God’s first major self-definition to a people beyond the lineage of Abraham is one of the more puzzling definitions of God to mull over. It’s vague and profound, but many do not understand exactly why God would answer Moses query with the statement “I AM that I AM.” Jesus echoed God this same definition once (arguably twice) in the New Testament. “Before Abraham was, I AM.” And also “I AM he” when identified in the garden of Gethsemane. I include this because at this acknowledgement, the men who came to claim him fell out, denoting a divine revelation of God’s presence. I have heard sermons preached about how the “I AM” is somewhat of a blank check: “I Am” whatever you need. While this is an intriguing idea that is at once good to reflect on and dangerous to misinterpret, I believe such a hermeneutic is completely incorrect. In introducing himself as I AM, God is doing something completely unheard of: he is making an existential claim.
The word “existential” is somewhat intimidating because few people use it, and even fewer use it correctly, but it simply means “having to do with existence.” Since “existence” is an abstract concept, I am going to modify this to “having to do with the nature of existence.” Making a statement such as the one that closed my first paragraph requires some understanding as to what an existential claim actually is. One of the foremost questions of philosophy is “why are we here.” The question of existence is even one of the core questions of the potential existence of God. The ever popular question of the “necessary first cause” beats at the concept without fully realizing what it is actually asking. If there is anything, then something began it, but what sort of thing can begin without being begun? This is the seeming contradiction of the necessary first cause argument for God, but it would only be a contradiction if there were no such thing to answer that question. The controversial “ontological argument” states that the very definition of “God” includes with it the identity of such a thing, namely a pre-existent existence that needs no cause. And here is the scriptural evidence of such an idea in the Jude-Christian worldview, proving that we are not making this up as we go along. “I Am.”
This is not a proper “proof” for God. There really is no such thing, in my opinion, but what this is, is an argument for the philosophical consistency of Christianity. For Christianity to be true within itself, it must account for the problem of pre-existence within itself. My argument is that God’s self-definition to Moses and to Pharaoh is a declaration addressing the concept of the nature and origin of existence. Anselm’s ontological argument identifies existence as a perfection of God. Where did he get that idea? Well, it exists in scripture. God explains his place in the universe by making the statement “I AM”. If this is the only identifier he deemed necessary to give as an explanation for himself, we must look at exactly what I AM means to see what he is communicating. The “be” verb is useful only in identifying states of existence. If I say “I am sick”, I am identifying a state of existence for myself; inversely, if I say “I am not sick” I am denying a state of existence for myself in which I am sick. The adjective modifies the state of existence, but God did not provide an adjective in his definition. There is no modifier. “I Am” is simply a declaration of existence.
The Hebrew word represented here is hayah, which is simply the “be” verb. It denotes existence in the present and present perfect tenses. It means “to fall out [turn out], come to pass, become, be.” These are all states of being that are necessarily abstract in order to account for something concrete later, only God left the abstraction open ended. “I AM that I AM.”
Why would God introduce himself to Moses or to Pharaoh as existence itself? I believe it has something to do with the worldview of the ancient near east. Every myth of the ancient near east ignores the greater question of existence. In a pantheistic culture in which the king or Pharaoh often identified himself as God, God called Pharaoh out. By claiming himself as “I AM,” God was sending a message to Pharaoh that said “you are not.” This is much like a King coming to sit on his throne after encountering a surf or servant who presumed to sit in it. God was putting Pharaoh in his place.
God’s introduction is also an assertion of transcendence and holiness. “I am [independent of every other thing]”. God is establishing his holiness in a completely “new” term. The classifications of being below God can all be understood analogically, but as simply “I Am” there is nothing to accurately liken God to. Saying “I Am” is not the same as saying “I exist.” “I exist” says something about the fact that you are, but it is helpless on the front end because it cannot explain why you are. That information comes from the noun or pronoun, but there is nothing about the human pronoun “I” that can explain “exist.” That is the great quandary of the existentialist. God is not simply saying “I exist,” because “I” comes front-loaded. “I am” is the most presumptuous thing any entity can say unless he is responsible for whatever he is. We say things like “I am innocent.,” “I am guilty,” “I am right,” and “I am wrong.” We take responsibility for the explanations of I, grammatically and actually. But to leave the object portion of an “I am” statement blank is, in effect, to say “I am all.” “I am responsible for everything.” “I am infinity.” There is a reason why it was blasphemous for Christ to say “I Am” if he were anyone other than God. No man has the capacity to bear the weight of the responsibility of all of existence.