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Dustin LindenSmith

father | musician | writer

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The Definitive Explanation of the Origin of the Saying "I AM What I AM"

The answer finally became clear to me after I read Harold Rosenberg's wonderful volume, "The Book of J," a translation and interpretation of the children's stories in the Old Testament.

Yes, I said "children's stories." Rosenberg suggests -- and once you read what he says and take a fresh look at Genesis and Exodus, you realize that of course he's right -- that all those wonderful weird stories about Adam, Eve, Sarah, Jacob, Isaac, Rebecca, Joseph, Moses, etc., are being told by an adult to a child.

Moreover, the adult is telling those children's stories in the special way a person uses when another adult is in the room listening. The teller puts in jokes that go over the child's head, but make the other adult smile.

The reason hardly anybody notices this is because most of the jokes in these stories are puns. Word play. The author of these stories was crazy about puns. And unfortunately, puns don't translate. So when the Old Testament went from Hebrew to Greek to Latin to modern languages, the jokes were lost. (Also, people don't expect a religious book to have jokes in it. But when these stories were written, they weren't "religious" in the modern sense.)

This is exactly what happened with "I Am What I Am." It's a joke, a kind of pun, for an adult who is overhearing a story being told to a child. And the joke got lost because you only hear it if you know the original Hebrew. But if you look at the place where it occurs in the Bible, Exodus 3.13, and you know the original Hebrew words, you can hear the joke for yourself. It goes like this:

God tells Moses to inform the other Israelites that Moses has been sent to them by God to free them from bondage.

Naturally, Moses is worried that the other people won't believe him. Why should they? It sounds a little grandiose, don't you think? So Moses asks God, "If they ask me your name, to prove I really talked to you, what should I tell them?"

This already is a kind of joke, because the ancient Israelites thought it was wrong to say God's name.

So even if God were to answer Moses's question, what good would it do Moses? He wouldn't be allowed to go back to his people and tell it to them!

You see, it's the setup for a joke.

But in this story, God is a great comedian. Here's how he answers Moses's question.

Instead of saying his name, God says in Hebrew, "Ehyeh-asher-ehyeh," meaning, "I am that which I am." Meaning, in other words, "I'm just whatever I am." (You could also translate it, "I will be what I will be," etc.)

Imagine God saying this with a shrug. Moses asks, "What's your name?" God shrugs and says, "I'm whatever I am." He's avoiding the question, saying he doesn't need a name.

Now here's the punchline.

God then says, "So if they ask you my name, just say, 'Ehyeh.'" In other words, say the first part of the sentence "I am what I am." As if God's first name is "Ehyeh," meaning, "I am."

This is a joke because in the language that God and Moses were speaking, and the language the story is written in, "Ehyeh" is very close to "YHWH," which is the *real* name of God that nobody was allowed to say! (The root of the verb form "ehyeh" is "hayah," "to be." The author here is giving a jocular folk etymology for "YHWH.")

It's a joke! God is finding a way for Moses to say "YHWH" without anybody getting mad at him.

Imagine you are an adult in a room while another adult tells this story to a child. Both adults know God's real name is YHWH, but the child does not. From the child's point of view, it's just a story about God's name being "Ehyeh."

Because the author of this story was a literary genius, it's not only a joke, it's a joke that carries some real spiritual weight: Ramana Maharshi said this one little joke is all you need to get enlightened.

--Laura Olshansky (Editor in Chief of http://www.realization.org)