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Ego sum qui sum

Louis Pernot

When Moses asked God who he was, he replied: « I am the one who is » (Exodus 3:14). These three words in Hebrew conceal the entire mystery of the divine nature, and can be read in several ways.

Go and cook yourself an egg
The first and most obvious reading, which all good theologians say is wrong, is that God replies to Moses in a way: « I am who I am… and go and cook yourself an egg! In other words: « It doesn’t matter who I am, I’m just asking you to go and help the people free themselves from their suffering. My name, or who I am, doesn’t matter, what counts is the action, doing good ». It’s true, it doesn’t matter whether you call God, the Eternal, Allah, the great architect, or the spirit of the world, as long as your belief leads you to liberate, to help, to announce grace. Does even claiming to believe in God, or not believing in God, matter as long as you love your neighbour and are ready to forgive and serve?

On the other hand, our verse can be interpreted in a powerful way, as an ontological statement: « I am being ». This is the basis of the onto-theology that was very much in vogue in the Middle Ages, and which asserted that in the world there are things that are, and that everything that « is » participates in something common, which is being. But what is being as being? This pure being, without anything that is, in which everything participates? It is God who brings everything into being. In this vein, modern theologians have presented God as « the power of being », that which drives every human being and every thing to be, to be more and to be better.

But was the Book of Exodus really about ontology?

The Hebrew imperfect
Another reading asks which tense should be translated: does God say: « I am who I am », or « who I will be?” Now, in Hebrew there is no tense as there is in French: there is only a perfect tense for a past action, and an imperfect tense for a past, present or future action that continues into the future. So « Eheyé » can be translated as « I am », « I was » or « I will be », and in fact it’s all three at once. So God says: « I am the one who was, and is, and will be », a formula taken up by the Apocalypse. The idea is a good one: everything in this world once was not and one day will no longer be, but not everything can be temporary. What is timeless, what abides, absolute, transcendent? This is what we call God. Hence the name Yahweh, which Protestants have had the good idea of translating as « the Eternal », and to believe in God is to be attached to the timeless, to base one’s life on the absolute and the transcendent.

But did God want to play with tenses with Moses?

And then there are those who give a weaker meaning to the verb ‘to be’, like the existentialists. For them, there are two different things: to be and to exist. To exist is for things, for what is material and visible. And for them, God does not exist, God is. God indeed is not an object, God does not exist like you or me or anything else. But God is.

Apophatic theology
So what shall we say? That God is, without saying more. God is difficult to imagine, so in the end the first option wasn’t so stupid. God refuses to answer: we can’t give God a name, or say exactly what God is. To name God would be to confine God to human images, yet God is that which transcends everything, the « wholly other ». For the Jews, God’s name is even unknowable; God is the unspeakable. This « apophatic theology » is right: to say something about God is necessarily to say something false. The important thing is how the idea we have of God makes us live, and what it generates in us of love, generosity and positive action in this world.

So God is, because there is good to be done in this world, but as to what God really is, I couldn’t say.

And so I keep silent.


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a été pasteur à Amsterdam et en Région parisienne. Il s’est toujours intéressé à la présence de l’Évangile aux marges de l’Église. Il anime depuis 17 ans le site Internet Protestants dans la ville.

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