(Ex. 3:14) What does “Yahweh” mean?

Scholars are conflicted over the meaning of God’s name. Whatever the meaning, Charles Gianotti explains, “To understand the meaning of the divine name is to understand the character of God revealed by that name.”[1] Kaiser comments, “His “name” was his person, his character, his authority, his power, and his reputation.”[2] Therefore, if we understand the meaning of God’s name, we understand something about who he is. There are multiple views regarding the meaning of “Yahweh.”[3]

First, God is communicating his unknowability. God is basically saying to Moses, “You’re asking who I am… But, I simply am. There is no way for me to explain any further.” However, we get no impression from the text that Moses’ question was wrong or that God was upset with him. He is simply giving him his name, which Moses uses throughout the rest of the book.

Second, God is communicating self-existence. God is communicating that he is the only being in the universe who is stable (“I am the only who always is.”). However, others argue that metaphysical concepts like these are out of touch with ancient Near Eastern thought. Being was usually associated with acting in this culture. For instance, in Genesis 1, God creates the furniture of the universe for a specific purpose.

Third, God is communicating that he is the cause behind the universe. Under this view, God is saying, “I am the one who causes things to happen.” However, this perspective is grammatically criticized. The language is not used this way throughout the rest of the Bible, so it’s odd to claim Yahweh is being used that way here.

Fourth, God is communicating his covenant by giving his name. Typically, God’s covenants are introduced with his name (Ex. 20:1; see also the root Hebrew verb form in other covenants: Deut. 26:17-18; Jer. 7:23; 11:4, 24; 24:7; 31:33; 32:38; Ezek. 36:28; 37:27). In Hosea 1:9, God seems to temporarily divorce his people, and this implies that he is no longer “Yahweh” to them. Others criticize this view for failing to grasp the entirety of the divine name. While this view isn’t wrong per se, it is inadequate.

Fifth, God is communicating that he reveals himself in history. Put simply, God is the one who acts in history. Unlike the deaf, mute, and powerless idols, Yahweh is the one who acts in history. This fits with the Exodus, because he is the one who delivers his people. In Exodus 6:6-8, he states his name, and he connects this with delivering the Jews. This might be why God was not known by his name earlier. Likewise, God provided for the Jews in the wilderness (Deut. 29:2-6), because he was trying to show that he was “Yahweh.” God typically identifies his name with his acts in history (Exod. 29:46; 30:2-3; Lev. 11:45; 19:36; 25:38; 26:13; Judg. 6:8-10; Ps. 81:10; Hos. 12:9; 13:4; Ezek. 20:5-7). In Jesus, God’s name is completely fulfilled, because Yahweh demonstrated his ability to enter into human history and redeem his people personally!

[1] Gianotti, Charles “The Meaning of the Divine Name” Bibliotheca Sacra (January-March) 1985. 39.

[2] Gaebelein, Frank E. (General Editor), and Walter Kaiser. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: With the New International Version of the Holy Bible. Vol. Two “Exodus.” Grand Rapids: Zondervan Pub. House, 1984. (Exodus 3:14-15).

[3] This section summarizes the article by Charles Gianotti. See Gianotti, Charles “The Meaning of the Divine Name” Bibliotheca Sacra (January-March) 1985.