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Our email address is editor @realization.org.

Copyright 2001 Realization.org.

 

 
 
  ARTICLE
 

I Am That I Am

This famous phrase
is actually a joke in
a children's story.

By LAURA OLSHANSKY

I AM THAT I AM, said God when Moses asked his name.

This famous phrase sounds a lot like Vedanta's Thou art that. The great Hindu sage Ramana Maharshi even said:

 


"I am" is the name of God. Of all the definitions of God, none is indeed so well put as the Biblical statement "I am that I am" in Exodus (Chapter 3). There are other statements, such as Brahmivaham, Aham Brahmasmi, and Soham. But none is so direct as the name Jehovah = I am.1

This is awfully profound stuff. So it comes as a surprise to read the relevant passage of the Bible carefully. It turns out to be a children's story with a joke at the heart of it.

The idea of jokes in the Old Testament is shocking to many people because of our preconception that the Bible is a holy book, a serious book, a solemn book. But in fact the Bible was pieced together from all sorts of literature including ordinary stories meant to entertain.

Some of those stories, including most of the oldest parts of Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers, seem to have been written by an author whom scholars call "J." In 1990 the great American literary critic Harold Bloom published a volume called The Book of J in which he argues that this author was a woman who lived around the tenth century BC. He says:

J is at once the greatest and the most ironic writer in the Hebrew Bible; she is essentially a comic author, however surprising that judgment at first must seem. If one could imagine a Jewish Chaucer writing with the uncanny ironies of Kafka and Isaak Babel and Nathanael West, but also with the high naturalistic wisdom of Tolstoy and Wordsworth, then one would approach the high humor of J, ultimate ancestor of The Canterbury Tales as well as of Tolstoy's fictions and Kafka's parables.2

Nobody knows for sure whether J was a woman or when she lived. But one thing is certain: she loved puns. Almost every sentence she wrote contained some kind of word play. And all of it was lost when the Bible was translated from Hebrew into modern languages.

Everyone knows, for example, that God made Adam out of dust. Or did he? What J really wrote was that God made Adam from adamah, the Hebrew word for "red clay," the stuff bricks are made from. It's a pun, a joke: Adam is made of adamah, implying that God is a construction worker. J makes God a construction worker again when he forms Eve from one of Adam's ribs, because the Hebrew word she uses for rib was also the word for a structural member of a building.

When Bloom calls J ironic, he is referring to this kind of incongruity, this juxtaposition of high and low: God the Creator buys his materials at the local hardware store.

Bloom points out two other things about J that are relevant to the passage we are about to examine. She is immensely sophisticated, and her stories sometimes sound as though they are intended for children.

At first these two traits seem contradictory. But in fact, if you've ever told a story to a child while another adult sits in the room, you know the combination is entirely natural. You start inserting little jokes that make the other adult smile but go over the child's head. And that, I think, is what J was doing when she wrote "I Am That I Am." It's a story meant to be read to a child by an adult, but it contains a joke that only adults will understand.


THE STORY BEGINS at Exodus 3.13. God has just told Moses to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt.

Naturally, Moses is worried that people won't believe God chose him for this important job. Why should they? It sounds a little grandiose, don't you think? So Moses asks God, "If they ask me your name, to prove I really talked to you, what should I tell them?"

Already this is a joke, because the ancient Israelites thought it was wrong to say God's name.

So if God were to answer Moses's question, what good would it do Moses? He couldn't repeat the name to anybody..

But in this story, God is a comedian. Instead of answering the question, he says in Hebrew, "Ehyeh asher ehyeh," meaning, "I am that which I am."

To make sense of this, you have to imagine God shrugging his shoulders. Moses asks, "What's your name?" God shrugs and says, "I'm whatever I am." He's avoiding the question, saying he doesn't need a name.

Now here's the punchline.

God then says, "So if they ask you my name, just say, 'Ehyeh.'" In other words, say the first part of the sentence "I am what I am." As if God's first name is "Ehyeh," meaning, "I am."

This is a joke because in the language that God and Moses were speaking, the same language the story is written in, "Ehyeh" sounds like "YHWH," the real name of God that nobody was allowed to say. (The root of the verb form "ehyeh" is "hayah," "to be." The author here is giving a jocular folk etymology for "YHWH," just like she gives a jocular etymology for "Adam.")

It's a joke! God is finding a way for Moses to say "YHWH" without anybody getting mad at him.

Imagine you are an adult in a room with another adult who is telling this story to a child. Both adults know God's real name is YHWH, but the child does not. From the child's point of view, it's just a story about God's name being "Ehyeh."

From the adults' point of view, it's a whimsical, absurd explanation of how YHWH got his real name.

Perhaps it's just an accident that this joke carries the spiritual significance that Sir Ramana Maharshi finds in it. Or perhaps it's due to the fact that J was a great writer.

Copyright 2000 Laura Olshansky


Laura Olshansky was editor of Realization.org during the first few months of its existence. A version of this article appeared earlier as a letter on the Nonduality Salon mail list on February 15, 2000.


 NOTES    



1. Sri Ramana Maharshi, Talks With Sri Ramana Maharshi, Talk 106, page 102. Back to text.

2. Harold Bloom and David Rosenberg (translator), The Book of J, page 26. Back to text.


 RELATED READING ON THE WEB     



For our main reference page on Sri Ramana Maharshi, click here.



 BOOKS MENTIONED IN THIS ARTICLE   



 

THE BOOK OF J
By Harold Bloom and David Rosenberg

One of America's greatest literary critics, Harold Bloom, argues here that some of the oldest parts of the Bible, including the touching human stories of Abraham, Sarah, Rebecca, Jacob, Rachel, Moses, and most of all, Jehovah, the God of Israel, were written by an extraordinarily talented female author named J who lived around the tenth century BC. He points out that the stories are ironic and not particularly religious. His commentary is accompanied by David Rosenberg's brilliant translation which captures the word play and sophistication of the Hebrew original.

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TALKS WITH SRI RAMANA MAHARSHI
by Sri Ramana Maharshi
This is the most comprehensive single volume of Ramana's teachings: 668 pages of transcripts of talks he had between 1935 and 1939 with visitors who traveled to south India from all over the world to ask for advice from the man whom many regard as the greatest realized teacher of the twentieth century. The English (translated here from the three Indian languages used by Ramana) is slightly stilted but nonetheless lucid, direct, literate, and pleasant to read. Part of the book is on the Web here.

 

 RELATED BOOKS   

 


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BE AS YOU ARE: THE TEACHINGS OF SRI RAMANA MAHARSHI
by Sri Ramana Maharshi and David Godman (editor)
This superb compilation of Ramana’s writings and dialogues is the best introduction to Ramana’s method of self-enquiry, which many people regard as the fastest, most direct path to enlightenment. If you could read only one book about how to get enlightened, this might be your best choice. For a longer review, see here. For more information about Ramana on this site, see here.

 


This page was published on February 17, 2000 and
last revised on August 6, 2001.


Copyright 2001 Realization.org. All rights reserved.