The promise in God’s name

The author claims that we can be assured that our success is directly linked to our connection with the all-powerful, all-consuming, self-existing One—the great I AM

Daniel Xisto, MDiv, pastors the Charlottesville and Buena Vista Seventhday Adventist Churches, Charlottesville, Virginia, United States.

In Western culture, names are not generally chosen to convey information about the character or qualities of the people they identify. For instance, if I introduced myself to you as Daniel, my name would not convey to you any new information about me or my character. In contrast, names in biblical times communicated significant information about the individuals they identified. Consequently, by looking at God’s name in Scripture, we should be able to learn something about who God is and what His character is like. What we learn is that God is much more than the God of our fathers, even more than the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. His name is a promise, and that promise was given to Moses when God called him into ministry—a promise that is extended to all those in ministry even today.

An encounter

Exodus 3 is part of a larger chiastic structure that is framed by oppression at its beginning, in Exodus 1, and its conclusion, in Exodus 6.1 We first learn of this oppression in Exodus 1:8, when a pharaoh came to power “who did not know Joseph,” and by Exodus 6 that oppression had intensified greatly.2 There is much to explore in Exodus 1–6, but the exegesis here will focus specifically Exodus 3:14–17, the center of the chiasm—the height of Israel’s hopelessness and Moses’ encounter with God.

The backdrop to Exodus 3:14 is a dialogue between the Lord and Moses. In Exodus 3:10, the Lord commands Moses to go to Pharaoh and bring His people “ ‘out of Egypt’ ”; that is, out of slavery. Moses responds with a question in Exodus 3:11, “ ‘Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ ” The Lord, in an attempt to allay Moses’ concern, reassures Moses that He—the all-powerful One, the Creator of all things seen and unseen—would go with Moses (v. 12).

The careful reader will notice that the Lord may already be revealing His identity to Moses via a play on words, namely, His use of the personal pronoun “I.”4 Moses asks, “Who am I?” and the Lord responds, “ ‘I will be with you’ ” (v. 12; emphasis added). Moses, a mere shepherd, doubted his own ability to confront the power of Egypt.5 So, the Lord reassures Moses that Moses’ strength would not go before Egypt; rather, it was His strength, the Lord’s strength, that would go before Egypt. The Lord would not leave Moses alone. Thus, in this exchange we get a glimpse into God’s nature, one that is all-powerful and loving, a God who wants to be with His creation.

Questions and answers

Still unsure about his ability to complete the mission, Moses poses the second of five objections6 to the Lord, “ ‘What is [Your] name?’ ” (v. 13). Interestingly, after Moses voices his uncertainty about his own ability, to which the Lord responds that His presence would go with him, Moses then extends his uncertainty to the Lord’s ability. Moses compares God to his fears, and Moses’ fears prevail. 

God’s request is indeed daunting: He asks Moses to confront both Pharaoh and the Israelites. At the time, Pharaoh was the leader of the strongest nation and army in the world. What can one 80-year-old shepherd do? And the Israelites themselves were no less a fearful obstacle. Moses must approach this skeptical nation and convince them that God has indeed sent him—an 80-year-old shepherd—to Pharaoh. Moses was inquiring about something more than simply the name of God, he was asking about God’s very nature.“Who are You that You can help me overcome Pharaoh?”

On the heels of that question, we come to the passage that is at the heart of this exegesis in Exodus 3:14. God’s response to Moses’ question is
“ ‘I AM WHO I AM,’ ” which can also be translated in the future tense, “I WILL BE WHATEVER I WILL BE.”8 After God reveals His name in response to Moses’ second objection, He proceeds, for the balance of the chapter, to describe His plans in detail, addressing Moses’ fears about Pharaoh and the Israelites. 

A message of hope 

Several critical themes emerge from what God is communicating about His nature in what He revealed to Moses. To begin with, in the four verses this article considers, the verb “say” is used by God eight times; three in connection with Moses and five in connection to Himself. This pattern begins in Exodus 3:14 when “God said . . . , ‘This is what you are to say’ ” and later in that same verse, “thus you shall say.” Next, in Exodus 3:15, “God also said . . . , Say to the Israelites,’ ” followed in Exodus 3:16, when God commands Moses yet again to “assemble the elders of Israel and say to them . . . saying” (author’s translation). Finally, in Exodus 3:17, God concluded with the words, “So I said, I will bring you up out of the affliction” (author’s translation).

Eight times in four verses, the Lord is both speaking and directing Moses to speak on His behalf, first to the Israelite body as a whole, and then separately to Israel’s elders. Tell the people and then tell their leaders; it seems that God wants to ensure His message of hope is conveyed. Say this, say that, and say this too—as if there is so much that the Lord wants to communicate with His people, who have been in bondage for hundreds of years. The Lord has a message of hope and wants His children to know that He has always been with them, and is with them presently—a message that is inherent to His name.

The second major theme concerns what God Himself has been doing. If we look back to the beginning of the narrative, we find the Lord, in Exodus 3:7, 8, stating what He has been doing: “ ‘I have indeed seen the misery of my people’ ”; “ ‘I have heard’ ”; “ ‘I am concerned’ ”; and concluding with His rescue, “ ‘I have come down to rescue.’ ”

Transitioning to Exodus 3:16, 17, we see a parallel structure of the Lord’s attentiveness and compas­sion: “ ‘I have watched over you’ ”; “’ I have seen’ ”; and concluding with His reminder of rescue, “ ‘I have promised to bring you up out of your misery.’ ” God is telling Moses that He is not an absent God; He is not One who is busy attending other matters. Rather, the Lord has His finger on the pulse of all that is afflicting His children, and He is about to move into action. This brings us to the third and final theme that this exegesis will consider: God’s promise to those He has called that He will be with us forever, all of which is revealed in His name.

The God of the fathers

In the Bible, names of people, places, and things carry with them great significance.9 For example, after Moses led the Israelites across the Red Sea and into the wilderness of Shur, they came to a place called Marah, where they could not drink the water because it was bitter. Scripture records that it was “therefore . . . named Marah” because the waters were bitter (Exod. 15:23, author’s translation). In another place, the Lord changed Abram’s name to Abraham, which means “father of many nations,” because He had “made [him] a father of a multitude of nations” (Gen. 17:6, author’s translation). The new name expressed the promise that the Lord would manifest Himself in a big way in Abraham’s future. Hence, we see that names in the Bible could contain a sense of past, present, and/or future.10

Perhaps what the Lord was telling Moses, when He referred to Himself in Exodus 3:15 as “ ‘the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob’ ” was “I am the God whose history you know.” In other words, God could have been trying to encourage Moses by implying that I am that same mighty God who promised Abraham that his seed would be as numerous as the stars in heaven and as the sand of the seashore (Gen. 22:17); I am that same God who brought that promise to life when Isaac’s wife carried two nations of people in her womb (Gen. 25:23); I am that same God with whom Jacob struggled until the breaking of the dawn, and I changed his name to Israel for he had struggled with God and with man and prevailed (Gen. 32:28). All of this history would have come to mind when God declared to Moses that He was the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.

Moses, when hearing God described as mentioned above, would have heard the voice of a loving Father, the gentle appeal of his great Lover, the mighty roar of his all-powerful Creator. Gerald Janzen notes that “history is the clue to the character of God, the history is the clue to the meaning of the name.”11 While God’s history provided a clue into His character, His present and future existence was revealed to Moses. Said differently, God was known by Moses and the Israelites as the One who appeared to their forefathers, but somehow it had escaped them that He was the One who presently was with them.

God had promised to always be with His children. But now He was revealing to Moses that this promise—to never leave them—had not been forgotten. The declaration of His name—I AM­ was to take on new significance. The Israelites would now experience God as much more than the God of their fathers; they would experience Him as their God today! They would experience Him as the promise fulfilled.

God’s name as promise

Finally, we come to God’s name. Exodus 3:14 opens with “God said to Moses, ‘I AM wHo I AM.’ ” The Lord elabo­rates on His name in the following verse, when He says, “ ‘Say to the Israelites, “The LoRD [Yahweh], the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” ’ ” The covenant names YHWH and I AM are derived from the same verb root “to be.”12 The form of this verb could signify any tense—past, present, and future.13 God is telling Moses that His name, and subsequently His character, is a state of being. God is proclaiming that He is all-powerful, He exists solely on the merit of His own strength, He needs no other, He is the essence of life. God always IS, God always WILL BE, and God always HAS BEEN. God’s character is in His name.

Moreover, the fascinating part about God’s declaration is that He is proclaiming to Moses that He was, is, and will ever be, not as an empty statement. God is proclaiming His state of being in the context of Exodus 3:7, 8, 17.14 He is stating that I have seen, I have heard, I am concerned, I have watched, and I have promised to come and rescue. In this context of His proximity to His children, He declares His very being. God states that He has always been with His children, that He always is with His children, and that He will always be with His children. God’s very nature is revealed, and His nature is to be with His children. God proclaims His eternal and ever-pursuing love for His children.


God loves His creation. From the moment that He created the first couple until today, there has never been a moment that He has not been with us. In Exodus 3:14–17, we learn much more than the vocal sounds or the spelling of the name of a deity. We see the heart of the One who is intimately familiar with who we are and eager to lead us out of the bondage in which we find ourselves.

In Exodus 3:14–17, God revealed much more than just His name; He revealed the essence of who He is: He is the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob—the God who promised and has always been with us. He is the great I AM; the One who is with us today and will be with us forevermore. We can take comfort that when God calls us to action, He does not send us by ourselves. Rather, He Himself will go with us and give us the ability to carry out our ministry. We can rest in the knowledge that our success does not depend on who we are, nor will it be hindered by our past or the obstacles in our future. Instead, we can be assured that our success is directly linked to our connection with the all-powerful, all-consuming, self-existing One—the great I AM.


1 David A. Dorsey, The Literary Structure of the Old Testament: A Commentary on Genesis–Malachi (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 64.

2 Unless otherwise noted, Scripture references are from the NIV.

3 Ibid. Dorsey outlines the chiastic structure on the same page as follows:

a oppression by pharaoh (1:1–22)

b Moses comes to pharaoh’s house (2:1–10)

c Moses departs from Egypt (2:11–25)

d Turning point: call of Moses (3:1–4:17) c’ Moses returns to Egypt (4:18–31) b’Moses comes to pharaoh’s house (5:1–4) a’worse oppression by pharaoh (5:5–6:13)

4 Peter Enns, Exodus, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 100.

5 John H. Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), 245.

Andrews Study Bible: New King James Version (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 2010), 77. The Bible organizes Moses’ five objectives as (1) Who am I? (2) Who are you? (3) What if they don’t believe me? (4) I am not eloquent. (5) Send someone else.

7 Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative, 246.

Andrews Study Bible, 77.

9 Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative, 246. For another illustration of this principle, see1 Sam. 25:25.

10 J. Gerald Janzen, “What’s in a Name: Yahweh in Exodus 3 and the Wider Biblical Context,” Interpretation 33 (1979): 228. Janzen’s article directly suggests that names carry the past and the future; I am suggesting that they also included the present. By looking at my example Marah, its name in the present is Marah due to the fact that it has bitter waters; therefore, the element of present appears.

11 Ibid., 232.

12 Enns, Exodus, 102.

13 George H. van Kooten, ed., The Revelation of the Name YHWH to Moses: Perspectives From Judaism, The Pagan Graeco-Roman World, and Early Christianity (Boston: Brill Academic Pub., 2006), 7.

14 Ibid., 8.

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Daniel Xisto, MDiv, pastors the Charlottesville and Buena Vista Seventhday Adventist Churches, Charlottesville, Virginia, United States.

March 2015

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