The articles in this series are based upon ideas expressed in the Rambam’s Moreh Nevuchim (The Guide for the Perplexed). Numbers in brackets represent the book and chapter of Moreh Nevuchim where these ideas are discussed.
In Exodus 3:13, Moshe says to God, “When I go to the children of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers sent me to you,’ they will ask me, ‘What is His name?’ What shall I answer them?”
At first glance, it appears that Moshe simply wants to know the collection of syllables that make up God’s name. Upon a moment’s reflection, it becomes apparent that this cannot be the case. Either God’s name was known to the Jews or it wasn’t. If it was known, then Moshe knowing it would prove nothing. If it was unknown, then what proof would Moshe have? [I, 63]
Let’s step back to how things were before Moshe. Virtually everyone was an idolator and believed that a variety of spirits controlled things. These spirits, they believed, could be influenced by magic. Avraham inferred the existence of God through logic, and that was his approach in teaching others about God. In short, before Moshe, God had never appointed anyone a messenger with a mission.
Yes, God spoke with our Patriarchs, but He never had them instruct others on His behalf. They guided their fellow men as teachers or philosophers, not as prophets. When God dispatched Moshe to direct others as His prophet, it was completely unprecedented. Moshe had reason to suspect that others would be skeptical that he really was on a literal mission from God. He was concerned that he would first have to demonstrate the existence of God. In response to this, God taught him the name “Eheyeh Asher Eheyeh,” a statement of His existence.
Eheyeh Asher Eheyeh – “I will be that I will be” – means that the object to be described and the attribute used to describe it are necessarily identical. (Refer to our previous discussion of attributes and the idea that “God is God.”) This name expresses the idea that God is a Being of absolute existence. He was never without existence and He never will be without it.
Moshe respectfully said that the Elders would ask, “What is His name?” rather than a question like, “Who is He?” The question “What is His name?” presupposes the existence of God and merely asks in what capacity He is operating.
All names for God other than YHVH refer to some trait or characteristic apart from His own inherent essence. For example, the name “Shadai” means “that is sufficient” and refers to the fact that God lacks nothing. Similarly, the name Eheyeh Asher Eheyeh conveys the message of God’s absolute existence and includes the concept of eternity, which is something in addition to His essence. That is the meaning of Eheyeh Asher Eheyeh, which God had Moshe convey to the Jews.