I recently read an article by a renowned scholar in an obscure publication that really got me thinking. The article was by the prolific Jewish commentator, Jacob Milgrom (“The Desecration of YHWH’s Name: Its Parameters and Significance” in Birkat Shalom: Studies in the Bible, Ancient Near Eastern Literature…Presented to Shalom M. Paul, eds., C. Cohen, et al., 69-81. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2008). Towards the end of the article Milgrom makes some compelling suggestions about the meaning of the name YHWH based on the testimony of God himself in the account of the burning bush (Exodus 3:9-15).
Basically, Milgrom suggests that the significance of the name Yahweh revealed here is not so much about God as the Existent One (“I AM”) or as the Creator (the “One Who Causes to Be” [this was D. N. Freedman’s interpretation published in Journal of Biblical Literature in 1960]). Rather, the significance of the name YHWH which is revealed in this passage for the first time is that God is the Present One (“I AM PRESENT”).
God’s presence is, of course, a major emphasis in the context. In Exodus 3:12, God affirms his presence to Moses (“I am with you” - ’Ehyeh ‘immakh), and in v. 14b God affirms his presence for the nation of Israel ("Say this to the people of Israel, '’Ehyeh has sent me to you'"). The connections between God’s ’Ehyeh (“I AM”) statements and God’s presence have been well-noted by previous scholars (e.g., see C. D. Isbell, “The Divine Name ’Ehyeh as a Symbol of Presence in Israelite Tradition” Hebrew Annual Review 2 : 101-118) and are readily apparent in passages such as the commissioning of Joshua, Gideon and David (Deut 31:23; Josh 1:5; 3:7; Judg 6:16; 2 Sam 7:9 // 2 Chron 17:8). Furthermore, Exodus 3:14-15 explicitly makes a semantic connection between the meaning of ’Ehyeh and the meaning of the name YHWH.
Thus Milgrom suggests that the contextual meaning of “I am who I am” (’ehyeh ’asher ’ehyeh) may be more precisely rendered “I am present where/when I am present” (see Milgrom 2008:80). Additionally he suggests that the name YHWH is a verbal form, specifically a third person Qal Imperfect, meaning “He is present” (see Milgrom 2008:80-81). Such would be in keeping with the syntax of proper names in Semitic languages, and it is possible that yhwh is short for yahweh’el, “God is present.”
The message in Exodus 3:9-15 is that God’s personal presence is revealed and assured for God’s people as they cry out in distress! The Present One is God’s very identity! He desires to be present, to dwell with his people. Of course, this concept should not strike us as anything new. Jesus is Immanuel (“God is with us;” Matt 1:23) and he repeatedly claimed to be the “I am (present)” (passim in the Gospel of John). I would dare say that this attribute of God is (one of) the most pervasive theme(s) in the biblical drama (see G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004). God’s presence is idyllically depicted in Eden (Gen 2), jeopardized by sin (Gen 3-11), reaffirmed to the patriarchs (Gen 12-50; note especially ’Ehyeh ‘immakh in Gen 26:3; 31:3), tangibly experienced by his people in the Tabernacle and Temple (Exodus and ff.), intensified by the incarnation (Immanuel/Jesus) and Pentecost (Holy Spirit), and fully restored in the New Jerusalem (Rev 21). The “Present One” is what/who Genesis-through-Revelation is all about! God deeply desires to be in harmonious relationship with his creation. And as his people we have the privilege of serving as his priests in his holy presence. Priesthood is indeed our purpose as we practice the presence of God in our lives.
Wow. All this from an obscure article buried in a festschrift. Countless scholars have wrestled with the meaning of God’s name for millennia, but I think this non-Christian Jew may have just hit the nail on its head! Yahweh is the Present One!