(This is a redux of my slight digression in my post in the history of early Christianity here).
The book of Exodus (along with the majority of the Pentateuch), according to the general scholarly consensus, was written or re-written sometime after the Jews’ return from exile around 500 BCE. But for this post I’m going to focus on what’s probably the most famous passage in the entire Tanakh. Which is YHWH’s response to Moses when Moses asks who he should say sent him. Exodus 3:14.
On the face of it, in our English translations, YHWH simply blows Moses off. But this doesn’t really make sense considering that YHWH does say his name (YHWH) in Exodus 3:15, but in our English translations it say the word LORD. Without going into the digression about HaShem and the Hebrew word(s) for “Lord”, it suffices it to say that “Lord” is not YHWH’s name. But back to Ex 3:14:
14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am . [a] This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ “
[a]Or I will be what I will be
Is “I am who I am” a fair translation of the Hebrew? English didn’t exist in 500 BCE when this was written, so who knows what was lost in translation. Here’s the “I am what I am” in Hebrew:
אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה;
EHY’H ASHR EHY’H
Since Hebrew has no “tenses” there are varying interpretations of this phrase. EHY’H comes from the Hebrew verb “To Be”. Without going into the many possible interpretations, let’s look at how this phrase was translated by Greek speaking Jews 200 years later. Now, if the English phrase “I am what I am” were what the original Hebrew authors intended, we should find the same exact phrasing in Greek:
εγω ειμι ο ων
egw eimi [h]o wn
So what does “ego eimi ho on” mean in Koine Greek? It most closely means “I am the Being”. “I am what I am” would look more like εγω ειμι ποιο ειμι::I am what/which I am. I picked Greek because it was the second language that was used to translate this passage, and is a language not very much younger than Hebrew. ΩΝ (wn) is the present participle (-ing) Greek version of the Greek ontos, which is the prefix for the word Ontology, or the study of what it means to “be” (exist).
But… most English translations come from Jerome’s (c. 400 CE… 600 years later!) Latin. This is what the passage became in Latin:
ego sum qui sum
This means I am what I am, which is what we have in English. It should be no surprise, since English is a [Roman]ce language. So why the difference between the Greek and Latin? I’m showing my bias here, but the Latin was not translated by a Jew whereas the Greek was. So I’m going to defer to the Greek as the more intentional translation. So why would the Greek say “I am the Being”? To understand that, you have to understand HaShem and the verb “To Be”.
Out of respect for HaShem, “YHWH” is not pronounced. But YHY and HYH are both causative forms of the verb “to be”. HYH means “existed” or “was”; YHY means “may” or “will be”. Therefore The Name might have simply been making a play on The Name and its grammatical relationship to the verb “to be”, with the last two letters of AHYH (ehyeh – I shall be) and HYH (heyeh) containing the first two letters of YHY (yahey – I may be) and thus YHWH. The other interpretation being “I shall be what I shall be” which would have been rendered in Greek something like εγω εσομαι ποιο εσομαι::I will be what/which I will be. εσομαι (I will be) is used in the Greek version of Ex. 3:12 (εσομαι μετα σου::I will be with you).
“I am the Being” (or even “I am existence” would work) is probably the closest the Greek speaking Jews could come to describing the pun that only makes sense in Hebrew. The pun being between the grammatical/phonetic relationship between The Name “YHWH” and instances of the Hebrew verb “to be”. Though in my opinion this is straddling pretty close to pantheism (which is my theology).