“Too Much to Grasp”: Exodus 3:13–15 and the Reality of God

Few phrases in Scripture have occasioned as much discussion as has the ‘I am who I am’ of Exod. 3:14. What does this phrase mean? How does it relate to the divine name, YHWH? Is it an answer to Moses? question (v. 13), or an evasion of an answer? In “Too Much to Grasp”: Exodus 3:13–15 and the Reality of God, Andrea Saner argues for a way forward for twenty-first century readings of the passage, using Augustine of Hippo as representative of the misunderstood interpretive tradition.

She argues that read within the literary contexts of the received form of the book of Exodus and the Pentateuch as a whole, the literal sense of Exod. 3:13–15 addresses both who God is as well as God’s action. That the first aspect is quite often denied and seen as betraying the influence of platonic and Hellenistic thought. When Saner is right the Septuagint makes a point when it translated the phrase ‘I am who I am’ with Ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ὤν.

The approach of Saner is that of theological interpretation of Christian Scripture which includes an openness to learn from premodern interpretation. Her research is firmly rooted in Old Testament studies and at the same time reads the text in dialogue with the Christian tradition. With regard Exod. 3:14 has Gerhard von Rad stated that this verse supplies an etymology of the divine name and is not a statement about the nature of God.

The contemporary consensus interpretation is the focus is on God’s actions. Saner’s problem is that when all statements about God are replaced with statements about God’s actions, we may lose the subject matter of the text. I completely agree with her and would it put ever more strongly. Then we do lose the subject matter.

“Too Much to Grasp” consists of two parts. In the first part she gives an overview of the reading of Exod. 3:13-15 from Von Rad to Child and beyond and in the second part she rebuilds the theological interpretation of Exod. 3:13-15. In part 1 of “Too Much to Grasp” Saner critiques Von Rad’s claim that Exod. 3:13-15 concerns an etymology of the divine name. She has learned from Breward Childs.

In The book of Exodus (1974) Childs sets the text not only within the Old Testament and New Testament context, but also gives the history of exegesis. Saner rightly points to the fact that there is in Childs’ commentary on Exodus no overarching context. Although Childs argues for the validity of the ontological interpretation of the divine name, he does not really articulate what are the consequences of this interpretation.

Saner does not follow the multilevel approach of Childs. She finds Hans Frei’s account of the literal sense of Scripture more helpful. According to Frey the coherence of the Bible with its two testaments stems from the unifying pressure of the person of Jesus Christ with regard to the content of Scripture.

Saner uses the concept of the literal sense to draw together elements from the semantics of the text to historical and contemporary theological understanding of these seman­­tics. Following Frei she is more concerned than Childs about the intertwined nature of text and reality. However, in distinction from Frey she gives more attention to the literal sense of Old Testament texts in their own context.

Contra Von Rad Saner argues that etymology is not a helpful means of understanding Exod. 3:13-15. Both on philological and historical grounds she identifies Exod. 3:14a following among other Vriezen as paronomasia or wordplay. She concludes that the translation ‘I am the one who is’ does not exhaust the meaning of Exod. 3:14a but stands within the semantical potential. She points both the Deut. 4:32-40 and 34:10-12.

These passages do not speak only about the relation­ship of YHWH with Israel but also the uniqueness of YHWH himself. They describe a pattern whereby YHWH has a unique relationship with his people, through an auditory and visual encounter. YHWH is the only God of the universe not comparable to any other god. He really exists and therefore can really save. YHWH can only be compared with himself. It is clear when we want to do justice to this matter, it is a short step to see ontological aspects in the divine name.

In my view Saner really succeeds in pointing to the fact that the Old Testament itself gives leads for the ontological interpretation of Exod. 3:14. Her conclusion is that  Augustine’s ontological language fits with the Pentateuch’s comparative statements about the identity of YHWH.

YHWH is the only God who can save because he is the only who really exists in the fullest sense of the word. Everything and everybody stays under his authority and depends upon him.  We can learn from Saner’s study that although the Old Testament is not explicitly metaphysical, underneath the message of the Old Testament is a worldview with metaphysical aspects.

Andrea D. Saner, “Too Much to Grasp”: Exodus 3:13–15 and the Reality of God, Journal of Theo­logical Interpretation Supplement 11 (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2015), paperback xv + 266 pp., $34,95 (ISBN 9781575063973)

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