Decoding God’s Name

In Parshat Shemot, Moshe asks God an ostensibly simple question:  What is Your name? God gives what appears to be a clear answer, “Eheye Asher Eheye.” However, there is nothing simple about this exchange when we take a closer look.  The big debate among the commentaries is whether Eheye Asher Eheye is a direct answer to the question, or a deeper response. Is God’s name actually Eheye Asher Eheye, or is God responding that you don’t need to know My name and rather, “I will be who I will be,” which is the translation of Eheye Asher Eheye.

The Targum Onkelos and Rashbam both maintain that it is actually God’s name.  The Targum does not translate these words, leading many to suggest that Eheye Asher Eheye is not a description of God, nor is it a nickname for God, but rather it is actually one of God’s names according to Onkelos.  Therefore no Aramaic translation is necessary or appropriate. This is also the approach of the Gemara in Masechet Shavuot 35a wherein Eheye Asher Eheye is listed as one of the names of God that may not be erased.

The Rashbam agrees with Onkelos that Eheye Asher Eheye is a name of God, but additionally finds meaning behind this name, as cited in the Bechor Shor (the standard edition of the Rashbam is missing this part).  God will always be in existence, or in Hebrew he will always Yihiye. In Hebrew, Yihiye is in the third person (he will be) whereas Eheye is in the first person (I will be). Since God is talking, He says His own name in the first person, Eyehe, which expresses the idea that He will always be in existence.  For the Rashbam it is both a proper noun as well as a meaning, similar to many names in the Bible. For example, Abraham is a proper noun and also connotes a meaning, av hamon goyim, a father of many nations. So God’s name conforms to this Biblical norm of being both a proper noun and also expressing a meaning.

The Bechor Shor argues with the Rashbam in that we, the Jewish people, are the ones who say God’s name.  Therefore, if this were really God’s name it should be articulated in the third person and not the first person.  According to the Rashbam’s rational, it should be Yihiye Asher Yiyihe, He will be who He will be! For this reason, the Bechor Shor rejects the approach of the Rashbam.

The Ramban takes almost the exact opposite approach as Onkelos and the Rashbam. Eheye Asher Eheye is not God’s name. It does not even represent a character trait of God, as we will see is the approach of the Bechor Shor.  The Ramban suggests that by asking for God’s name, the people would in essence be asking which character trait of God would be saving them. Maybe the God of Kel Shakai would be their savior, as that was the name through which God saved Abraham and Sarah.  Or maybe the God of Elokim would be the redeemer, as that was the name used with Jacob and Joseph.

The Ramban answers that God responded by saying, “Don’t worry, I’ll be with you!”  Meaning that the Jewish people need not worry about how God will manifest himself in Egypt, but rather that He will be there to guide and protect them.  In short, for the Ramban, “Eheye asher Eheye” is not a name of God, nor a description of God, but rather an answer to the underlying question of how will the Jewish people be saved.

The Bechor Shor takes a more balanced approach. He does not believe that Eheye Asher Eheye is a proper name of God as suggested by Onkelos or the Rashbam.  Despite seemingly being in contradiction to the plain reading of the verse, the Bechor Shor is certainly not alone in his understanding that Eheye Asher Eheye is not a name of God.  The Rambam in Yesodei HaTorah 6:2 when quoting the Gemara in Shavuot about the names of God that may not be erased, leaves out Eheye Asher Eheye. So the Bechor Shor is in good company with the Rambam, Ramban and others.

However he does not entirely agree with the Ramban, because he argues that Eheye Asher Eheye does express something about God, and His name.

The Bechor Shor explains that Eheye Asher Eheye is a kinui, or nickname that expresses the meaning of God’s name.  Specifically it connotes two ideas. First, it means that God is eternal. He will always be. This is like the explanation of the Rashbam.  However, since it is not God’s exact name, the Bechor Shor does not have to deal with the first person/third person issue. Above and beyond all character traits of God, perhaps what makes God the most unique is that He alone is eternal.  He has no beginning or end, unlike everything else in the world in which we live (See Bechor Shor to Bereishit 1:2 and the footnote in the Mosad Harav Kook edition, wherein the Bechor Shor seems to believe in creation ex nihilo, so truly only God is eternal).

Second, it means that God will always be with the Jewish people during their time of pain.  Rashi writes this as well. This unfortunately suggests that turbulent times for the Jewish people are so pervasive in Jewish history that God needs to assure us that he will always protect us.  However at the same time, this is quite uplifting, as God is giving us his guarantee! God does not just happen to help out the Jewish people, but rather it is part of the definition of being God!

The Bechor Shor then takes this all a step further.  God’s Shem Hameyuchad, His four letter name already known to us in the Bible, is the four letters Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey.  The Bechor Shor writes that Eheye Asher Eheye is an explanation of the four letter Shem Hameyuchad of God. Often times in Hebrew, a yud can be replaced for a vav.  Therefore God’s four letter name could be expressed as Yud-Hey-YUD-Hey, which means “He will be.” For the Bechor Shor, encoded in the letters Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey are the concepts of God’s eternity and constant protection of the Jewish people as expressed in Eheye Asher Eheye.

In fact, the Bechor Shor argues that Moshe was never even meant to use the words Eheye Asher Eheye in his dialogue with the Jewish people.  Moshe would say the four letter name of God, Yud-Heh-Vav-Hey, and the Eheye Asher Eheye is God’s explanation to Moshe and the people of the meaning behind His own name.  Quite a novel approach!

The message of this comment of the Bechor Shor is powerful. The most common name that we use for God is the Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey name.  This means that more than any other aspect of God, it is His eternity and His ability to pick us up when we are down that are the hallmarks of our relationship with Him.