In Exodus 3:14, God tells Moses God’s name. In translation, this is usually written out as “I AM” or “I AM THAT I AM” or “I AM WHO I AM.” A while back, I started to think about the meaning of that and found myself amazed.
God’s name is not meant to be merely impressive title, nor is it simply something that sounds good. It is certainly not simply a logical theorem—such would not need to be spoken, because it is undeniable that a being is its being.
When God tells us that God’s name is “I AM,” God is giving us truth, giving us answers to questions we may not even have thought to ask (but, probably, at some time, have crossed our minds, however briefly).
Here are two things (certainly not an exhaustive list) that God’s name tells us:
The Impassibility of God
If we read God’s name as “I AM WHO I AM,” we are given a theological argument about God’s identity. The statement declares, or at least very strongly implies, God’s self-sufficiency and sovereignty. More important, it implies God’s impassibility. The theological term “impassibility” means that God’s person cannot be involuntarily changed by any event, force or influence outside of God’s self. In other words, God is perfectly according to God’s will and no other force in existence could make God be anything other than what God intends to be.
There is a caveat, though. Some theologians want to use God’s impassibility to argue that God does not have feelings in any sense that a human could understand, or that God could never be moved by something outside God’s self. I have tried to word the paragraph above to carefully avoid such an assertion. Yes, God cannot be moved by anything outside God’s self against God’s will, but to say that God could not allow God’s self to be moved by God’s own will to be vulnerable to an outside influence would logically negate the very idea of impassibility, because a force outside of God, some more law of existence that stands above God even, would be dictating God’s “impassibility,” and such an attribute must come from ontology to be logically consistent.
Rethink some of the things that God has done with and for humanity in light of this. When Abraham pleads with God for Sodom and Gomorrah, God must be making a choice to be persuadable in the first place. Whether this story should be read as historical fact or allegory does not matter—the point is that God willingly condescends to be in a responsive relationship with humanity. God is not distant and uncaring; God is personal and deeply involved in the experience of human existence. Think also of God choosing to suffer in the person of Jesus. An impassible God need never suffer—emotionally or physically—and yet the justice of our God is so great that God shows us that God will not allow any misfortune to befall us that God will not willingly suffer alongside us.
The Origin and Existence of God and Creation
“I AM.” The original Hebrew likely did not contain a period at the end of the statement, but it reads best, I think as “I AM [full stop].”
Have you ever thought to yourself, “If God created everything, where did God come from?” Or, perhaps, if you are not inclined to faith, “What happened before the universe started? What was before before?”
It is a question unanswerable in any meaningful way by the human mind. Two major mathematical solutions have been presented. In the first, something just is without reference to any timescale—at certain dimensions of scale time becomes irrelevant and it possible that, in some quantum physics calculations for example, the same result is generated regardless of the directionality of time (past to future versus future to past). The second major mathematical solution is an infinity of universes—one universe is generated by some event in a preceding universe and this stretches backward and forward in time infinitely. To a certain extent the two answers are really the same: existence just is.
Can we really do anything meaningful with either of those interpretations? No. The human mind is incapable of grasping the infinite in any truly tangible way and the attempt to do so is often met with nothing short of existential terror.
Before humans had any concept of quantum mechanics or advanced mathematics dealing with infinite solution sets, God gave us the answer to the primordial question. It only took God two words to explain in the entirety: “I AM.” God is, uncreated, eternal, without first cause. While we humans can say those sorts of words and understand in principle their meaning, we are, perhaps forever, incapable of actually understanding what they mean in their fullness. We cannot grok them.
We get a similar answer from God at the end of the Book of Job (perhaps my favorite in the Old Testament)—we are incapable of understanding all of existence, and this forces us to choose to either have faith in the creator God or not.