Moses asked God, “What is your name?” The classic response that people have known and recited is the tetragrammaton. This is sometimes called in English “Yahweh”. Others call this “Jehovah”. How exactly we pronounce this word is not certain. What it means is much more important. The translation that we see in our English Bibles is typically, “I AM THAT I AM”. The Hebrew word used here possibly a conjugation of hayah, which means, “to be.” The sentence could mean a multitude of things, all of them being correct. I am that I am. I am what I am. I exist because I exist. I am what exist. I will be because I will be. I will be what will be. Every kind of derivative fits.
When we study the tetragrammaton, and we ask what it might mean, we need to probe just a little deeper than I think many have been willing to probe. First, our study needs to start with the word shem. Shem is the Hebrew word for “name”. We know of the son of Noah named Shem, but his name actually means, “name”. So, when Noah prophesies over Shem and says, “Japheth will enter the tents of Shem,” he is actually saying that the nations of Japheth will come under “the name”. There are a lot of interesting aspects to this. We know that this could be referring to hashem, the tetragrammaton, but it also might be referring to Jesus as being “the name above every name.”
When I look at the Hebrew word shem, I can’t help but notice something peculiar. Think of the name Daniel. Dan means judge, and El is God. Together we have Daniel, or the judge of God. Then you read about the life of Daniel, and you read the prophetic visions of Daniel, and you realize that his name fits quite well with whom he is. We read in 1 Samuel 25 about a certain man Nabal. Nabal means “stupid”, or “fool”. It doesn’t take long before you realize how foolish this man is. His wife, Abigail, then comes to David to correct his mistake and even says, “He lives up to his name.” The Hebrew names actually mean something, and they are almost every time a glimpse into the character of the person who bears the name.
The word shem means name, but it seems to have a deeper meaning of character. This person is named Nabal because they truly are a fool. So, when we come to Exodus 3 and we see Moses ask God the question, “What is your name?” we need to understand that Moses is asking something deeper than what God likes to go by. Moses is asking God what His core character is. This is the very fabric of His being. God’s nature is caught up in His name, and so however God chooses to describe Himself will determine forever how we know and relate to God.
The letters given to Moses were yod, hey, vav, and hey. As I mentioned in the prolegomena, each letter has a meaning according to Talmudic hermeneutic. These meanings are found in the ancient Hebrew – even before Paleo-Hebrew – where they used pictures as letters. The yod was a man’s wrist and hand. The hey was a man with his arms raised. The vav was a peg, or a nail. When we look at the translations of these letters, we find that the yod and vav can remain as hand and peg, but the hey can also mean “behold” or “worship”. When we put these letters together, we have two statements being made: Behold the hand; behold the nail.
What this exactly meant couldn’t have been initially understood. Yet, we should immediately be able to recognize what it means today. This is Jesus upon the cross. Behold the hand; behold the nail. This is God sacrificing Himself on behalf of His people. What God is saying about Himself is that every moment of His existence is a cross. All of God’s moments are crucifixions. They are all sacrifices – laying down my life for the sake of my friends. No greater love can be expressed than this, and that is the very love that God expresses even within the Godhead. The submission of the Father unto the Spirit and Son, and the submission of the Son to the Spirit and Father, and the submission of the Spirit unto the Father and Son are all expressions of what it means to take up your cross. The tetragrammaton is necessary to begin our discussion on God, because it introduces us to God in a way that puts perspective on all other attributes.