[b-hebrew] Ex. 3:14 ‘Ehyeh has sent me to you’

cok den hertog cok17 at hotmail.com
Sun Dec 16 10:55:24 EST 2012

In B-Hebrew Exodus 3:14 was discussed many times. As a newcomer to this list I followed the suggestion of  the moderators to look for previous discussions of this question and tried to get access to all its occurrences. Its meaning is discussed at the following dates (under very different headings; I left simple references out of consideration but included literature references): 22-26 Dec. 1998; 5 Jan. +  9-10 Jul.1999; 16-21 Sep 2000; 1-22 May + 16, 20-21 Jul + 1-2, 7, 9 Nov 2001; 30 Apr 2002; 3 Jan + 22-25 Feb + 3 Mar 2003; 4-5 May + 3-11 Aug + 8-15 Sep. 2005; 7 Jan + 29-30 Jun. + 1, 3 Jul + 9 Aug + 25-26, 31 Dec 2006; (5 Jan) 2008; 7 May + 10-11 Sep + 17-25 Dec 2009; 3 May 2011. If I have overlooked postings at a certain date, I hope that a reader will inform me. I found that Feb 2002 is absent in the archives of Ibiblio. Moreover, I do not know whether this biblical verse was discussed in B-Hebrew between 1992 and 1998. If these former discussions are accessible in one way or another, I would also like to know.
   When I was writing a book about Exod. 3:14 (published this year: The Other Face of God: ‘I Am That I Am’ Reconsidered, Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2012), I incidentally crossed these discussions (notably the discussion about tense) but could not imagine that the discussion was so extensive! A compilation of the postings about this subject will take some hundreds of pages! Especially the famous divine statement (“I am that I am” in KJV) in the first part of the verse has been paid attention to and therefore I might now describe my own starting points and findings in relation to its linguistic aspects (function of h-y-h and ’asher, function of the mode of conjugation, nature and function of the sentence construction and [question-]answer type involved) and differences with what has been written in B-Hebrew. However, for the moment I prefer to deal with a point only touched on in the discussion in B-Hebrew, the peculiar use of Ehyeh in the second part of the verse.
    ’ehye is usually a verb form (“I will be”) followed or preceded by a nominal or a prepositional phrase. Since it is here the first word of a sentence consisting further of a verb form (“has sent”) and a prepositional phrase (“to you”), respectively, it cannot but be understood as the subject of that sentence. Grammatically, it must function either as a noun (“an ’ehye”) or as a (proper) name (Ehyeh). Since the first alternative does not make sense and the context asks for a name (v. 13), it must be a name. Without doubt, this is not a surprising conclusion and it is also attested in the discussions in B-Hebrew. A specification of James Christian  (25 Dec 2009) in this connection – in opposition to Rolf Furuli (25 Dec 2009) – is worth mentioning: Ehyeh it is not an epithet but a real proper name because, as he expresses himself, it is not used with a definite article. To this argument it should be added that it has not been used nominally before.
    But why is this name Ehyeh used here? This is all the more a question since in the next answer the conventional divine name is used in an almost parallel sentence: “Yhwh … has sent me to you.” The usual explanation (also attested in this forum, but already clearly expressed by Rashbam and Ibn Ezra) is: God speaks here of himself in the first person (therefore Ehyeh) but others have to speak of him in the third person (Yhwh). This is not a quite convincing answer because in other situations (e.g. in chapter 20) God can speak of himself as Yhwh. Why not here? It could be replied that Ehyeh functions here as a transition between God’s first answer in the first person (’ehye ’asher ’ehyeh) and the third answer (with Yhwh). However, this only shifts the question: why has the first answer not been put in the third person? That God is speaking is no real objection to it. If the statement had been put in the third person, it would even be far more transparent as explanation of the divine name Yhwh, as it is usually understood (but too quickly in my view). However, the strongest objection against the usual explanation of the use of Ehyeh as a name is that in the text it is put in the mouth of Moses: it is Moses who has to say to the Israelites “Ehyeh has sent me to you”! Therefore once again: why is Ehyeh used here as a name?
    In B-Hebrew I found two views that are relevant in this connection. Stoney Breyer considers the answer to be a sarcastic invitation to Moses, just after the first answer with its “exploding” nature (20 Jul 2001; cf. 18 May 2001). His evidence seems to come from oral storytelling. In my view the narrative of Moses’ call should be primarily considered against the background of other literary forms in the Hebrew Bible (among them – but not only – theophany narratives and narratives with a similar call pattern). Rolf Furuli seems to distinguish ’ehye as first-person use of h-y-h as more fientive from its use in other persons: it would mean “I will prove to be” (esp. 25 Dec 2009). This distinction in persons is rather surprising to me. My biggest problem, however, is that he does not seem to distinguish between the function of the verb h-y-h (esp. indicating tense and mood, in opposition to verbless clauses) and the meaning of the collocations and clauses in which it occurs (without verb they may also have this “fientive” meaning).
    In my view the reason of the use of Ehyeh as a name is that Moses is introduced here as a prophet. It has already often been observed that some words and motifs used in the context have prophetic connotations, such as the word following Ehyeh, sh-l-kh (“send”, in connection with saying something), and the variation of the messenger formula, ‘Thus shall you say to the Children of Israel’, just preceding the name Ehyeh. A prophet usually speaks in the name of God by using the first person, therefore as if God himself is speaking. If Moses uses the name form Ehyeh in front of the people, he is representing God in the most eminent way that is possible and presents himself, in combination with ‘has sent me to you’ as speaking with ultimate authorization.
   Does this view not make too much of one word? Once again: is Ehyeh not a merely transitional form?! However, elsewhere in the Bible variations in name form can be considered significant (see esp. Gen 17:5,15). Although the variation in name form in Exodus 3.14-15 is different (at least from our point of view, although there is some resemblance: scholars usually consider Abram – Abraham as well as Sarai – Sara to have the same root), it will also have significance, all the more since it concerns the divine name. We should realize that the idea of Ehyeh as a merely transitional form has only become possible after the development of grammar: only since then it is possible to see Ehyeh as a simple, technical variant in relation to Yhwh. In fact, before the first grammar of Hebrew was written by Saadya Gaon (tenth century), the name Ehyeh was considered to be either a shortened message or a name. The latter understanding is illustrated in particular by transliterations in various Targums (including the Fragment-Targums). And even after the advancement of grammar, some distinction between Ehyeh and Yhwh was often maintained. For instance, Rashbam (twelfth century) considered Ehyeh to be God’s “[personal] name”, Yhwh his “royal [therefore: public] name”.
   In a case such as that of the divine statement of the first part of Exod 3:14, I am a strong supporter of a rigorous linguistic approach. It may break the deadlock of mainly repeating the same but opposing points of view. However, in the case of such an artificial production as the name Ehyeh in its second part, such an approach, and notably a purely grammatical approach, encounters its limits*. Then an idea-historical approach is more appropriate.
   In the past I had to revised my views in relation to Exod 3:14 many times. I am curious in what new points of view a discussion in B-Hebrew will result.
Cornelis den Hertog,
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