For centuries interpreters and translators have wrestled over the significance of the divine name in Exodus 3:14, and the debate shows no signs of abating. However, I want to offer one consideration on the matter that I have not seen mentioned elsewhere. Consider it exegetical grist for the mill.
Bruce Waltke contends that Moses’ question in 3:13 is not what God’s name is, but what it means:
In biblical Hebrew mî (usually glossed “who?”) is the animate, interrogative pronoun that focuses on the person. Thus, mi se meka (lit. “Who is your name?”) is used to ask for someone’s name (Judg. 13:17). The inanimate mah is used when the focus is on the circumstance rather than the person. Thus, mah se meka (lit., “What is your name?”) seeks the meaning of the name (Gen. 32:38). It should not surprise us to find that Moses uses mah rather than mi in this pivotal text, asking mah semo (“What is the meaning of his name?”). Within the context of the narrative, Moses is really anticipating this question from the Israelites, “Given all the suffering we have been through, what does I AM mean anyway?” (Bruce K. Waltke, An Old Testament Theology, 365)
The grammar of the name itself is famously ambiguous, with two main contenders for the correct gloss being “I am” and “I will be”. I think a good case can be made from the context that we should opt for the former. Here are my thoughts.
Firstly, it’s not clear what the future tense option would mean on its own. How informative is it to answer “given all our suffering, what does your name mean?” with “I will exist in the future”? In reply to all the other questions Moses asks in this chapter and the next, God provides reasons that Moses should not be afraid to carry out his will. Thus the reader is naturally led to anticipate an answer with a similar intent in this case. If the future tense reply does not clearly realize that anticipation, might the present tense option fare better?
On a prima facie reading, the present tense translation suggests simply that God exists, “I am”. As we have already noted, Moses’ question was looking for the meaning of this name, and since names in scripture commonly signified the nature of the thing they named (cf. Genesis 2 with Adam naming the animals, etc.), we are probably meant to assume the same in our interpretation here. “I am” tells us something about God’s nature that marks him out as an individual from all other things.
What might it mean, then, to say that God’s existence marks him out from other things? Once again, looking at the text from a strictly literal point of view, such a statement would seem to imply that everything else lacked existence. Is there any other statement in scripture that might illuminate the meaning of such a claim? In fact there are several similar statements later in the Old Testament. Consider one such example from Daniel 4:
At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored him who lives forever,
for his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
and his kingdom endures from generation to generation;
35 all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing,
and he does according to his will among the host of heaven
and among the inhabitants of the earth;
The parallelism within verse 35 provides a helpful gloss: to say that God accounts the inhabitants of the earth as nothing is like saying God does whatever he pleases in heaven and on earth. This parallel also probably implies that God similarly considers the host of heaven “as nothing”, since he treats them the same way as the inhabitants of earth.
Another relevant parallel appears in Psalm 39:
4 “O Lord, make me know my end
and what is the measure of my days;
let me know how fleeting I am!
5 Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths,
and my lifetime is as nothing before you.
Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath! Selah
6 Surely a man goes about as a shadow!
If Daniel 4 told us that the “nothingness” of created things means they are powerless relative to God, then Psalm 39 tells us it means they are transitory relative to him.
Returning to Exodus 3, we can now ask: do these passages shed any light on Moses’ question about the meaning of God’s name? We must affirm that they do. The non-existence of created things relative to God, or the unique existence of God relative to created things, connoted to the Hebrew mind God’s absolutely unchallengeable power and eternal presence. And faced with oppression by a powerful human empire, the knowledge that God’s power was unstoppable would surely be a comfort.
Still, readers might reply that this explanation is murky. We have said that God’s existence is unique in some sense… but what sense exactly? From Genesis 1 alone readers of Exodus 3 would know it cannot mean that only God exists. If that chapter tells us anything, it tells us God created other things. So other things exist besides God.
The same chapter, and everything it meant to the ancient Hebrew mind, also provides us with a more complete answer to the present question. What makes God’s existence different from that of all other things? The fact that they are created by him, and he is not created at all. He exists without being created; he is self-existent. Everything else is dependent upon him for being.
This provides a natural elucidation for the uniqueness of the divine existence implied by the name “I am”. It seems very likely then that in giving himself this name, God meant to remind human beings of his self-existence, and of the correlative dependence of everything else on him. In short: the name “I am” means “I am the Creator” in the full theological sense of that term.
And this point does not take us away from the practical significance of the name noted above. On the contrary, it supplies us with the explanation for why no creature can offer a challenge to God’s power. Because all things depend upon God for their very existence, let alone any power they may have, they can obviously provide no challenge to him. Cornelius Van Til’s famous image is truly appropriate here: any attempt to oppose God would be the equivalent of a child having to sit in her father’s lap in order to slap his face. At no point could the creature be a true threat to God’s sovereignty, since it is only by his will that it exists at all to pretend to challenge him.
Now we can see why the name “I am” would be an encouragement to Moses and the Israelites. The name signifies God’s self-existence, and the dependence of all other beings upon his power for their reality. In their context of suffering and pain, the Israelites were meant to recognize that “all other beings” necessarily included their oppressors. With that knowledge they were meant to ask “If God is for us, who can be against us?” And the implied answer is a comforting thought indeed.