Exodus 3:14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you. ’ “
The story of Moses and the burning bush in the wilderness always made a great Sunday School story. Here is a man who notices a bush on fire in the desert. It is possible he was witnessing the results of a lightening strike, who knows, but when he approached the bush, it spoke to him.
1 Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. 3 So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up. "
4 When the LORD saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!"
And Moses said, “Here I am. "
5 “Do not come any closer, " God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. " 6 Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. " At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.
So Moses finds himself talking to the tribal God of the family of his father. God has seen the problems the family is having in Egypt and declares to Moses that he is going to do something about it. The Plagues and the Exodus are to follow shortly. What is interesting is that Moses seems to need to know the name of this God so, when asked, he can give an accurate answer. There were many deities of the day and knowing which one was talking to you was important. These deities were both tribal and territorial, often having boundries and limited to certain areas.
There is another reason knowing the name of the Deity was important. There was the belief that IF you knew the name of the god, you could wield a certain influence or control over the god. Most are familiar with the story of Jacob who experienced a strange encounter with a being that he recognized as El himself. Meeting this El at the steam Jabbok on the west bank, he wrestled with him. I guess when Middle Eastern men meet, they can't just have tea, they have to fight. Jacob and El wrestled all night and El finally had to leave because the Sun was coming up. Perhaps El was a vampire, or perhaps merely a symbol of something dark of the night, that had to leave in astrotheological terms when the sun rose. At any rate, Jacob did not and would not let go until this being shared it's name. The deity confessed to being Peni-El, “El's Face" and Jacob called the place Peniel “because he had seen El, face to face. " The reason Jacob asked for the name was that in doing so, he had power of sorts over El and could actually survive the encounter.
The God of Moses was “El", a god that originally was a Caananite deity. From this “El" we get familiar names to Christians that they use in their hymns. El-Shaddai, which is El of the Mountains. There is El-Eyon, The Most High God. From “El" we also get such common names Isra-El and Ishma-El. Christians today think that the God of Moses was the same God they know today in Christianity, but that would be a far cry from the truth.
At any rate, when Moses met El in the bush, suprised he did not name him Bush-El :), Moses also wanted the name of this god. But the answer given to Moses would be much different than the one given to Jacob. This god was evolving in the scripture and was not about to give a mere mortal his name. When Moses finally asks the name of this deity, the answer is a very simple one. “I am Who I Am. " That's who Moses was to tell the Israelites he met that day, when they wanted the details. You asked for the name of the god because there were so many of them. Remember, even in the Ten Commandments, the Israelites were not told there was just one, but rather they were not to worship OTHER God's as greater than El, since this evolving God was a jealous one.
At any rate, this phrase “I am that I am, " has evolved in Christian theology as a deeply profound statement as to the nature of the true God. It has been used to prove that God is the self-subsistant Being of a deeper theology. “Ebyeh asher ebyeh". . . I am that I am. Funny thing is, is that this statement by the god is not deep theology, but a Hebrew pun. . . a joke of sorts on Moses. It is meant to be vague in it's response such as when the bible says that this or that person went “to the next place" or “into the wilderness. " It is meant to be vague. “I am that I am" is this deity simply telling Moses that his name is none of Moses business and he would be wise to mind his own business because this Deity was not giving the name. When the Israelites ask, just tell them “It's none of their business either has sent you. " Moses was not going to manipulate this God as Jacob had in seeking power over him by learning his name.
Of course, from this time forward, Christians have taken every opportunity to read divine profundity into any phrase in the Bible that contains the words “I am. " Jesus has become the great “I am" as a way to connect him to this OT Deity as part of the Holy Christian Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit
"Many have been the theological and philosophical interpretations of this glorious name, but Jesus Christ gave us the practical interpretation with the 8 “I am" in the Gospel of John:
1- I am the bread of life (Jn.6:35)
2- I am the light of the world (Jn.8:12)
3- I am the gate (Jn.10:9)
4- I am the good shepherd (Jn.10:11.
5- I am the resurrection (Jn.11:25)
6- I am the way and the truth and the life (Jn.14:6)
7- I am the true vine (Jn.15:1)
8- Before Abraham was, I am (Jn.8:58). . . this last “I am" of Jesus the Messiah have the scent of eternity and power. . . not “I was", but “I am". . . I am the immutable one, but the author of all change and movement. . . Jesus is always eternally the same I am. . . “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever" (Heb.13:8).
I am the way and the truth and the life (Jn.14:6):"
I practical fact, there is no connection between the “I am" statement of God in the bush to Moses, and the grammar onem use to say things like “I am hungry, I am thirsty, I am the gate, I am the shepherd" It's a silly connection that only literalists could come up with.
The problem is that this perspective has been built on a Hebrew Pun. A scripture can never mean what it never meant and when Moses asked , just what his name was to gain at least some advantage over him as Jacob before him had done with El, the answer was different. “I am what I am, " or “it's really none of your business who I am Moses and I'm not falling for that trick. Tell them to mind their own business. " This is a good example of how the Church has taken a simple thing in the OT, even a pun, and manufactured it into a deeper truth, applied to others, which were never intended or implied in the original text or story.
Matthew was very very good at this as well in his many “and thus it was fulfilled" statements about the Jesus he found spoken of in the Old Testament. Matthew was a master at making as scripture in the Hebrew texts mean what it never meant in the first place. This is, in part, why Jewish scholars, who see how the Christian Church has manipulated their own Old Testament texts to bolster the newer Christian faith and the Jesus story, could never agree nor see Jesus spoken of “so plainly" in their own scriptures.
So we find in the story of Moses and the burning bush, not a profound theological introduction the Great I AM, but rather a simple request by a tribal deity of the day for Moses to mind his own business and that he will not be gaining any power over this god by prying his name out of him.