Ehyeh -- I Am

Ann Spangler
Ann Spangler

When Moses first encountered God in the wilderness, in the figure of a burning bush, he asked God to reveal his name. But the reply he received seemed only to add to the mystery of who God is. Instead of describing himself as the Living God or the Almighty God or the Everlasting God or the Creator God, the Lord instructed Moses, saying, “I Am Who I Am. This is what you must say to the people of Israel: ‘I Am has sent me to you.’” The Hebrew word for “I am” is Ehyeh (eh-YEH), which sound similar to the word Yahweh, the name for God which appears in the very next sentence. It is a name so sacred that even today many Jews do not pronounce it. Though the exact meaning of “I Am Who I Am” is difficult to know with certainty, the Lord may have been revealing himself not only as the God who has always existed but also as the God who is always present with his people and who, indeed, has called them into being.

When Jesus was being attacked by the religious leaders who failed to recognize him as the Messiah, he shocked them not by claiming to be the Messiah but by identifying himself with Yahweh, saying: “Before Abraham was born, I am.” In fact, John’s Gospel contains several self-descriptions of Jesus introduced by the emphatic Greek expression Ego Eimi (e-GO ay-MEE), “I Am.”  Here are just a few:

I am the bread of life. (6:35)

I am the light of the world. (8:12)

Before Abraham was ever born, I am. (8:58)

In Jesus we have the richest, most vivid picture of God imaginable. No longer does God seem implacably remote, displeased with the world he has made. Instead, he becomes one of us, sharing our weakness and shouldering our burdens.

Praying to I Am

If you were to construct a time machine and then set the location to Jerusalem and the date to the 15th of Tishri, in the Fall of the year, nearly two thousand years ago, you would have found yourself in the midst of one of the world’s greatest parties.

Upon your arrival, your eyes would have feasted on a great, golden city, lit up by the harvest moon. But how could even the most luminous moon make the city and the surrounding hillsides shine so brightly? As you enter the city gates, you make your way through the thronging crowd to discover the source of the light. You are awed by the four giant menorahs that rise above the outside walls of the temple and flood the city with light. Once inside, you hear people singing and laughing, trumpets blasting, flutes playing. And there is dancing. The leading men of the city are performing dramatic torch dances that will continue throughout the night.

Why is everyone so excited? What are they celebrating? If you have done your homework prior to your trip back in time, you will realize that you have walked smack into the middle of the Feast of Tabernacles, the most joyous of Israel’s feasts. Also called the Feast of Booths, it is a time to thank God for the harvest. The light and the torches inside the temple remind the party-goers of the pillar of fire that led their forefathers through the desert. The lights also remind them of the fire that came down to consume the sacrifices when Solomon dedicated his temple, also on the Feast of Tabernacles, and the glory of the Lord filled it.

Now imagine that the seven-day feast is over. You’re so taken with this light-filled experience that you can’t quite bring yourself to depart. On the very next day, you find yourself listening in on a tense exchange. Some Pharisees are talking to a young rabbi from Galilee. His name is Jesus. And here’s what the rabbi is saying: I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will have a life filled with light and will never live in the dark. It’s a stunning statement, especially right after the Feast of Tabernacles. You realize why the Pharisees are so upset. The conversation continues. There is talk of Abraham. And then you hear it, Jesus’ shocking statement: "Before Abraham was ever born, I am.”

The people of Jesus’ day knew exactly who he was claiming to be. Some picked up stones to throw at him while others became believers. Two thousand years later, the choice is ours to make—reject his claims or embrace him as the great “I am,” the light of the world, which the darkness cannot overcome.


Originally published April 27, 2021.