In my book on the Hebrew Bible “Reconciling a Contradictory Abraham” I argue that, in spite of the enormous influence of the Hebrew Bible upon western culture, the Hebrew Bible is a widely misunderstood document. One example of misunderstanding and mistranslation of the Hebrew Bible is the verse (Exodus 3, 14) that is widely and mistakenly translated as “And God said to Moses, I am who I am”. This verse occurs in a central passage of the Hebrew Bible – the story of the burning bush. In order to properly understand the verse (Exodus 3, 14) I want to explain not only the importance of the passage of the burning bush but the revolutionary conception of religion of the Hebrew Bible reflected in the story of the burning bush.
The great revolution of the Hebrew Bible is not – as is widely and mistakenly thought – a theological and orthodox (correct belief) revolution in conceiving of God in a monotheistic sense and in conceiving of the essence of religion as faith in one God. Rather, the great revolution of the Hebrew Bible is a moral and orthoprax (correct practice) revolution in conceiving of God as a moral God who demands morality, and in conceiving of the essence of religion as moral character and moral action – not only a revolutionary conception of God and religion in the ancient Biblical world but a revolutionary conception of religion even still today when so many, at least in the western world, think of the essence of religion as faith in God or as ritual.
I think that it would be fair to say that the concept most associated with religion in the western world would be the concept of faith in God. Yet, shockingly, the term faith in God hardly appears in the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses), and the few places where it does appear are not passages that stand out as being of great importance. The term faith (or belief) in God is absent from such central passages as the story of the binding of Isaac, the so-called ten commandments (which are referred to in the Torah and by the Talmudic rabbis as the ten statements) and, the story of the burning bush.
The term faith in God (aside from hardly appearing in the Torah, and not in important passages) does not appear one time in the Torah in the form of an explicit command to believe that God exists – nor is there any explicit command to believe any other theological or philosophic proposition, nor any philosophic argument attempting to prove the existence of God or any other theological or philosophic proposition. The term faith in God is not used in the command form. The term faith in God throughout the Hebrew Bible is used in a psychological and orthoprax sense of trust in, or loyalty to, God that expresses itself in proper behavior or in an optimistic attitude of hope, thankfulness and appreciation.
There are rabbinic commentaries that portray Abraham as the founder of monotheism. Such rabbinic commentaries portray Abraham as a kind of philosopher who on the basis of his own independent philosophic analysis arrives at a monotheistic (orthodox) conception. However, there is no textual support in the Hebrew Bible whatsoever for such rabbinic commentaries, and there is actually textual support for concluding that Abraham was not a monotheist. For example, Abraham says (Genesis 14, 22) “I have raised my hand to the Lord (YHVH), the most high God” (the Hebrew letters YHVH, translated as “the Lord”, constitute the unpronounceable name of God). The concept of a “most high God”, which appears in other places in the Hebrew Bible as well, clearly implies that other gods, besides YHVH (the Lord), exist, and that YHVH is the highest God among a pantheon of gods.
Indeed, the Torah, in the opening statements of the ten statements and in general, presupposes the existence of other gods of other peoples rather than denying their existence. The statement “I am the Lord your God” declares that YHVH is the God of Israel (to whom the people Israel are to be loyal) among the many gods that are presumed to exist; while the statement “You shall have no other gods before Me” is a demand of the people Israel to serve YHVH alone without denying the existence of other gods of other peoples. After the crossing of the Reed Sea (the Hebrew term in the Torah is Reed Sea and not Red Sea), in the song of the sea, it is written, “Who is like unto You, O Lord (YHVH) among the gods?” (Exodus 15, 11). The verse presupposes the existence of other gods who cannot be compared to YHVH. In addition, in the ten statements YHVH is referred to as a “jealous God” (Exodus 20, 5 and Deuteronomy 5, 9) who demands exclusive worship (service) and loyalty. Of whom is YHVH jealous if no other gods exist?
In the Biblical culture gods exist, and gods have personal and concrete names such as Ba’al and Ashtarte in the Canaanite culture, and YHVH in the Israelite culture. The Bible demands of the people Israel to be loyal to YHVH among the many gods demanding loyalty. The Bible demands not faith or belief in a theological (orthodox) sense but loyalty in a psychological (orthoprax) sense – and, such loyalty will express itself in behavior and a certain way of life. Loyalty to Ba’al will necessarily express itself in a fertility cult in which the essence of religion is ritual practice, whereas loyalty to YHVH will express itself in a life of obedience to the moral will of YHVH in which the essence of religion is morality and not ritual.
The great revolution of the Torah and Hebrew Bible then is not monotheism, but the way in which God is conceived not only as a God of creation who is powerful – but, most importantly, as a moral God of revelation and redemption who demands morality. The story of the burning bush is a story of revelation – revelation of the very name of God (YHVH) to Moses. The essence of the name of God (YHVH) is that God demands morality, as expressed in Psalm 23 – “the Lord (YHVH) is my shepherd…He restores my soul, He leads me in paths of righteousness for the sake of His name” (Psalm 23, 1-3). This is the essence of the revelation to Moses at the burning bush (that God demands morality) where God first reveals God’s nature as a God of history and redemption as opposed to a power of nature – “Thus shall you say to the children of Israel, the Lord (YHVH) God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you; this is My name for ever…I have surely visited you, and seen that which is done to you in Egypt” (Exodus 3, 15-16). God, in the verse here, is depicted as having seen the oppression and persecution that the people Israel have suffered in Egypt, and the mentioning that YHVH is the name of God in the verse signifies God’s moral opposition to such oppression and persecution.
Regarding the verse (Exodus 3, 14) mistranslated as “I am who I am” – the phrase “I am” is from the same root letters as the very name of God (YHVH). By the way, it is not known today how the name YHVH was pronounced. The term Jehovah is a Christian term that is a mispronunciation of the name, and according to historians the name was pronounced Yahweh.
The name YHVH comes from a Hebrew root “to be”. Thus, the translation “I am” is a mistranslation as it reflects a philosophic conception of God as a God of existence – and, such a philosophic conception of God is foreign to the Hebrew Bible. The concern of the Bible is not an orthodox concern with theological belief and with a question of whether or not God exists. The concern of the Bible is an orthoprax concern with morality, and God is conceived most importantly as a God of revelation and redemption (as reflected in the story of the burning bush) – and, thus, the verse (Exodus 3, 14) should be translated “And God said to Moses, I will be who I will be”. The phrase “I will be” is in the future tense as God is telling Moses that God will be revealed within history as a God of morality who will redeem the people Israel out of slavery in Egypt.