Unpacking God’s powerful description of himself as I AM
By Wilfred Martens
When Moses conversed with God next to a burning bush in the desert (Exod. 3), God asked him to deliver a message to the Israelites. Moses anticipated a challenge: The people will demand to know the name of the one who sends the message. “They will ask me, ‘What is his name?’”
God gave a strange response to Moses, words that may have initially confused him. God declared his name: I AM WHO I AM. This answer seems an odd way for God to respond as a means of identification. In reference to the grammar, “I” is the subject and “am” is the predicate verb, a sentence with a simple syntax but a profound meaning.
In a novel that was popular a few years ago, The Shack by William P. Young, an Asian woman named Sarayu, who is a manifestation of the Holy Spirit, says to Mack, “I will take a verb over a noun anytime…. I am a verb, I am that I am. I will be who I will be. I am a verb! I am alive, dynamic, ever active and moving. I am a being verb.”
The expression, “I am a verb,” is also used by philosopher R. Buckminster Fuller in one of his poems:
Here is God’s purpose
for God to me, it seems,
is a verb
not a noun . . .
Yes, God is a verb,
the most active,
connoting the vast harmonic
reordering of the universe
from unleashed chaos of energy.
A grammatical analysis can often unlock meaning from a sentence. What does it mean to describe God as a verb, and what is the meaning of God’s response to Moses, I AM? Why did God choose this unusual and ambiguous expression as a means of identification?
Obviously, the conversation between God and Moses was not in English. The I AM is a translation of the ancient texts. Though English grammar is quite different from Hebrew and the ancient texts, it is amazing—a miracle—that God’s word transcends and survives translations, so that an analysis of a translation can still draw the reader to the meaning of the text.
The traditional English grammar system with its many prescriptive rules was inherited from the ancient Greeks. Aristotle suggested that a sentence has two parts, a subject followed by a predicate. The subject is ordinarily a noun or pronoun, and the predicate includes a verb. Scholars declared that the verb is the most noble part of the sentence; it is the core, for without a verb, a group of words is only a fragment instead of a complete sentence. Even if a sentence contains only one word, that word must be a verb (for example, Run! Wait!).
God’s sentence of response, I AM, begins with a first-person singular pronoun. Throughout the conversation with Moses, and the entire Pentateuch, God uses the same subject: I have, I am, I will, I know, and so forth. It was a reminder to the Israelites who were intrigued by the numerous gods of other cultures and nations that there is only one true God. Moses understands the meaning of the singular subject when he declares, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one (Deut. 6:4, RSV).”
By using the word “AM” God is using a form of the verb “to be.” In English this verb is unique; it is different from other verbs. Others have the typical three or four forms (for example, walk(s), walked, walking). But “to be” has eight: is, am, are, was, were, be, been, being. To recognize “AM” as different from all other verbs is to acknowledge God as a distinctive and unique being. In this spirit, Moses reminds Pharaoh “that you may know that there is no one like the Lord our God” (Exod. 8:10, NASB). A number of times he reminds the Israelites “that the Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other” (Deut. 4:39, RSV).
Another characteristic of the verb “AM” is its “present-ness.” By using the present tense God emphasizes timelessness. We humans are bound by time, and it is impossible for us to fully comprehend a God who is timeless. Because we are unable to break out of our concept of time, we often refer to God with language of past-present-future.
But C.S. Lewis cautions us about this practice. In Letters to Malcolm he comments on our prayer habits: “Our prayers are heard—don’t say ‘have been heard’ or you are putting God into time—not only before we make them but before we are made ourselves.” The Psalmist also notes this “present-ness”: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Ps. 46:1, RSV). And God reminds Malachi, “For I the Lord do not change” (Mal. 3:6, RSV).
We live in an age that relegates God to the past tense and in which Christians and the church are tempted by multiple “ism” gods—nationalism, materialism, hedonism, militarism and so forth. God’s revelation as “I AM” is a reminder that God is one, and that God exists and is omnipresent. The two-word name, so simple and compact, yet so profound and full of meaning, has significance for a world characterized by violence, poverty, greed and suffering. As Sarayu says to Mack, “Unless ‘I am,’ there are no verbs, and verbs are what makes the universe alive…. My words are alive and dynamic—full of life and possibility.”
Wilfred Martens is professor emeritus of English at Fresno Pacific University where he retired in 2000 after 35 years of teaching. He and his wife, Erma, are active members of College Community Church MB in Clovis, Calif.