or write it; where it occurs in scripture, it is replaced by LORD (shown in upper case in English translations). Note: There is a Latin version of this Hebrew name – Jehovah. This is an incorrect pronunciation, Yahweh being the likely correct pronunciation.
This revelation of God about Himself says two things about Him: (1) He is a person, so described by “I,” and (2) He exists, so described by “am.” Let’s look at the first. Anything that can say “I” is a person. The Roman philosopher Boethius provided the classical definition of “person” in philosophy:
A person is an individual substance with a rational nature. (Liber de Persona et Duabus Naturis, ch 3)
This is the language of classical philosophy. Let’s break it down. A substance is a thing, an actual thing as opposed to the nature of a thing or the characteristics belonging to a thing. An individual substance is then a singular thing, as opposed to many things. But there are many singular things that can be individual substances; a dog, a rock, a star, a proton. What makes a person different from these others? Its nature. It is the nature of a person to be rational. Here, the word rational means a thing has an intellect and a will; at least, that’s what it means in Boethius’ definition. Every person is a single thing with an intellect and a will. Likewise, anything that has intellect and will and is individual is a person.
By using the word “I,” God revealed to us that He is a person, like us. He is a thing and just one thing. And, somehow, He has faculties of intellect and will; that is, He knows and He loves. It may seem obvious that God is a person, but not all gods are persons. There are many in the world who believe in a transcendent, non-personal, spiritual force, such as tao. God explained that such is not true.
Next, we look at the second part of the name: AM. This is the remarkable word of existence. It is the personal conjugation of the verb be, to exist. Perhaps it seems logical that the God who says “I” actually exists. But everything that is, also exists; so why point it out? God is again pointing out something about Himself, in this case something unique.
We turn again to philosophy and to a branch called natural theology (what can we know about God using only logic). St. Thomas Aquinas derived the following truism:
God is not only His own essence… but also His own existence. (Summa Theologica, I, Q3)
For the sake of time, I’ll just translate: It is the nature of God to exist. As such, His existence is necessary. There is no other thing in the universe that compares; every other thing that exists does not need to exist. Existence is not the nature of any other thing. This contrast is important to understanding any proof for the existence of God.
An old proof for the existence of God is that we note all things that exist share the characteristic of contingency – the existence of everything depends on something else. My existence is contingent upon my parents. The Earth’s existence is contingent upon the sun. Some people simplify this concept of contingency into cause and effect; then then follow any line of cause and effect backwards in time and point to an original cause of all things. However, it is perhaps better to focus on the principle of contingency and ignore time lines and actions, just focus on the existence of things as dependent upon the existence of other things. In such a case, how can a universe ruled by contingency actually exist, in and of itself? It becomes a logical impossibility. The solution demands that there must be an alternate reality that is outside of the limitations of contingency, a thing whose existence is necessary, a thing that exists because it must. Or, in our understanding, a person who is because He is: “I AM WHO AM.” This non-contingent thing, i.e., God, is then the cause of the contingent universe.
It is remarkable that long before Aquinas, Boethius or any Greek philosopher, God revealed Himself to Moses as I AM – the one and only person who necessarily exists.
Jesus referred to Himself as I AM. In the above quote from John’s gospel, Jesus applies the present-tense phrase in contrast to a past-tense reference, which is grammatically incorrect. Yet, when we consider that Jesus is God, who is beyond time and space, the present tense I AM is always applicable. And in this text, Jesus’ listeners are clear on what He really means; he is saying He is God, so they try to stone Him.
John’s gospel mentions another important use of I AM. In John 6, Jesus walks on water. The apostles were afraid, but Jesus said:
20 It is I; do not be afraid. (Jn 6:20)
But this English translation misses the literal Greek. Translating more accurately, Jesus said, “I AM; do not be afraid.” As mentioned in another entry, to a Jew of Jesus’ day, only God Himself could walk on water. Jesus proved Himself to be God by the specific miracle, and He simultaneously declared Himself to be God by referring to His own divine name.