I am becoming what I am becoming

barre at nethere.com barre at nethere.com
Thu Sep 21 23:18:07 EDT 2000

The unusual rendering of the Hebrew, ¥eyeh aser ¥eyeh as "I am becoming what I am Becoming" is informed by the fact that both the form and content of this formulaic expression finds it closest parallel not in Semitic thought but in Hamitic ontological speculation. Its formulation, based on a theological word-play of the verb "to be(come)" not only reveals that we are dealing with ontology in a strict sense, but also that such a formulation is characteristically Egyptian. Consider, for example, this comparable formulation taken from an Egyptian grammar regarding the verb, xeper ("to be[come]"):
xeper-a xeper xeperu
"I who became
made become 
the beings who became." 
We note three similarities to the formula found in the Elohist's epic. First, the divine name is predicated upon a repetition of a verb, the Egyptian version repeating it three times as subject, verb and object while the Hebrew version repeats it twice with the second occurrence functioning syntactically as an objective, subordinate predication introduced by the relative particle, aser. Although the syntax varies, the two formulations are similar in the central importance of the repeated verb. Second, the verbs themselves, adjusting for the different cultures that produced them, are roughly semantic equivalents, both meaning "to be" or "to become." Third, both formulations are theological proclamations, intended to expose the essential characteristics of a deity 
based upon a distinctively Egyptian perspective. As such, it stands apart from typical Semitic understandings of divinity, but is demonstrably at home within Egyptian religious tradition.
Dear list-members,
the Egyptian phrase quoted by L.M. Barre comes most probably from a grammar by E.A.W. Budge, "The Egyptian Language" (1910, repr. many times), a pioneer book but of course outdated. Actually, Budge's complete translation there reads as follows: "I am he who came into being and who made to come into being the beings who came into being." 
Although this is not a discussion list on the Egyptian language, it may be useful to observe that Budge did not reproduce the exact writing of the original, nor his translation renders well the syntactic structure of the text (which is most probably taken from the Book of Apophis in the Bremner-Rhind Papyrus). Joseph Kaster's translation (quoted in Banay Michael's post 18 Sept, 2000) is better: "When I came into being, being itself came into being." 
I would only object that the phrase "being itself" is misleading in that it may make us to believe that the Egyptian passage is ontological. This is not the case.

In am using the term "ontological" in a literaral sense, that is, that the sentence utilizes the verb to be[come].  I did not mean to equate it with say Greek ontological tradition.

 The original term in the Bremner-Rhind Papyrus, *Xprw* [Khepru], has a concrete determinative--man + woman, meaning all kind of beings, both human and divine.

Fine.  Being is anything that is.

 Besides, the verb *Xpr* means "to come into existence, to assume a given form," while the derived plural noun *Xprw* means "forms, shapes."
 Therefore, a better translation of the passage may be, "When I came into existence, the beings who came into existence came into existence." This is a claim by the Lord-of-the universe (Neb-er-djer in Egyptian) that he was the first to exist and that everything came into being through himself. This claim is repeated several times in the Egyptian text, with variants, by the supreme god. BTW, a passage quoted by the same L.M. Barre (17 sept, 2000) as "another Egyptian cosmological text" is likely to belong to the same Book of Apophis. 

It seems to me that this Egyptian text shows no ontological speculation at all.

I am not talking about speculation, only ontology.  Word "to be[come] is employed.  To that extent it is ontological.

 Ancient Egyptians were a very positive, non-speculative people, the exact opposite of what a fashionable kind of literature depicts them. They spoke of different, concrete "beings, forms," rather than of "being in itself" as an ontological category.


I am also skeptic of the usual renderings of Exod 3:14, e.g., "I am what I am," or "I will be what I will be," as well as of an ontological interpretation of this phrase. An ontological interpretation is indeed present in the Septuagint rendering, *ego eimi ho on* (I am the Existent), but this is Greek philosophy rather than Biblical revelation.

I am not confortable with your use of the word "revelation."   It presupposes much.

Already fifteen years ago I proposed the following analysis of Exod 3:14: "I WILL BE WHAT I WAS," i.e., "I WILL BE [i.e. for you, with sentence-initial, volitive yiqtol: I promise I shall be] WHAT I WAS [i.e. for your Fathers, with x-yiqtol for habitual past: what I used to be]." 

My translation may be paraphrased as 'What I am becoming in part now [in the Exodus] situation is what I forever become."

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