And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM...(KJV)
ויאמר אלהים אל־משה אהיה אשר אהיה

Hebrew does not have a word for the present tense of the verb "to be" (הָיָה): there is no word for "am" or "is" or "are."1

I "am" is understood yet linguistically impossible. What the LORD is literally saying is, "I will be [or become] who [or what] I will be [or become]" which we later know is their (the Israelite's) God.

In other words, YHVH was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Exodus 3:6). He appeared and spoke to each individually. Now He is now going to bring their descendants out of Egypt and in doing so will demonstrate who He is them as He did to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Therefore, He is telling Moses "I will become what I will become" [i.e. your God cf. Exodus 6:7].

1. Dennis Prager, Exodus: God, Slavery, and Freedom, Regnery Faith, 2018 p. 44

  • How would one express in Hebrew : I am that I am in the past, the present and the future ? That is to say, how would one express in Hebrew : I am that I am, eternally ? I think that is the better way to determine what is being expressed, than to ask the question the other way round. It is a matter of concept, not translation.
    – Nigel J
    Feb 28 '21 at 0:34
  • 1
    @NigelJ I am working with what the LORD said of Himself using the language He chose to make that expression. Feb 28 '21 at 0:42
  • That is exactly my point. We often have to perceive how another language handles our own concepts.
    – Nigel J
    Feb 28 '21 at 1:01
  • 1
    Considering the LXX translates it as, “I am the one being”, tell them “the one being has sent me to you”. I think the LXX should have some say in the matter. Feb 28 '21 at 2:54
  • 1
    @RevelationLad As a backgrounder and a survey of interpretation, I highly recommend perusing this 2013 dissertation YHWH, the Trinity, and the Literal Sense: Theological Interpretation of Exodus 3:13-15 which begins in Part I with a survey of influential commentaries, history of theological interpretation, etymological investigations, religio-historical approaches, and in Part II (rebuilding) proceeds with exegetical and narrative analysis and concludes with her trinitarian interpretation. The answer to your question must be somewhere within the 248 pages :-) Mar 4 '21 at 6:46

Exodus 3:14 New International Version

God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: 'I AM has sent me to you.'"

אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה (’eh·yeh)
Verb - Qal - Imperfect - first person common singular
Strong's Hebrew 1961: To fall out, come to pass, become, be

The Hebrew imperfect tense means that the action is ongoing and not completed. It can be used as the present or future tense in English. E.g., Exodus 20:13 is in Qal Imperfect:

"You shall not murder.

Another example of Qal Imperfect can be found in Proverbs 15:29

The LORD is far from the wicked, but he hears the prayer of the righteous.

This time it is translated into a present tense. Sometimes, it can even be translated into the past tense as in Genesis 2:6 NIV

but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground.

In Exodus 3:14 God declares his self-existence as a tautology. It is an eternal timeless truth in the past, present, and future.

Revelation 1:8

"I am the Alpha and the Omega," says the Lord God, who is and was and is to come--the Almighty.

Is “I will become who I will become…” a proper understanding of אהיה אשר אהיה in Exodus 3:14?

Yes, but that is only part of the proper understanding.

Is “I will become who I will become…” a better understanding of אהיה אשר אהיה in Exodus 3:14?

I don't think so. אהיה אשר אהיה is a timeless tautology: I-exist that I-exist. It is about God and not about the Israelites in the future.

  • Thank you. I modified the question to ask if it a better understanding. The question of "I am" centers on the impossibility to say "am" in Hebrew. For example, elsewhere the LORD says אני הוא literally "I He." So it would seem if the present tense is intended to be emphasized and not the future ("I will become your God"), He would use the pronoun אני in some way. Feb 28 '21 at 19:32
  • "It is an eternal timeless truth in the past, present, and future". Well said, +1 Feb 28 '21 at 19:39
  • @RevelationLad Tense doesn't enter into it, really. Tense is not indigenous to Hebrew. We like to align tense with aspect when translating, but it's not a perfect fit, and this name of God verse is a good example. It's neither present nor future, just yiqtol (ongoing). It is often used of an active personal quality, something someone does by nature, but we tend to overlook this fact because it's most frequent not in sentences but -- you guessed it -- in names. Names like Yisrael and Yitzhaq are epithetic; they describe the nature of the person, not a specifically future action they'll take. Mar 1 '21 at 4:01
  • @LukeSawczak When Moses asks who is sending him, he already knows he is speaking to the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob (3:6). There would seem to be no need for God to assert a present identity or to even reassert His past existence (as if God's past was ever to be in question). OTOH, bringing the people out of Egypt, making them His people, giving them the Law and so forth is what is going to happen. Of God's eternal existence, the emphasis is on what He is going to do and as a result what He will become to the people. Mar 1 '21 at 6:16
  • @RevelationLad What can I say -- if you continue to hang everything on past, present, future, you're not going to get anywhere accurate or interesting. Mar 1 '21 at 11:45

I think your basic understanding is correct. Indeed Austin Surls in his book "Making Sense of the Divine Name in the Book of Exodus: From Etymology to Literary Onamastics" reaches the same conclusion as you. He insists "I will be whoever I will be" is the closest to the original meaning of אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה as formulated by the biblical authors. His understanding is similar to yours, i.e., God's essence was not yet revealed until he took them out of Egypt and unveiled his true omnipotent powers. According to Surls the divine name is etymologically opaque or etymologically vague, which allows YHWH to ascribe sense to this empty cell or an onmastic peg as he calls it, on which he could hang his future salvific actions. When He told Moses "I will be whoever I will be", He was making a statement that this name would soon be revealed, the name YHWH did not describe God's character, it was given to anticipate later revelation. Israel had yet to discover who YHWH would show himself to be. This is his thesis in a nutshell. Surls also goes on to prove that the true meaning of the Tetragrammaton was only revealed later in Exodus 33-34. In ancient Israel there was clearly a common belief that the Tetragrammaton contained and expressed within it all the character traits enumerated in Exodus 34:6-7. So for example, when the prophet proclaims in Isaiah 48:9

For the sake of my name I will restrain my anger

לְמַעַן שְׁמִי אַאֲרִיךְ אַפִּי

The word שמי in this specific context clearly does not refer to the name of YHWH or His character in a general sense, but to his character revealed specifically in Exodus 34:6-7 that God is an ארך אפים. See Surls chapter 7 for other biblical references that support this.

Surls' thesis is indeed convincing, but I think he misses something important here. I agree that God's answer to Moses "I will be whoever I will be" was intentionally vague and was meant as an introduction to the longer answer given in Exodus 34 wherein God revealed his true essence to Moses, but I don't agree that it's meant to be understood as Surls understands it, i.e., that His essence is not yet known until He reveals His terrifying power in the land of Egypt, neither do I believe that "I will be whoever I will be" adequately encapsulates that response. I think a more accurate interpretation of God's response is that God's character is multi-faceted, therefore God's character cannot be expressed simply in one word. As we see from Exodus 34:6-7, God can be merciful but can also be vengeful punishing even the sinner's kids and grandkids up to the third and fourth generation. God can be merciful to the righteous but unforgiving to the sinners, this I think is succinctly encapsulated in God's response "I will be whoever I will be", i.e., my character is not static, but multi-faceted and multi-dimensional. I cannot properly be given the title "the merciful God" or "the vengeful God", "the mighty hunter" or "the loving shepherd", since I am all of the above depending on the circumstances and nature of the receiver. God's character is colorful like the chameleon constantly changing and taking on new forms, thus the name cannot simply express his true essence as Moses wishes to know it, but must remain etymologically opaque, as Surls correctly notes. God will be whoever he wants to be; in one scenario he will be like dew to Israel (Hosea 14:6 אֶהְיֶ֤ה כַטַּל֙ לְיִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל) or like a wall of fire to protect Jerusalem (Zachariah 2:5 וַאֲנִי אֶהְיֶה לָּהּ נְאֻם יְהוָה חוֹמַת אֵשׁ סָבִיב), in another scenario he will be like an angry lion to Judah ripping them apart to pieces (Hosea 5:14). YHWH's character in essence then is unpredictable, albeit within reason and within the boundaries of justice and fairness, meting out to every person and nation what they rightfully deserve.


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:

  1. "I will certainly be [there for you in the exodus]" (translating the meaning, as the positive form of the usage in Hosea 1:9)
  2. "I am what I am" (translating only the words literally)
  3. "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.

  1. https://he.wiktionary.org/wiki/%D7%94%D7%99%D7%94
  2. Psalms 126:1 "When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dreamed. (היינו)
  3. http://www.daat.ac.il/encyclopedia/value.asp?id1=2943
  • @RevelationLad That is exactly the way the verse can be read in modern Hebrew. But besides presenting an apparent non-sequitur and sounding like "thanks but no-thanks", or "I ain't gonna work on your farm", the verse just makes more sense in context when אהיה as an indication of standing as elsewhere in the MT. Ruth comes off sounding humble and grateful. This is the way most translators read the verse, in my view, correctly and consistently with other MT usage.
    – user17080
    Mar 3 '21 at 16:50
  • The LXX understands Ruth as future: ἡ δὲ εἶπεν εὕροιμι χάριν ἐν ὀφθαλμοῗς σου κύριε ὅτι παρεκάλεσάς με καὶ ὅτι ἐλάλησας ἐπὶ καρδίαν τῆς δούλης σου καὶ ἰδοὺ ἐγὼ ἔσομαι ὡς μία τῶν παιδισκῶν σου which is my point. YHVH is telling Moses He was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and He will become the God of their descendants by His bringing them out of Egypt. Mar 3 '21 at 16:51
  • @RevelationLad I suspect that this is an interpretation of Ruth from a time when Hebrew verbs uniformly acquired tenses, possibly as a result of contact with Greek culture, and that this interpretation is influenced by midrashic sources. Regarding Ex 3:14, a future sense is, IMHO the correct reading in the context, the anticipation of the exodus but not a prediction that He will become their God, but that he will be with them. He already is their God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
    – user17080
    Mar 3 '21 at 17:02

The Name stated in Exodus 3:14 is אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה Ehyeh asher ehyeh which translated in English means "I Will Be what I will be" | אֶ-הְיֶה E-hyeh is Qal imperfect, 1st person, singular.

Exodus / Shemot 3:14 [MT]

And Elohim said to Moshe, "I Will Be what I will be", and He said, "So shall you say to the children of Yisrael, 'I Will Be has sent me to you.' " ( וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶל־משֶׁ֔ה אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה וַיֹּ֗אמֶר כֹּ֤ה תֹאמַר֙ לִבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה שְׁלָחַ֥נִי אֲלֵיכֶֽם )

Chizkuni on Exodus 3:14

אהיה אשר אהיה, the first word אהיה is the name of G-d; the second is an explanation of why G-d is called אהיה. In other words: the reason why My name is אהיה is because I am eternal, immutable. I am therefore a most reliable G-d, in the sense of dependable helper and saviour, as I will always be around. My “lifespan” is not as that word suggests a limited period, but I am not subject to any limitations. I will still be on the side of the Jewish people at the time when I redeem them from the sufferings in Egypt, as already promised by Yaakov to Joseph in Genesis 48,21. In other words, the name revealed to Moses here by G-d was not a new name. Yaakov had already been familiar with it. It is one of the attributes of G-d, Who has many attributes. G-d tells Moses that anyone who legitimizes himself as speaking of the G-d called אהיה, will be believed. The fact is that the Israelites did believe Moses when he identified himself as speaking in the name of this G-d, as we read in Exodus 4,31.


Daat Zkenim on Exodus 3:14

ויאמר....אהיה, “He said (G–d)......I shall be;” why did the Torah have to repeat so many times “He said” of G–d, in verses 14-16 when we have not been told that Moses replied to any of these pronouncements of G–d? We may have to understand this as G–d feeling the need to explain statements He had made such as that His name is אהיה, meaning that seeing that He is eternal this should be reflected in His very name. The words: אשר אהיה, may be meant to define this very attribute. In order to make sure that Moses would not think that His name is אהיה אשר אהיה, He tells Moses precisely how to answer the elders’ question about Who it is that sent him. Hence the instruction: כה תאמר “you shall word it precisely thus;” as far as the people of Israel is concerned the fact that He had no beginning is of secondary interest; what matters to them is that He will continue to exist forever without aging.



Modified to align with the edit to the question

Is the Lord only talking about the future here? I don't think so.

From James E. Talmage:

The Hebrew Ehyeh, signifying I Am, is related in meaning and through derivation with the term Yahveh or Jehovah...the Lord further revealed Himself, saying 'I am the LORD: and I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob...but by my name Jehovah was I not known unto them.' The central fact connoted by this name, I Am, or Jehovah, the two having essentially the same meaning, is that of existence or duration that shall have no end.1

So yes, this passage has implications for the future; but not only for the future. The Lord speaks of His Godship in the past (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob), and certainly does indicate His existence in the present and the future as well.

Another rendering of the Hebrew here is that He is "the Self-Existent One". So I don't disagree that He's letting Moses know He will be their God in the future, but I do think He's saying something considerably more than that. Unlike the idols of Egypt which are perishable, He (the Lord) isn't going anywhere.

  1. James E. Talmage. Jesus the Christ, The Church, 1962, pp. 36-37
  • He appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and showed Himself to be God and He was their God, because they accepted Him as their God. How was He the God of those He was going to bring out of Egypt before they existed? Feb 28 '21 at 19:50
  • Fair question. My intended meaning was that He was the God of their people prior to revealing Himself to Moses (e.g. revelation to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob). He didn't need to become their God in the future; He already was. More broadly, the Lord isn't just talking about being their God; He is testifying of His own eternal nature. Feb 28 '21 at 22:35
  • Re "before they existed", thought this wasn't what I intended to refer to in my post, it is in itself a fascinating discussion. Was God their God before they were born? That would be a full on separate question page, but my answer to the question would be yes. Feb 28 '21 at 22:46
  • He is only their God when they accept Him as such. Consider atheists. Their belief does not mean there is no God, but it does mean He is not their God. Mar 1 '21 at 2:25
  • I follow what you mean. I could see interpreting "their God" and "their Creator" as two different statements, or interpreting it as two different ways to say the same thing. Mar 1 '21 at 2:30

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