When Moses is designated to be God’s chosen agent for freeing the Israelites from Egyptian bondage, Moses expresses several concerns. His first concern was how to announce his mission to the Israelites who, rightfully, would be suspicious. “When I come to the Israelites and say to them: ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them? And God says to Moses, ‘Ehyeh asher ehyeh.’” God continues: “Thus shall you say to the Israelites, ‘Ehyeh has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:13-14). Scholars have spent many long hours trying to decode the meaning of “Ehyeh asher ehyeh.”
Some have suggested that it means: “I am that I am.” Others have rendered it as “I am who I am.” Still others have translated “Ehyeh asher ehyeh” as “I will be what I will be.”
All of these are possible. The larger question is the fact that God reiterates his self-identification. In verse 14 God says: “Tell them ‘ehyeh’ has sent you.” The meaning of the Hebrew words is a problem with understanding the text. The redundancy is a problem with the text itself.
The Talmud (Berakhot 9b) includes a marvelous explanation that serves two purposes simultaneously. It explains the seeming redundancy and offers an insightful lesson at the same time. In this imaginative passage, some anonymous teacher suggests that the Torah records only one part of a conversation. It is as if we are overhearing someone on a telephone without hearing what the person on the other end of the line is saying. Recorded in the Torah is God’s part of the dialogue but not Moses’. That is what the Midrash fills in.
God says his name is “Ehyeh asher ehyeh.” There is no reason to read this other than in the future tense as it appears. God’s reassurance to Moses is that just as I am now with you in freeing Israel from Egyptian bondage, so will I be with you to redeem you from future subjugation at the hands of the Babylonians and Romans. To Moses, this was hardly any reassurance at all. God now announces that Israel will be subject to future persecution! So Moses advises God that bad news is better addressed at the time it occurs rather than in advance. God agrees. He then says: “All right. Tell them that I AM has sent you to them.” The second “ehyeh” is not redundant. It reflects God’s reconsideration of the matter and an improved way of informing the Israelites of Moses’ authorization without hinting at any future oppression.
The Midrash creatively solves the textual difficulty, resolves the redundancy, and teaches readers that the Torah advocates not worrying in advance. Bad news is hard enough to take when it occurs. We need not anticipate it any earlier than necessary.