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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
BEGINS at Exodus 3.13. God has just told Moses to lead
the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt.
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?"
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."
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
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,
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.
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."
adults' point of view, it's a whimsical, absurd explanation
of how YHWH got his real name.
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.
2000 Laura Olshansky
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.
Sri Ramana Maharshi, Talks With Sri Ramana Maharshi,
Talk 106, page 102. Back to text.
Harold Bloom and David Rosenberg (translator), The
Book of J, page 26. Back
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