The verb "to be", as in "I am/he is", is היה.1
It is not required in either MT or modern Hebrew expressions relating to the present time because it is understood. When it is explicitly used, as in Ruth 2:13 (see below), it usually expresses emphasis as in "I am not even a servant". So, although there certainly is a word for "to be/I am" in MT Hebrew, both in singular and plural2, it is used differently than the English verb to be.
Reviewing the forty examples of אהיה in the MT shows that the usage can occur in expressions relating to past, present or future. This differs from later Hebrew in which verbs forms came to require a tense structure and אהיה is first person future. MT verb forms sometimes exhibit tense and sometimes express modality.3
In I Chronicles 28:6 אהיה clearly indicates a future action (NIV):
He said to me: ‘Solomon your son is the one who will build my house and my courts, for I have chosen him to be my son, and I will be his father
In I Chronicles 17:13 אהיה clearly indicates a future action (NIV):
I will be his father, and he will be my son. I will never take my love away from him, as I took it away from your predecessor
In Ruth 2:13 אהיה apparently indicates a present conditional status (NIV):
May I continue to find favor in your eyes, my lord,” she said. “You have put me at ease by speaking kindly to your servant—though I do not (am not) have the standing of one of your servants
In Song of Songs 1:7 אהיה apparently indicates a present conditional status similar to the future conditional והיה (NIV):
Tell me, you whom I love, where you graze your flock and where you rest your sheep at midday. Why should I be like a veiled woman beside the flocks of your friends?
In Job 17:6 אהיה indicates a present status:
God has made me a byword to everyone, [I have become/I am] a man in whose face people spit
In Job 12:4 אהיה indicates a present status
I have become/I am a laughingstock to my friends...
In Job 10:19 אהיה indicates a past conditional possibility
If only I had never come into being, or had been carried straight from the womb to the grave!
In Job 3:16 אהיה indicates a past conditional possibility
Or why was I not hidden away in the ground like a stillborn child, [I would be] like an infant who never saw the light of day?
In Psalms 50:21 אהיה indicates a past conditional possibility
When you did these things and I kept silent, you thought I was [or "am"] exactly like you...
In Zechariah 9:9 אהיה clearly indicates a future state of being:
I will bring them back to live in Jerusalem; they will be my people, and I will be faithful and righteous to them as their God.
In Zechariah 2:5 אהיה appears twice, as a future state of being:
'And I myself will be a wall of fire around it,' declares the Lord, 'and I will be its glory within.'
In Hosea 14:5 אהיה appears as a future state of being:
I will be like the dew to Israel; he will blossom like a lily. Like a cedar of Lebanon he will send down his roots
In Hosea 1:9 אהיה appears as a present intent, "I wont be there for you":
Then the Lord said, “Call him Lo-Ammi (which means “not my people”), for you are not my people, and I am not your [God].
Note that in this last example, "God" is interpolated by the translator, it is not in the MT and does not appear to be a scribal omission.
The doubling of אהיה in Exodus 3:14 with אשר ("that" or "what") is a further emphatic form.
So, following the above examples when God is saying אהיה, in Exodus 3:14, אהיה אשר אהיה can be understood as:
- "I will certainly be [there for you in the exodus]" (translating the meaning, as the positive form of the usage in Hosea 1:9)
- "I am what I am" (translating only the words literally)
- "I will be what I will be" (translating only the words literally)
In context, this passage appears to be saying, "My name is 'I will be [there for you in the exodus]'", or "Don't worry, My middle name is 'I've got your back'", which is what Moses needed to say to reassure the Israelites that this God was going to get them through.
This verse is almost certainly a midrash shem (homiletic interpretation) of the tetragrammaton name.
- Psalms 126:1 "When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dreamed. (היינו)