Now in the early form, the Old Testament didn’t have any vowels, but only consonants. As they went along the vowel points were added. You know they are not letters written into the word like our words have the consonants and the vowels mixed together. The consonants are there, and then there are just little points and lines that are added above and below the letters that give the vowel sounds. Later on, as the texts were copied, these vowel pointings were added. Now what did they do when they came to YHWH? Well they wanted to remind people not to say the holy name of God and so what they did was add in the vowel points for the word Adonai. Therefore, whenever a Jewish scholar was coming along and came to the holy name of God, he said Adonai instead.
That has been picked up in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. When the Greeks came to the holy name of God they used the Greek word kyrios, which means “Lord,” an exact translation of Adonai. So the word Lord passed over into the New Testament, and is used in the New Testament as a name of God.
We get the word Jehovah by reading the word the way it appears with the vowel pointings from the word Adonai, although that’s probably not the way it was pronounced. How was it pronounced? Most scholars think it was probably pronounced Yahweh. They don’t have any Jewish document that would give a clue, but that word appears in that form in the Syriac text where the consonants and the vowels are present. And so on the basis of the Syriac version of the Old Testament, they speculate that it could have been Yahweh or something close to it.
More of an issue than its pronunciation is the meaning of the name. What do those four consonants mean? The consonants come from the verb “to be.” In its common form, (known as the qal) it could be translated, “I Am Who I Am” or “I Will Be What I Will Be.” But if you put a certain set of vowel markings with it, it could be a tense which in Hebrew is called the hiphil, and that has a causative idea. The way you would translate the word in that form is something like, “He Who Causes to Be,” or “He Who Brings into Being.” Either one of these understandings based on the verbal forms would be a good description of God.
How do you decide? In the context of Exodus 3, it’s not causative. It’s not referring to God as the Creator but rather as the eternal, ever-existent one. Then, when you go to the New Testament you find Jesus referring to Himself by those I Am sayings, which are expressed in the present tense. Thus, it would seem that it is best to translate it in the present tense, “I Am Who I Am.” God is the eternal I am. He involves both the past and the present and the future. God can say, “I always have been, I am, and I always will be. I am unchanged in my eternal being.”
Now that we have explained the background, we can talk about the attributes of God that the name expresses. We already talked about His transcendence and immanence. Another attribute is that God is a personal God. When we use that word person we have to realize that we are reasoning by analogy. We are persons, and the reason we’re persons is we’re made in the image of God. So we are talking about something real when we talk about the personality of God. And yet the personality of God is something far over and above anything we can imagine. God is more than person, and yet He certainly is not less. When God revealed Himself to Moses by saying “I am,” the very fact that he said “I” indicated how personal He was. That’s a very important thing to bear in mind because when we are talking about God, we are not talking about some cosmic force. You can’t worship a force any more than you can worship gravity. God reveals Himself here to be a person who is able to interact on the personal level with Moses, a human being.
God is self-existent and that’s the very essence of God saying “I am that I am.” You and I have to say that we came into being. There was a time when I was not and now I am. God doesn’t have to say that about Himself. God simply says, “I am that I am.” Matthew Henry says, “The greatest and best man in the world must say, By the grace of God, I am what I am; but God says absolutely—and it is more than any creature, man or angel, can say—I am that I am.”
That means, among other things, that God as He is in Himself is unknowable to us, at least unknowable in an exhaustive sense. When we are pursuing knowledge, we do it in terms of relationships. And the most basic of all those relationships is cause and effect. We see something and we say, “This is as it is because of something.” You define a chair as something that somebody has made and the object of the chair was determined by the person who made it. In the case of God, you can’t go back to anything. God just is; you can’t explain Him. In that ultimate sense, you can’t know Him.
A. W. Tozer points out that’s one reason why the philosophers have so much trouble with God. They can’t quite get Him down where they can measure Him and explain Him. Scientists have exactly the same problem. God is above anything that we can imagine. As Tozer says, “To admit that there is One who lies beyond us, who exists outside of all our categories…who will not appear before the bar of our reason…this requires a great deal of humility, more than most of us possess, so we save face by thinking God down to our level, or at least down to where we can manage Him.”1 This is one reason why even Christian people have so much trouble studying God and coming to know Him. It is troublesome to deal with somebody who is ultimately beyond our full knowledge.
1A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy: The Attributes of God; Their Meaning in the Christian Life (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1961), 33.