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The Power in a Name

From the September 2009 issue of The Christian Science Journal

Some Time Between 1400 and 1200 BC, Moses learned the name "I am" for God, directly from God. I am sure that he carefully preserved what he was told, which can now be found in Exodus 3:11–15. He asked God, "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?" (English Standard Version). The reply was essentially, "Because I am with thee" (Young's Literal Translation). When Moses wanted to know the name of the God who sent him, the reply was, "I am who I am" (Revised Standard Version), ... tell them, I am sent me unto you. "I am who I am" signifies that existence is predicated upon being itself, resulting in the metaphysical being, I am. God said furthermore, "Say this to the people of Israel, 'I am has sent me to you'" (RSV).

At first glance, the Hebrew word translated I am looks like "He is" instead of "I am." It's a verb for what God does, and that's a difficult thing to say in one word! Although its derivation is a matter of debate, in this text and many others the Lord promises, I am with you or I am your God and you are my people (see for example Gen. 26:3 and Zech. 8:8). This points towards a tradition in ancient Israel that linked the name of God with being and becoming, and encourages the tentative definition of God as "Being who causes being."

The Biblical explanation for the works of Moses was that because he knew God by name, he understood the power of God. We seldom even guess at its metaphysical potency in ancient Israelite thought. Its Hebrew letters have been sounded out to get Yahweh or Jehovah, but neither sounds like the English verb "to be," so we cannot hear its meaning. In ancient Israel, God's name sounded like the verb signifying being every time it was said. Many English translations render it "the Lord." Jewish people say, "my Lord," acknowledging the precious and living relationship between Creator and created. Here is the first link between this ancient name and "Love"—the Love that is God and the love between God and man (the spiritual identity of every created being, male and female).

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