YWHW clearly means, um…I'll get back to you…..
In the Exodus rendition of God’s self-description, the syntax takes on expansive meanings: “I am who I am” could be “I will be what I will be” or “I am what I will be”.
God continues in the passage to describe Himself in relationship to mankind as the “God of your fathers”, etc. It would be nice to better understand what God meant (or Moses’s interpretation) of that event.
Wowza. There’s something to keep a mind moving in the morning.
In short, in Exodus 3:13 and following, God lets God’s name slip. YHWH.
But the name YHWH has been keeping people awake ever since, and apparently you too have maybe lost a few minutes wrangling with it.
Why YHWH? What does that mean?
Bernhard Anderson, Old Testament theologian, calls this text “one of the most cryptic passages in the Old Testament.”
I’d add that to your fantastic adjective “expansive!”
To Moses’ “simple” question, God offers three responses.
1. “I am who I am,” or “I will be who I will be;”
2. “I am;”
3. “The God of your ancestors…”
We have been terribly interested in this “be-ing” piece, this name that in Hebrew is rendered YHWH.
The first person form of the Hebrew word for the verb “to be” is ‘ehyeh. In Hebrew, it would be spelled (transliterated into English now of course!) HYH, namely “I am.” The third person form of this verb (namely “he is”) is YHWH.
Anderson lays out three different ways of thinking through this odd choice of a name, and I’ll lay them out in turn. (All of the following is found in Understanding the Old Testament, 4th Edition, p. 60 and following).
1. One line of thinking puts out there that originally in the text, the word was based on the Hebrew verb for “cause to be,” as in “He makes things happen.” In other words, in the context of the text, it reads, “I bring things into being.” This works nicely grammatically and theologically, if the agenda were to make the case that God was the creator of all things. Martin Noth notes that the “to be” verb used here does not imply merely “existing,” but rather active being, movement. (Exodus: A Commentary, 1962, p. 45).
2. Another theory is that YWHW should be understood simply as “I am.” Some, says Anderson, don’t particularly like this approach, because the idea of thinking about God in some eternal sort of way wasn’t really an issue for the ancient Israelites; it’s actually more of a Greek concern.
That said, the Israelites were concerned about developing an idea about God who was, is, and will continue to be involved in history. Another twist on this approach maintains that the point is that YHWH is, rather than other gods. Anderson quotes R. de Vaux who wrote that the implication here is that YHWH “is the only one who exists for Israel.”
3. Last is the idea that the name means “I will be,” in a future-bound sort of way. Here is a sense of comfort and promise. Moses will not be going forth alone, but rather with God, and the Israelites will not be left alone, but will be with God. As Anderson writes, “…the divine name signifies God, whose being is turned toward the people, who is present in their midst as deliverer, guide, and judge, and who is accessible in worship.”
That said, the text suggests that God is not 100% sure that it’s a good idea to reveal the divine name, for fear that people will try and use it for their own purposes. Think, for a moment, of how wars, church battles, justifications for personal deeds, are engaged with the assumption that “God is on my side.” So the interpretation above implies that God retains control of God’s identity, as in, “I will be whom I will be, not whom you want me to be.”
Still, once you know the name of someone, you can be in relationship. A name can be said in gentleness, love, anger, rejection, consolation, jest. With this in mind, that God offered YHWH suggests God’s willingness to be vulnerable and accessible. In other words, not only the name is of interest here, but the very offering of the name is too. See Terrance Frethiem here, in Interpretation: Exodus, pp. 64 and following.
Much more could be said regarding the name YHWH. Anderson concedes that the “honest truth is that we do not know for sure the source from which Moses received the name Yahweh.” That said, he goes on, the most important matter is what the name meant to early Israel. Here, it seems as if the name YHWH was bound up with the Exodus event, a God who, to quote Exodus 20:2, “I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”
To that degree, the name YHWH could continue to have relevance for those who call still upon that name. God continues to be, to be creative, to be involved, and to bring new things into being.