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Deacon-structing I AM: The Divine Name

Deacon Pedro

Monday, March 2, 2020

Moses before the Burning Bush by Norbert Grund, Prague, 1717 – 1767. Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest.
Last week we began looking at the Gospel of John, which is featured this year during Lent a bit more than other years.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus is slowly revealed as “one with the Father” (see John 10:30, for example). This revelation is made even clearer by seven key statements that Jesus says. These are referred to as the “I Am” statements. We are familiar with them: “I am the Bread of Life”, “I am the Light of the World”, and “I am the Resurrection and the Life” among them.
What is so significant about this?
“I Am” is the divine name revealed to Moses by God at the burning bush (see Exodus 3:14). When God appears to Moses to send him back to Egypt to plead with Pharaoh to release the Israelites, Moses asks him his name:
“If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘the God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”
God replies, ehyeh asher ehyeh, which translates to “I Am who I Am”, “I am what I am”, or “I will be what I will be.” According to the New Oxford Annotated Bible, it can also be understood to mean, “I cause what which is to be.”
God continues by telling Moses to say to the Israelites that, “‘I am’ (ehyeh) has sent me to you” (Ex. 3:14b). He continues,
“Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD (YHWH), the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’”
Therefore God uses three forms of the divine name to Moses: ehyeh ahser ehyeh, ehyeh, and yhwh, all derivatives of the verb “to be” (hayah). In addition to Exodus 3:14, there are only three other times where the Old Testament has God referring to himself by using the “I am” name: Isaiah 41:4, 43:10, and in 46:4.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says,
“The revelation of the ineffable name 'I AM WHO AM' contains then the truth that God alone IS. The Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, and following it the Church's tradition, understood the divine name in this sense: God is the fullness of Being and of every perfection, without origin and without end. All creatures receive all that they are and have from him; but he alone is his very being, and he is of himself everything that he is.” (#213)

In revealing his name to Moses, God is revealing something to us about his mysterious nature:

“In revealing his mysterious name, YHWH ('I AM HE WHO IS', 'I AM WHO AM', or 'I AM WHAT I AM'), God says who he is and by what name he is to be called. This divine name is mysterious just as God is mystery. It is at once a name revealed and something like the refusal of a name, and hence it better expresses God as what he is - infinitely above everything that we can understand or say: he is the 'hidden God', his name is ineffable, and he is the God who makes himself close to men.” (CCC #206)
The second commandment directs us not to “take the name of the Lord in vain” (Exodus 20:7; see also CCC #2142-2149). The Jewish people took this commandment seriously to the point of not ever pronouncing the name of the Lord. (In fact, only the High Priest would pronounce the name during Yom Kippur. Perhaps the fact that Jesus is comfortable uttering this name is an allusion that He is the High Priest?) This is why the Divine Name, “YHWH”, when read in scriptures, is replaced by the word “LORD” (Adonai) in small caps, and since ancient written Hebrew used no vowel markings, we can only guess at the exact pronunciation of “YHWH”. When not reading the Torah, most observant Jews refer to the Sacred Name simply as Ha Shem, or “the Name”.
John has Jesus identifying himself with the Divine Name numerous times, not just with the seven “I Am” statements, but also in several other instances: with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well (which is the Gospel for the Third Sunday of Lent, John 4:26); with the disciples during the storm at the Sea of Tiberias (John 6:20); with the “Jews” during the Feast of the Tabernacles (John 8:58); and to the soldiers during the arrest scene (John 18:5 and 8), to name four. In total, Jesus refers to himself with an “I am” saying forty-six times in the Gospel of John, as opposed to only twice in Mark and Luke and only five times in Matthew (see Matthew 14:27, Matthew 14:27, and Mark 6:50, where Jesus says, “It is I.”)
According to the Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, there are three types of “I am” statements:
  1. With a predicate: for example, “I am the resurrection and the life.” (John 11:25)
  2. With an implied predicate: for example, “It is I.” (John 6:20. In Greek: “I am.”)
  3. Without implicit or explicit predicate: for example, “I am he” in John 8:24 and 28, “I am” in John 8:58, and “I am who I am” in John 13:19.
This last absolute “I am” (in the original Greek) occurs at least these four times. It is suggested that this usage is drawn from the Old Testament tradition and suggests the name of God in Exodus 3:14. Even though it is not clear whether Jesus actually used the Divine Name (YHWH) in referring to himself or rather a form of it (ehyeh, for example), it is commonly agreed among scholars that this use of “I am” suggests a claim for divine authority if not divine identity.

From the reaction of those to whom he was speaking, it is fairly clear that they understood that this claim was being made.

This week’s Gospel reading takes us up Mt. Tabor for the Transfiguration scene with Peter, James, and John (Matthew 17:1-9). Elijah and Moses join Jesus at the top of the mountain. Jesus gives us a glimpse of his divinity and a glimpse of what’s to come with the resurrection. Peter expresses what I imagine is in the hearts of James and John too: “Let’s stay here forever!” This is what happens when we connect to the divine. We want to stay connected forever.
This week consider this:
Jesus says, “I am the true vine.” Jesus is the God who gives us life. He is the source of energy who keeps us healthy and growing. He is also the connection that keeps us rooted. Jesus fulfills our longing to abide in God and have God abide in us.
Jesus-the-vine calls us to help others stay healthy and to bear fruit, to comfort the sick and those with special needs, and to abide in God.
This first week of Lent, go and do the same.
And come back next week and meditate on what it means that Jesus is God.

Every week, Deacon Pedro takes a particular topic apart, not so much to explore or explain the subject to its fullness, but rather to provide insights that will deepen our understanding of the subject. And don’t worry, at the end of the day he always puts the pieces back together. There are no limits to deaconstructing: Write to him and ask any questions about the faith or Church teaching: [email protected]

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