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Ehyeh asher ehyeh (Exodus 3:14):

Gods Narrative Identity among


Suspense, Curiosity, and Surprise
Jean-Pierre Sonnet
Gregorian University, Theology
Abstract Gods enigmatic answer to Moses question about his nameEhyeh asher
ehyeh, usually translated I am who I am (Exod. 3:14)has provoked philologi-
cal analysis for centuries, often coupled with high philosophical and theological
refection; yet little attention has been paid to the narrative relevance of Gods self-
designation in the context of the book of Exodus. The article investigates the nar-
rative potential of Gods revealed name along the threefold movement of suspense,
curiosity, and surprise. The attention to the syntactic, semantic, rhetorical, and nar-
rative aspects of Gods name in itself and within its immediate context is interrelated
with the tracking of suspense, curiosity, and surprise dynamics triggered by Gods
name in the book of Exodus as a whole. The fne and multiplied dynamism of Gods
self-naming phrase, it is shown, turns the Exodus narrative into the embodiment of
Gods name and into the crucible of Gods narrative identity.
In his essay Posie et pense abstraite, Paul Valry observed that it is only the speed
with which we pass over words that allows us to understand them at all. Pause
long enough upon even the simplest word (consider its etymology, for instance),
and it changes into an enigma, an abyss, a torment to thought. The names in
biblical narratives force us, with their disjunctive glosses, to enter this abyss.
Herbert Marks, Biblical Naming and Poetic Etymology, 1995
Poetics Today 31:2 (Summer 2010) doi 10.1215/03335372-2009-023
2010 by Porter Institute for Poetics and Semiotics
332 Poetics Today 31:2
A character, frst of all, William H. Gass (1970: 49) maintains, is the
noise of his name, and all the sounds and rhythms that proceed from
him. Between a characters name and the surrounding narrative, an
intricate relation can be observed, especially in ancient literature. Names
beget narrative, and narrative begets names. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, for
instance, the name of the wise ta-napitiHe reached lifeunderlies
the unfolding of the plot: reaching the faraway ta-napiti, who will show
him where to fnd the plant of life, becomes the ultimate goal of Gilga-
meshs quest for immortality. Similarly, in archaic Greek poetry the name
of Achilles (Achilleus), the main character of the Iliad, matches his role in
the epic: Achilles is the one who brings about achos, grief, to his laos, the
people of the Achaeans (see Nagy 1999 [1979]: 6869). In biblical nar-
rative the link between name and plot is pervasive; sufce it to mention
the bearing of Ishmaels, Isaacs, and Jacobs names on the plot of Genesis.
The play on Isaacs name (, He will laugh) is well known: it stretches
from Saras skeptical laughter in the annunciation scene (Gen. 18:1214)
to her humorous conclusion after the birth of the child (God has brought
laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me [Gen. 21:6]). The
meaning of Ishmaels name (, God hears) is brought into play
three times in the story by God or his angel: while helping his mother,
Hagar (You shall name him Ishmael, for Yhwh has heard [] of your
misery [Gen. 16:11]), then in support of Abraham, his father (And as for
Ishmael, I have heard you [ ] [Gen. 17:20]), and fnally on
account of the child himself (God has heard [] the boy crying as he
lies there [Gen. 21:17]). The process goes even further in the next genera-
tion, that is, in Jacobs story. As in the cases of Ishmael and Isaac, Jacobs
name () is a key to the narrative: it connects the heros tricky birth
in Genesis 25:26, gripping his brothers heel (), and his tricky deal-
ings in regard to Esaus birthright and benediction (, to supplant; see
Gen. 27:36). Yet the name of the third patriarch is also deconstructed and
reconstructed in Genesis 3233 in the narrative of Jacob wrestling with the
mysterious Other and of the brothers reunion. Mixed up with the words
(Yabboq), (to wrestle, rolling in dust), (to be dislocated),
and (to embrace), Jacobs name undergoes a semantic recasting,
which expresses the heros new birth.
1. Kermode 1979: 91 serves as the basis for my sentence.
2. About ta-napitis name and his role in the growth of the Epic of Gilgamesh, starting with
the Old Babylonian version, see Tigay 1982: 49, 23738. The meaning of ta-napitis name
is echoed in the Sumerian equivalent Ziusudra, which combines the elements life, days,
and to be distant or to prolong.
3. See the surveys by Strus (1978) and Garsiel (1991); see also the essay by Marks (1995).
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Gods Narrative Identity among Suspense, Curiosity, and Surprise 333


But what about Gods own name, revealed in Exodus 3:14,
(henceforth Ehyeh asher ehyeh)? Is it invested with a similar narrative rele-
vance? The revelation of the name is embedded in the burning bush epi-
sode (Exod. 3:115) and is itself a kind of semantic frebrand. Having heard
the cry of the sons of Israel oppressed in Egypt, God appears to Moses,
who has fed from Egypt after an unhappy intervention on behalf of his
Israelite brethren. The deitys self-identifcation in the bush (I am the
God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God
of Jacob [Exod. 3:6]) as well as his promise to liberate the enslaved people
prompt Moses to enquire:
13
Suppose I come to the sons of Israel and say to them, The God of your fathers
has sent me to you, and they say to me, What is his name? What shall I say to
them?
14
God said to Moses, Ehyeh asher ehyeh. And he said, thus shall you say to
the sons of Israel, Ehyeh has sent me to you.
15
And God further said to Moses,
Thus shall you say to the sons of Israel, Yhwh, the God of your fathers, the
God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you:
this is my name forever, and this my remembrance for all generations. (Exod.
3:1315)
Gods enigmatic answer to Moses, Ehyeh asher ehyeh, has provoked philo-
logical analysis for centuries, often coupled with high philosophical and
theological refection; yet relatively little attention has been paid to the
narrative relevance of Gods self-designation in the context of Exodus.
Would this name be an exception to the rule of name-and-narrative inter-
linkage, and this in a book where God plays a leading role if not the lead-
ing role? Samuel R. Driver has described the Ehyeh asher ehyeh utterance
as an example of idem per idem phrases, used by the characters where the
means, or the desire, to be more explicit does not exist (1911: 36263; see
also 1913: 18586). Yet implicitness or elusiveness in the answer does not
amount to a refusal to answer, the way many commentators have read
Exodus 3:14. This essay will, on the contrary, consider the positive import
4. In Ogdens (1992: 107) defnition, the idem per idem consists of a verb in the principal
clause repeated in the subordinate clause, and linked by some form of the so-called rela-
tive pronoun. The number and person of the subject in the main clause is mirrored in the
attached relative clause. Furthermore, the repeated verb has the same sense in both clauses,
thus distinguishing it from the paronomasia, in which similarities of form do not have the
same sense. Idem per idem constructions are generally recognized in Gen. 43:14; Exod. 3:14,
4:13, 16:23 (bake what you [want to] bake and boil what [you want] to boil), 33:19; 1 Sam.
23:13 (they wandered wherever they wandered); 2 Sam. 15:20; 2 Kings 8:1; Ezek. 15:25;
and Esther 4:16 (If I am to perish, I shall perish).
5. They understand Gods answer in Exod. 3:14 in the light of the divine evasions in
Gen. 32:30 and Judg. 13:18 and so as a refusal (see Arnold 1905: 129; Dubarle 1951; von Rad
1962: 182; de Vaux 1970: 6465; Propp 1998: 226).
334 Poetics Today 31:2
of Gods elusiveness, emphasizing its productive rhetorical function in the
narrative. Terseness in the answer can of course be invested with various
rhetorical functions. Jack R. Lundbom (1978: 19495), for instance, main-
tains that, in Exodus 3:14 as elsewhere in the Bible, the idem per idem for-
mula is a closure device, invariably used to terminate debate. In these
pages I will suggest that the peculiar function of Gods name in Exodus
3:14 is rather to initiate narrative.
The Ehyeh asher ehyeh utterance, I intend to show, has a subtle afnity
with what Meir Sternberg has called the three universals of narrative
suspense, curiosity, and surprise. The play of these three forces is, in Stern-
bergs view, what turns a communication into a narrative. Suspense derives
from a lack of desired information concerning the outcome of a confict
that is to take place in the narrative future (Sternberg 1978: 65); curiosity
is produced by a lack of information that relates to the narrative past
(ibid.); and surprise springs out of the unexpected disclosure of signifcant
information, the lack of which had not even been noticed by the reader
(Sternberg 2001: 117). The narrative context of Exodus 3:14 is loaded with
suspense, curiosity, and surprise, and the three dynamics, set in motion by
the narrator, fnd in the Ehyeh asher ehyeh phrase both a matrix and a seman-
tic catalyst. In this process, each of the dynamics exploits various meanings
(syntactic, semantic, pragmatic, and rhetorical) of the expression. These
include:
the play between the stative (to be) and active (to happen, to
befall) aspects of the verb , which opens and closes Ehyeh asher
ehyeh;
the temporal bearing of the imperfect form ehyeh, which spans the
past and present, with recurrent and durative overtones, as well as
the future;
6. Following Childs (1974: 76), who believes that the formula is paradoxically both an
answer and a refusal of an answer; compare Abba 1961: 32526.
7. When they bear upon the construction of a character, initial implicitness and elusiveness
are not experienced as a dead end. Since narrative is saturated with purposiveness, Price
(1983: 2021) writes, the reader is ready to accept a greater measure of apparent irrelevancy
and to wait for implicit connectedness to be revealed in the process of unfolding.
8. According to Sternberg (1999: 529), narrativity can be defned as the play of suspense/
curiosity/surprise between represented and communicative time (in whatever combination,
whatever medium, whatever manifest or latent form). Along the same functional lines,
Sternberg (ibid.) defnes narrative as a discourse where such play dominates: narrativity
then ascends from a possibly marginal or secondary role . . . to the status of regulating prin-
ciple, frst among the priorities of telling/reading. For a general presentation of the working
of the three universals in biblical context, see Sternberg 1985: 264320.
9. See Joon and Muraoka 2006: 111 i; Ogden 1971: 45658; and the excursus in Fischer
1989: 14754. In Brichtos (1992a: 24) view, the temporal determination of the expression is
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Gods Narrative Identity among Suspense, Curiosity, and Surprise 335


the gamut of modal uses attached to the yiqtol conjugation of ehyeh
(capability, possibility, deliberation, obligation, desire) (see Waltke
and OConnor 1990: 31.4);
the dialectic between the verb ehyeh as event or process and the con-
nective asher as a reference to personal or thematic identity (who,
what) (see LaCoque and Ricoeur 1998: 316, 324);
the rhetorical value of the idem per idem construction, conveying
either indeterminacy or intensifcation (see Vriezen 1950);
the illocutionary force of the sentence, (contextually) established as
either assertion or promise.
The Ehyeh asher ehyeh utterance, William M. Schniedewind (2009: 82) con-
tends, is an intentionally ambiguous answer; yet ambiguity, I would
argue, is not introduced here for its own sake. Thanks to its fnely gauged
polysemy, the sentence activates the most basic and most powerful narra-
tive interests.
Suspense
In art as in life, suspense derives from incomplete knowledge about a
confict (or some other contingency) looming in the future. Located at
some point in the present, we know enough to expect a struggle but not
to predict its course, and above all its outcome, with certitude (Sternberg
1985: 264). Caught between hope and fear, we keep reading, building, and
refning rival scenarios for the future at various points in the narrative.
The revelation of Gods name in Exodus 3 occurs in a context flled with
suspense: who will have the upper hand? Pharaoh in his ethnic cleansing
or God in his response to the peoples cry? Even more urgently, how will
Moses answer the inconceivable call just addressed to him? Who am I
that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt,
Moses asks (Exod. 3:11); I will be () with you (Exod. 3:12), God
answers, voicing the frst ehyeh in Exodus and setting the suspense on a new
track. Two verses later, in spelling out his name, God takes up this initial
answer and turns it into an open-ended formula, Ehyeh asher ehyeh, which
relaunches and generalizes the suspense track. Under the pressure of con-
textual suspense, the phrase yields a frst meaningI will be what I will
bethat itself functions as a suspense catalyst. Thus the sentence makes
as manifold as the combinations of its elements: Its meaning is . . . all of the following: I
am what I am, I am what I was, I am what I shall be, I was what I am, I was what I was, I
was what I shall be, I shall be what I was, I shall be what I am, I shall be what I shall be (see
also Brichto 1992b: 274n24).
336 Poetics Today 31:2
the most of the imperfect as a way to refer to the future0 and of the idem
per idem construction as an expression of indeterminacy. God will be what-
ever he wants to be, and his sovereignty in this eventful future is akin to the
modal determinations that lurk in the self-naming formula: I can/may/
want to be what I can/may/want to be. In its open-endedness, Gods elu-
sive name thus preserves Gods freedom in history and thwarts the magic
or idolatrous power attached to a graspable or manageable divine name.
Since the formula elaborates on a previous I will be with you (Exod.
3:12), in a context of promised assistance and deliverance (Exod. 3:710),
the utterance is to be taken as a (speech act of ) promise, implying Gods
benevolence in interventions to come. It is Yhwhs way to open an event-
ful future of unpredictable yet assured divine assistance, and the dialectic
that holds together providence and unpredictability precisely constitutes
the heart of suspense when it comes to the biblical God.
So it is in Exodus 4, where successive divine utterances of ehyeh match
the progressive complication of the plot. I will be (ehyeh) with you, God
had said to Moses in Exodus 3:12. The prophets obstructive game in chap-
ter 4I am slow of speech and slow of tongue (Exod. 4:10)prompts
God to adjust the wording to I will be (ehyeh) with your mouth (Exod.
4:12). Moses answer in Exodus 4:13 implies a kind of boomerang efect in
emulating Gods idem per idem sentence: Please, Yhwh, send by the hand
of whom you will send ( )in other words, dont send
me (see Volgger 1999: 3233). The answer does not discourage God, who
modulates his ehyeh once more, throwing in Aarons mediation in the pro-
cess: I will be (ehyeh) with your mouth and with his mouth (Exod. 4:15). In
this stretch of dialogue, the suspense trackhow will the assistance prom-
ised to Moses be implemented if Moses himself resists Gods way?is thus
gradually relaunched and redirected by Gods answers to the reluctant
prophet. Gods progressively reformulated promise of assistance reorients
the future of the action and reshapes Moses and the readers expectations
about the how and the when of Gods actual support.
In Exodus, as in any narrative, it is the narrators task to orchestrate
10. See Aquilas and Theodotions rendering (esomai hos esomai, I will be who I will be).
About this opening toward the future, see especially Gese 1975: 8182; also see Wambacq
1978: 33538. One could add that the narrative perspective, open to the future, is then par-
ticularly akin to the active aspect of the verb : Gods being is open to determinations
and events that will possibly happen.
11. Promises, as noted by Searle (1969: 57), commit the speaker to some future course of
action and one in favor of the interlocutor (as against the threat: a promise is a pledge to
do something for you, not to you; but a threat is a pledge to do something to you, not for
you [ibid.: 59]).
12. See the Midrash on this point (Freedman 1939: 6465, III.6) and, recently, the emphasis
on Gods Freiheit und Unverfgbarkeit in Fischer and Markl 2009: 54.
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Gods Narrative Identity among Suspense, Curiosity, and Surprise 337


the suspense produced by the action. The revelation of Gods name, Ehyeh
asher ehyeh, however, makes it clear that in Exodus the frst master of sus-
pense is God himself, and the narrator is just following the storys main
character in that matter. Although omniscient and capable of anticipating
Gods intention in future interventions (see the comment in 2 Sam. 17:15),
the narrator refrains from doing so. The master of biblical discourse,
Sternberg (1990: 83) writes, waits on the lord of biblical reality, as if the
narrators shaping must take its cue from Gods forwarding of plot. The
frst and last words of suspense do not originate in the complications cre-
ated by human freedom (in either camp) nor in the art of the narrator. It
is God who stamps the contingencies, delays, and predicaments of human
history with the rhythm of his assistance. The narrator emulates in story-
telling what the unpredictable yet faithful God creates in history.
Curiosity
Unlike suspense . . . curiosity bears on things past relative to the moment
of their becoming of interest. . . . The question relates to an accomplished
fact in the world: an incident, relationship, motive, character trait, plot
logic, which has already played some part in the determining of the nar-
rative present (Sternberg 1985: 283). The dynamics of curiosity impel the
reader forward while looking backward: Knowing that we do not know,
we go forward with our mind on the gapped antecedents, trying to infer
(bridge, compose) them in retrospect (Sternberg 2001: 117).
The revelation of the name in Exodus 3 occurs in a plot that is oriented
toward the past as well as toward the future. The turning point in the
oppression story told in chapters 1 and 2 occurs when God, hearing the cry
of the people, remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
(Exod. 2:24). Similarly, in his self-presentation to Moses at the burning
bush, God refers to a previous story: I am the God of your father, the God
of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob (Exod. 3:6). The
God of the bush has his credentials in the past. For Moses, those elliptical
allusions prompt immediate curiosity: What God? Why this tying of his
own father to the patriarchs? And why is he himself inserted (your father)
into the sequence, given the peoples and his own situation?
13. Surveying the pros and cons of suspense in the Bible, Sternberg (1985: 267) writes:
Clearly, the generation of suspense throughout the tale would militate against our sense
of the divine control of history: to alternate between hope and fear is to postulate a world
of divine laissez-faire, of natural contingency or, perhaps worse, of contingency subject to
the regulation of art alone. The Ehyeh asher ehyeh announcement thwarts such a theological
drift, putting forward Gods overarching involvement in the (suspense) plot of Exodus.
338 Poetics Today 31:2
Now Gods revealed name encapsulates and intensifes this dynamics of
curiosity as well, since the repeated ehyeh can have an iterative or habitual
aspect, and an alternative translation is, then, as proposed by Driver (1911:
4041): I am wont to be what I am wont to be. In such a case, as Corne-
lis Den Hertog (2002: 226) writes, the yiqtol verb form will serve to bridge
the gap between . . . two times . . . : the time of the ancestors and that of
Moses. Gods revelation at the burning bush is not only the extension of
a temporal line already drawn in the sequence of the patriarchs (see Exod.
3:6), it is also the disclosure of a working analogy: God will reassert him-
self in present history as he did in the patriarchal past. If the connection
between these two divine historical assertions is bewildering for Moses, it
equally puzzles the reader, who wonders about the forms of Gods claimed
consistency throughout time. Gods formula is totally elliptical in that mat-
ter, and the narrator refrains from adding any clue to the divine conun-
drum. The withholding of information about the past, Sternberg (1985:
259) writes, at once stimulates the readers curiosity about the action, the
agents, their life and relation below the surface. In other words, the divine
formula triggers retrospection (via curiosity) as much as it triggers pro-
spection (via suspense), and it prompts the reader to probe Gods persis-
tence, which bridges ancient and present history.
The reference to the past, however, somehow depends on the illocu-
tionary force of Gods self-naming phrase. Understood as a reference to
Gods persistent way of being throughout the ages, Gods utterance is, in
terms of illocutionary force, an assertion. Yet the phenomenon of indirect
speech act is common in biblical Hebrew, as in any natural language, and
the assertion in question looks very much like an indirect act of promise. In
afrming his consistency throughout time, God subtly makes a promise: he
will act favorably in the future for the sake of his people, as he habitually
did in the past for the sake of the patriarchs.
For Moses, as I said, the elliptical reference to the God of the fathers is
a source of curiosity, and so is Gods self-naming phrase for both Moses
and the reader, insofar as the formula leaves undefned the habitual ways
14. Driver eventually abandons this rendering in favor of a translation in the future tense
without argumentation, however. See also Jacob 1992: 73. On Jacobs engagement in the
exegesis of Gods name(s), see Marks 2002.
15. See Searle 1975. On speech acts and indirect speech acts in the Hebrew Bible, see, for
instance, Jackson 2000: 4269.
16. Hence Niccaccis (1985) proposal to construe the phrase as I will be who I have been,
establishing a tight equivalence between the God of the fathers and the God of the sons.
Niccacci refers to the following midrashic tradition, among others: R. Isaac said: God said
to Moses: Tell them that I am now what I always was and always will be; for this reason is
the word ehyeh written three times [in Exod. 3:1214] (Freedman 1939: 6465, III.6).
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Gods Narrative Identity among Suspense, Curiosity, and Surprise 339


of Gods assistance. In the opening chapter of the book, the fates of the
sons of Jacob have been related to successive Egyptian kings, not to Israels
deity. Reading Exodus thus implies a kind of remembrance of things past,
where things progressively surface, as in Exodus 6:8, when God reminds
Moses: I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac,
and Jacob; I will give it to you for a possession. I am Yhwh. At this point,
God elaborates on his previous announcement in Exodus 3:8 about the
peoples entry into the land and provides this entry with its appropriate
rationale. Yet it is surprisingly Moses who brings remembering to its peak
in Exodus 32. After the peoples sin of idolatry in the golden calf afair,
God says to his prophet: Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn
hot against them and I may consume them (Exod. 32:10). Moses, how-
ever, seems to understand Gods request to refrain from intervening as an
invitation to intervene, and the prophet daringly reminds God of his own
commitment to the people in question: Remember Abraham, Isaac, and
Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to
them, I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this
land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall
inherit it forever (Exod. 32:13; cf. 33:1). The God who remembered the
covenant (in Exod. 2:24) has to be reminded of it, not without beneft to
the reader, who can thus put together the crucial pieces of the past.
Yet Exodus progresses as a wheel within a larger wheel, that of the Pen-
tateuch, and, as Rashi, the eleventh-century exegete, has observed, Gene-
sis serves as narrative prologue (or exposition) to Exodus. What the reader
of Exodus has to remember is what he or she has already read in Genesis,
and in retrospect Gods name thus extends its heuristic virtue to the frst
book of the Pentateuch. On that scale, the self-naming phrase I am wont
to be what I am wont to be operates as a reminder and activates analo-
gies between Gods conduct then and now, there and here. Gods promise
to Moses in Exodus 3:12, I will be (ehyeh) with you, for instance, gains a
powerful rationale when related to Gods foundational commitments to
Isaac and Jacob, And I will be (ehyeh) with you (Gen. 26:3 and 31:3), in
relation to the oath sworn to Abraham. What was left implicitGods
17. Scholars, both Jewish and Christian, Tiemeyer (2006: 195) writes, have long sus-
pected that the deeper message of the passage is not to ban intercession but to encourage
it. In requesting to be left alone, God is in fact wishing the very opposite. In other words,
by declaring his desire to destroy Israel, God gives Moses a reason to intercede, and by the
words leave me alone informs Moses that he had the power to hinder God from executing
his threats.
18. See Rashis comment on Gen. 1:1; cf. Signer 1997: 110.
19. See Janzen 1993: 99100 on the relationship between these promises in Genesis and the
revelation of Gods name in Exodus.
340 Poetics Today 31:2
credentials in the pastis progressively made explicit by the surfacing of
the past.
Curiosity in any narrative is engineered by the narrator. It is the master
of the tale who creates gaps, obscuring decisive elements of the past, and
who efects in the readers mind a continuous backward elucidation. Yet in
Exodus the impetus for such an interest in the lessons of the past is equally
and most authoritatively launched by a character in the narrated world,
that is, by the God whose name (also) means I am wont to be what I am
wont to be.
Surprise
Whereas in suspense and curiosity we know that we do not know and we
want to know, in the case of surprise we do not, and we are therefore
unsettled by what we come to know. The production of surprise, Stern-
berg (1985: 309) writes, depends on the readers being lured into a false
certitude of knowledge in such a way that the gap will surface only at the
moment of its flling.
The revelation of Gods name in Exodus 3 indeed produces surprise,
for the reader was expecting another name. Up to that point in Exodus,
the narrator has thrice used Gods namethe Yhwh tetragrammaton
impressing it on the readers mind (Exod. 3:2.4.7). As a reader of Genesis,
the same reader also knows that the name in question circulates in the
characters world as a divine appellation warranted by antiquityit was
used by humankind at the dawn of history, as early as Seth and Enosh in
Genesis 4:26, by all three patriarchs,0 and what is more, by God himself
(in his self-presentations to Abraham in Genesis 15:7 and to Jacob in Gene-
sis 28:13). The tetragrammaton is thus, we surmise, the token or the shib-
boleth expected by the sons of Israel, the only name that could legitimize
Moses mission. Yet in Exodus 3:14 God reveals to Moses another name,
and we realize that there was a name behind the name, a secret phrase
hidden in Gods (received) name, one congruent with Gods personal
existence and point of view, expressing in the frst person what the received
20. Abraham in Gen. 15:2, 22:14, 24:3.7, and see also 21:33; Isaac in Gen. 26:25; Jacob in
Gen. 32:10.
21. The theme of the deitys hidden name belongs to Egyptian religious culture (see the
section The God and His Unknown Name of Power in Pritchard 1969: 1214), attaching
a magical sense to the name in question: knowing the gods secret name gave humans a
degree of mastery over them (Propp 1998: 224). The revelation of Gods hidden name in
Exod. 3:14 is preventive in that sense: The paronomasis, by its very circularity and indeter-
minacy . . . makes sure that no magical power is deduced from it (LaCoque and Ricoeur
1998: 311).
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Gods Narrative Identity among Suspense, Curiosity, and Surprise 341


name, Yhwh, encapsulated in the third person. This name is frst spelled
out in its emphatic form, Ehyeh asher ehyeh, before being reduced to its core
form, Ehyeh.
After each of the revelations in Exodus 3:14ab, Moses keeps silent. Is he
out of breath, at a loss for an answer, because of the oddity and the unique-
ness of Gods frst-person name? Or (and the motivations can accumulate)
is he thereby betraying his surprise, a surprise analogous to the readers?
Was Moses expecting a name (i.e., Yhwh) other than the one spelled out by
God? Confronted by Moses silence, God indeed adjusts his presentation
and does so in two steps. First, the general self-naming phrase gives place
to a particular statement meant for the sons of Israel and picking up Moses
projected scenario (Suppose I come to the sons of Israel and say to them,
The God of your fathers has sent me to you, and they say to me, What is his
name? What shall I say to them? [Exod. 3:13]): Thus shall you say to the
sons of Israel, Ehyeh has sent me to you (Exod. 3:14b). The adjustment,
however, is met once again by Moses silence, which leads God to a third
statement, in which he reverts to the familiar third-person name (the token
of intra-Israelite recognition). Thus shall you say to the sons of Israel,
Yhwh, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and
the God of Jacob, has sent me to you: this is my name forever, and this my
remembrance for all generations (Exod. 3:15). Driven by Moses silence,
God has thus reentered the sphere of pragmatic communication, leveling
down the mystery (Sternberg 1998: 266), in a kind of self-translation for
the sake of the sons of Israel. The third-person name reverted to is indeed
22. See Rashbam and Bekhor Shor, for whom Yhwh calls himself , ehyeh, while others
refer to him in the third person as Yhwh, assumed to be a form of , yihyeh; see also Jacob
1992: 76; Sternberg 1998: 265. Brichto 1992a: 24 summarizes the morphological problem
raised by the ehyeh-Yhwh connection: While it is true that we never have medial waw in the
imperfect of the verb to be in biblical Hebrew, its attestation in the participial and impera-
tive forms is grounds enough for seeing a clear play, if nothing else, on the third person sin-
gular imperfect; and if the waw in place of yodh is a relic of older pronunciation, why all the
more reason to attach the pata vowel to the afrmative yodh as in the older pronunciation to
yield the widely accepted Yahweh.
23. For the technique of successive and he said ()/and she said () that intro-
duce a speech by the same speaker as a way to record the interlocutors silence, see Sonnet
2008: 76.
24. If Moses knows the name (having absorbed it with his mothers milk [see Exod. 2:8
10]), he may be testing the voice, to see if it belongs to Yahweh. If, however, raised as an
Egyptian, Moses is as ignorant as Pharaoh himself (5:2), he may anticipate that Israel will
test both him and the voice (Propp 1998: 223).
25. The use of the third-person name is then a way to meet the peoples hypothetical request
for his name, as pointed out by Sternberg (1998: 265).
26. In a survey of the shifts from frst to third person in divine self-designations in the
Pentateuch, Mirguet (2009: 97101) mentions as possible motivation the emphasizing of an
already known divine name and the adoption of the human characters perspective.
342 Poetics Today 31:2
the one that will be used by Moses in his subsequent dealings with the sons
of Israel. In other words, Moses and the reader are the only ones who
have been made privy to Gods inner, frst-person name.
In Exodus 3:14 the reader has thus been abruptly exposed to an unprece-
dented revelation and so subjected to surprise. Catching the reader of-
guard due to a false impression given earlier, Sternberg (1985: 259) writes,
surprise brings all the pleasure of the unexpected as the [previous] ele-
ments spring into new shape. Surprise triggers a process of recognition
that reorders and reinterprets all that intervenes (see ibid.: 314). Running
into Gods frst-person name, ehyeh, the reader of Exodus makes out that
God has already and surreptitiously brought this name into play in a previ-
ous assertion in Exodus 3:12: I will be (ehyeh) with you.0 The recognition
extends backward to Genesis, where the form ehyeh has occurred twice, in
Gods promise, And I will be (ehyeh) with you, addressed to Isaac in Gene-
sis 26:3 and to Jacob in 31:3. In other words, the reader now gathers that
Gods inner name already played a role in his commitment to the fathers.
Yet at the same time, the surprise of Exodus 3:1415 triggers a retrospective
reading of the previous occurrences of the third-person name, since, as Den
Hertog (2002: 221) puts it, we now know that Yhwh is, in a certain sense,
only a derivative from the frst-person name. At the burning bush God
has thus provided his received name with its authorized etymology and, as
Herbert Marks (1995: 34) writes, what the name buries or empedestals,
the etymology animates or exhumes.
27. Moses will be asked by God to use the Yhwh name in transmitting specifc commands
to the people (see Exod. 3:16, 6:6.7.8, etc.); Moses will address the people and mention the
name in question (see Exod. 12:23.25.27, 13:3.5.8.11.12.15.16, etc.); Moses and the people will
pronounce it together in the Song of the Sea (see Exod. 15:1.2.3.6, etc.); the same name will
be used in Moses transactions with Pharaoh (Exod. 3:18, 4:22, 7:16.17, 8:16, etc.).
28. It is worth noting that, according to Exod. 33:12.17, the intimacy in the relationship is
reciprocated insofar as God knows Moses by name. On Moses privileged knowledge, see
Fischer 1989: 15354.
29. In the Pentateuch, the form ehyeh occurs only nine times (Gen. 26:3, 31:3; Exod. 3:12.14
[three times], 4:12.15; Deut. 31:23) and always in Gods speech (to Isaac and Jacob in Gene-
sis; to Moses in Exodus; to Joshua in Deuteronomy). The ehyeh occurrences surveyed in
Genesis and Exodus provide a paradigm for the subsequent uses in the Hebrew Bible. (In
the Former Prophets, I will be with you in Josh. 1:5, 3:7; Judg. 6:16; see also 2 Sam. 7:1. In
the other prophetic books, the ehyeh form occurs mainly in the phrase I will be your God;
see Jer. 11.4, 24:7, 30:22, 31:1, 32:38; Ezek. 11:20, 14:11, 34:24, 36:28, 37:23; Zech. 8:8. Other
occurrences are in Hos. 1:9, 14:6; Zech 2:9.)
30. At this point, Brichto (1992a: 22) writes, Moses is unaware that I am is a name of God
(as against the awareness of the narrator or of the reader who is reading this not for the frst
time).
31. See the play between the frst-person verb and the third-person name in Exod. 6:7: I
will be () your God. And you shall know that I [am] Yhwh your God.
32. On Exod. 3:14 and etymology, see also von Rad 1962: 18081; Marks 2002: 164. Gods
Sonnet

Gods Narrative Identity among Suspense, Curiosity, and Surprise 343


The Ehyeh asher ehyeh utterance not only creates a surprise, it also subtly
announces or at least opens the door to surprises to come. On this reading,
the stress in the formula falls on the asher (the what, the that, or the deter-
mined who), and the idem per idem fgure is no longer a device for indetermi-
nacy but for intensifcation of the matter: it is what I will be that I will be.
Moses and the reader are meant to recognize Gods self-determination
in his freedom to reveal himself, beyond their interpretative business in
prospection and retrospection. The Ehyeh asher ehyeh phrase then serves
as a parable of the Bibles way of springing on the reader accomplished
facts of divine choice, with little exposition or none or worse than none
(Sternberg 1985: 98). To these accomplished facts one may add intrinsic
qualities, since divine attributes in the Hebrew Bible are communicated
(if they are) not in orderly form at the start but piecemeal and in their
dramatic manifestations (ibid.: 323). To read Exodus is not only to follow
the suspense and curiosity tracks, it is also to go from disclosure to disclo-
answer in Exod. 3:14 thus illuminates a name that had remained opaque up to then. Hence
Gods subsequent afrmation to Moses in Exod. 6:23: I am Yhwh. I appeared to Abra-
ham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shadday, but [as to/under/by] my name Yhwh I was not
known to them ( ). The form , my name, can be understood as an
accusative of specifcation or of limitation (see Gesenius and Kautzsch 1985 [1910]: 144 l n3;
Joon and Muraoka 2006: 126 g). It was not the name Yhwh that was not known but God
under this name (see Rashi and Ibn Ezra about , I was known, as nifal ): a knowledge
now granted to Moses (Ibn Ezra), to whom the names essence has been disclosed (Rash-
bam). The customary explanation of the tension created by Exod. 6:23 in terms of tradition
or redaction history should not deter the reader from close reading nor dismiss the narra-
tives claim for overall consistency. The patriarchs have indeed a close relationship with God
as El Shadday and always in the context of fertility (Abraham, Gen. 17:1; Isaac, Gen. 28:3;
Jacob, Gen. 35:11, 48:3, 49:25; with explicit divine revelation in Gen. 17:1 and 35:11), whereas
Exod. 3:14 is unprecedented as a frst-person disclosure in respect to the tetragrammaton
in a context of prophetic mandate and of national liberation. To know someone under or
by his or her name implies much more than ( just) knowing this name, as is clear in the case
of Moses (compare Exod. 3:4, where God knows Moses name, with Exod. 33:12 and 33:17,
where Moses is known to God by name). Furthermore, a specifc knowledge of God as
Yhwh is promised to the sons of Israel in the exodus experience (Bekhor Shor; see Exod. 6:7,
10:2, 16:12). See the discussions of Exod. 6:23 in Jacob 1992: 14556; Sarna 1991: 31.
33. Compare Jacobs translation ( Jacob 1997: 6670; Marks 2002: 16567), Ich werde es
sein, der ich es sein werde, with Luthers Ich werde sein, der ich sein werde. For the intensi-
fcation value of the paronomastische Relativsatze (or idem per idem construction), see espe-
cially Vriezen (1950: 505), who speaks of heightening, intensifcation, or maximization of the
content of the main sentence (my translation). In addition to Exod. 3:14 and 33:19, Vriezen
construes in that sense Ezek. 12:25, the third paronomastische Relativsatze in Gods own
words: For I, Yhwh, will speak that word that I will speak, and it shall be fulflled (
). (See the discussion of the verse by Wambacq [1978: 33234], who con-
cludes, Le contexte interdit dinterprter la phrase comme une indtermination [ibid.:
334]). An interesting parallel to Exod. 3:14 is the reuse of , I will speak, in Ezek. 12:28:
in both cases, the nonemphatic form follows the emphatic one.
344 Poetics Today 31:2
sure, from divine lightning to divine lightning, casting an unexpected and
corrective light on the known story.
Take the revelation in Exodus 4:22 of Gods father-son relationship to
Israel, Thus says Yhwh: Israel is my frstborn son. The disclosure is
totally unprecedented. The collective character whom God has hitherto
called my people (Exod. 3:7.10) turns out to be my frstborn son, a
blood relative, so to speak, who therefore falls within the responsibility
of God as goel or redeemer. In biblical law the goel is a persons nearest
relative, committed to standing up for him or her and maintaining this
persons rights, notably when the person in question becomes a foreign-
ers slave; the kinsman, the goel, is then bound to redeem his endangered
relative (see Lev. 25:4754). The legal category has, however, a theological
counterpart, since the biblical God regularly assumes the goel position vis-
-vis his people, regarded as his kin. So he does in Exodus 6:6: Say there-
fore to the sons of Israel, I am Yhwh . . . , I will deliver you from slavery
to [the Egyptians]. I will redeem you (see also Exod. 15:13). Retrospec-
tively, the reader must reassess Gods way of hearkening to the peoples cry
when they were under the yoke of servitude in chapters 2 and 3. When
God saw and knew the sons of Israel in their distress (Exod. 2:25), the
reader now understands in retrospect, the God of the fathers was acting
and reacting in his capacity as father.
Yet Exoduss most decisive surprise awaits Moses and the reader in
Gods self-revelation at the books dramatic pivot in Exodus 3234. When,
following the golden calf afair, God grants Moses request to let him
see his glory, he specifes: I will make all my goodness pass before you,
and will proclaim before you the name, Yhwh, and I will be gracious to
whom I will be gracious, and I will show mercy to whom I will show mercy (
) (Exod. 33:19). Once more Gods third-
person name is associated with an idem per idem frst-person utterance that
echoes the name revealed in Exodus 3:14. The reader wonders: Is this utter-
ance a further realization of Gods name? Does it represent the authorized
determination of the Ehyeh asher ehyeh formula? What does the idem per idem
construction imply here, indeterminacy (and thus suspense: grace and mercy
in favor of whom?) or intensifcation, emphasizing Gods sovereignty in his
grace and mercy? The context favors an interpretation in terms of intensif-
cation, since we already know that it is Moses who will enjoy the beneft of
34. Surprise is the dynamics most appropriate to genuine revelation, since it does without
precedent or analogy, as God himself warns in Exod. 34:10: I will do marvels, such as have
not been performed (or created []) in all the earth or in any nation.
35. In Exod. 2:2325 (told by the narrator) and in 3:710 (in Gods words).
Sonnet

Gods Narrative Identity among Suspense, Curiosity, and Surprise 345


Gods favor (see Exod. 33:19a). Yet why such a metamorphosis of Gods self-
naming phrase in terms of mercy, which leaves Moses speechless?
These questions fnd an answer in Exodus 34:67 in Gods solemn
proclamation of his name (as promised in Exod. 33:19) and attributes:
Yhwh, Yhwh, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abound-
ing in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thou-
sandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no
means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the
sons and the sons sons, to the third and the fourth generation. This is a
major surprise with regard to the previous revelation of Gods attributes
in Exodus 20:56, during the formulation of the Ten Commandments on
Mount Sinai. There God has prohibited idolatry by appeal to a personal
motivation: for I, Yhwh your God, am a jealous God, punishing the chil-
dren for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those
who hate me, but showing mercy to a thousand generations of those who
love me and keep my commandments. This revelation is now forcefully
echoed fourteen chapters later, in Gods personal outpouring to Moses in
Exodus 34. Yet the echo brings about a surprise. What we thought came
frst, on the basis of the foundational revelation in Exodus 20namely, the
attribute of justicenow comes second, after what amounts to an infa-
tion of the attribute of mercy. Far from being bound by any order what-
soever, God, we now understand, is free to rank his attributes the way he
choosesEhyeh asher ehyehand he wants them slanted here in favor of
mercy. Surprise, as always, triggers recognition. The disclosure of Exodus
34 casts a retrospective light on Gods merciful behavior in the golden calf
afair, when he refrained from inficting on his people the wholesale punish-
ment that he had planned to mete out (see Exod. 32:12). In particular, the
dynamics of recognition retrospectively legitimizes Moses boldest request
in Exodus 32: at the climax of his intercession on behalf of the idolatrous
people, the prophet asked God to repent (Exod. 3:12), that is, to reverse
his decision to annihilate the people (see Sonnet 2010: 485). Now, as we
learn in Exodus 34:6, the reversal (of the order of attributes in favor of
mercy) is lodged within Gods own self. In his daring imperative, repent,
Moses was thus driven by a prophetic intuition of Gods inner makeup.
36. As Alter (2004: 505) points out: Extraordinarily, there are three consecutive itera-
tions of the formula for introducing speech (verses 19, 20, 21) with no response from Moses.
Moses, having asked to see God face to face, is in a daunting situation where it is God Who
will do all the talking and explain the limits of the revelation to be vouchsafed to Moses.
This iteration echoes the triple , and he said, in Exod. 3:14ab,15.
37. See Scoralicks (2002: 95) apt reference to Exod. 32:714 as die dramatisierte Darstel-
lung eines innergttlichen Konfikts von Zorn und Reue (see also ibid.: 119).
346 Poetics Today 31:2
The perception of Gods scalar reordering in the hierarchy of his attributes
was, in some sense, prepared by the assertion in Exodus 33:19, since the
announcement to Moses (And I will be gracious to whom I will be gra-
cious, and I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy) anticipated the
two attributes that now come frst in Gods revised self-presentation: a
God merciful and gracious. Yet it is only when the attributes in question
appear in the (reordered) sequence of the attributesin Exodus 34:67
that the divine inversion becomes fully perceptible.
The peripeties in Exodus 3234 throw a new light on Moses initial privi-
lege. Why has Moses, and Moses alone, been made privy to Gods frst-
person name in its core form, Ehyeh, as well as in its paronomastic form,
Ehyeh asher ehyeh? We can surmise that the determining factor is the com-
missioning of Moses as prophet. Gods subsequent behavior indeed con-
forms to the principle best formulated in Amos 3:7, Surely Adonay Yhwh
does nothing, without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets.
As a prophet, Moses is dramatically implicated in Gods self. If Moses kept
silent when he frst heard Gods name, he spoke up in his intercession for
the people in Exodus 32, challenging God to be faithful to himself, that
is, faithful to his unfolding selfEhyeh asher ehyeh. In that dramatic hour,
Moses pressed for an unfolding driven to the limit of reversal of intent, that
is, repentance (see Sonnet 2010). Moses, then, was acting in his capacity as
Gods second and prophetic self.0
Conclusion
A character, frst of all, is the noise of his name, and all the sounds and
rhythms that proceed from him (Gass 1970: 116). The sound pattern of
Gods utterance actually provides an essential clue in our inquiry. In utter-
ing [Ehyeh asher ehyeh], Gabriel Josipovici (1988: 74) writes, God indicates
by this palindromic utterance, with its repeated h and sh sounds, that
this is the breath that lies beneath all utterance and action. What is her-
38. Exodus 3 is regularly understood as a scene of prophetic commissioning; see, for
instance, Macchi 1996. From such a perspective, the revelation of the name has its generic
context in the prophetic Botenspruch.
39. Yet the prophets privileged information always hinges on Gods liberality, as shown by
the counterexample in the cycle of Elisha: Yhwh has hidden it from me, and has not told
me (2 Kings 4:27).
40. And this could be a surprising collateral meaning of the Ehyeh asher ehyeh phrase (apt
indeed, to leave Moses breathless), where asher amounts to a shifting who: I will be who-
ever I will be. In his intercession in Exod. 32:1114, Moses is enacting this who: represent-
ing to God what he has done and said to the sons (Exod. 32:1112) and to the fathers (Exod.
32:14); he is not only Gods most immediate interlocutor but acts as Gods second self, cata-
lyzing the reversal of the announced decision.
Sonnet

Gods Narrative Identity among Suspense, Curiosity, and Surprise 347


alded in the prosody of Gods self-naming phrase gains confrmation from
its multifold meaning in narrative context. As a catalyst of suspense, curi-
osity, and surprise, the name revealed in Exodus 3 has equated the revela-
tion of Gods character with its and his dramatic manifestation throughout
Exodus or, in Paul Ricoeurs (1985: 21) words, with Gods narrative iden-
tity, that is, the identity produced by the narrative itself.
In fact, all literary characters fall within the X will be what X will be
pattern. What we reconstruct in reading, Seymour Chatman (1978: 119)
writes, is what the characters are like, where like implies that their per-
sonalities are open-ended, subject to further speculations and enrichments,
visions and revisions. Gods character is in this regard not so much an
exception as the harbinger of the rule insofar as reading the Bibles lead-
ing character is, as with each of its characters, a process of discovery,
attended by all the biblical hallmarks: progressive reconstruction, tenta-
tive closure of discontinuities, frequent and sometimes painful reshaping
in face of the unexpected, and intractable pockets of darkness to the very
end (Sternberg 1985: 323). Yet the process is most intricate in the case of
God. For not only do we lack any imaginative frame in which to anchor
Gods narrative predicates (most dimensions associated with character
physical appearance, social status, personal history, local habitationdo
not apply to him at all [ibid.]) but more decisively, the self-naming God
also stands out as the master of his own characterization in a way that tran-
scends any similar process in the case of human characters.
Gods idiosyncrasy in his self-naming and in his reassertion of his name
throughout history is central to the Bibles narrative project. If Exoduss
overall narrative, before and after Exodus 3:14, has become the embodi-
ment of Gods name, Gods character is not, for all that, lost in history, at
the mercy of human contingencies, nor lost in story, subject to the intrica-
cies of the narrative. Gods character is undoubtedly open-endedEhyeh
asher ehyehyet in his case the dramatic manifestation goes with the asser-
tion of a sovereign self. This point is announced and encapsulated in the
self-naming phrase: Gods frst-person ehyeh frames the phrase, which thus
conveys Yhwhs initiative in his revelation in history. The recurrence of
41. My translation. See Greenbergs (1969: 83) apt paraphrase of Exod. 3:14 (and of Driver
1911: 24): My presence [God says] will be something as undefned, something which, as my
nature, is more and more unfolded by the lesson of history and the teachings of the prophets,
will prove to be more than any formula can express (see also Josipovici 1988: 74).
42. In that sense, Gods character is far from being perpetual potential, pace Bloom and
Rosenberg 1990: 289. Such a character rather represents lunique subjectivit surgissant
absolument partir delle-mme (Gilbert 2007: 36).
43. Gods self-naming phrase is further marked by three aleph initials ( ), which
imply the theme of frst-person subjectivity.
348 Poetics Today 31:2
Gods ehyeh at the opening and the end of the phrase is in this sense a fne
linguistic translation of the visual experience of the burning (and uncon-
sumed) bush: in the name he spells out at the bush, God reveals himself as
a multifarious existence and agent throughout time. Human contingencies,
delays, and obstructions are not lacking in Exodus, yet the biblical God is
asserting himself throughout all of them (see Sonnet 2010: 49394). Gods
achievement in history is efectively (re)presented in the book of Exodus by
the storytellers art, with appropriate recourse to suspense, curiosity, and
surprise. Yet in this regard, as I have tried to show, the master of biblical
discourse defnitely comes second, having found his or her model in the
lord of biblical reality, the divine character.
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