There’s no “I am” in Hebrew

There’s no I am in Hebrew. Well, not exactly…

Got into a conversation some time ago on Google+ about a verse in the Bible which is often translated along the lines of “be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). The “be still” bit is really more like “let go”, but that’s not the bit I wanted to talk about right now.

Someone said to me: “I’ve always loved that I am and God appear side by side in this phrase.” (For those who aren’t familiar with the reference – there is a place in the Bible where God refers to himself in a word that is translated into English as “I am”, so it’s known as one of His names. It’s in a conversation between God and Moses.)

The thing is, the bit translated in Psalm 46:10 as “I am God” doesn’t use the word that God used in that conversation with Moses. It uses the much more normal way of saying “I am X” in Hebrew, which literally is: “I X.” We just don’t have an “am”. We don’t have a “to be” in present tense. If I want to say in Hebrew “I am a woman”, I say “I woman”. (We don’t have an “a” either, but that’s another story.) If I want to tell you that you are clever, I’ll say “you clever”.

That bit in the conversation between God and Moses – that is an unusual usage. The word used there is literally the verb “to be” in future tense, used kind of poetically as present tense. Moses, as God is sending him to Egypt to release the Israelites from slavery, says: [I’m paraphrasing] but they’ll want to know who sent me, they’ll want to know your name, what shall I tell them? and God says: [literally] I will be who I will be. Tell them “I will be” sent you (Exodus 3:14). I’m not quibbling with the “I am” translation as such, just pointing out that this usage is a one-off and it isn’t going to be there in each and every verse that includes “I am” in the English translation. Most of them will have just the word “I” (either “ani” or “anokhi”) without any verb.

So the phrase in Psalm 46:10 which is translated as “I am God” reads in Hebrew: “anokhi elohim” – the word “anokhi” meaning “I” and the word “elohim” meaning God. A word for word translation would read: I God.

end of Hebrew lesson.


P.S. A really interesting discussion developed in the comments about one specific instance, when Jesus said “Before Abraham was, I am” – what exactly was going on there that made his hearers accuse him of blasphemy? I couldn’t see how the “I am” part would have done it on its own (because of what I tried to explain earlier about the use of “I am” in Hebrew).

This is the conclusion I finally came to:

Maybe what would have made his hearers make the connection with the “I am” of Exodus 3 (and therefore a claim to deity) is that the sentence is phrased oddly – it seems peculiar (in any language, I think) to say “before …., I am” – it’s odd to have a statement in present tense after a “before…” clause. So maybe that’s the thing that drew their attention to his use of the phrase “I am”, and then they’d have made the connection with the Exodus 3 reference. (because his hearers were Jewish and would have, in those days, been familiar with that.)


P.S. I’m leaving comments open but would like to make it clear that I take no responsibility for what people say in the comments. Letting a comment stand does not mean I endorse or approve what is said there. I simply do not have the time to engage with each and every point someone raises – I have other calls on my time, and just like everyone else, have only 24 hours in the day :)

34 thoughts on “There’s no “I am” in Hebrew

  1. Please explain to me the difference or similarity in the “I AM” of the Tetagrammaton & when Jesus
    answers I am in Mark 14:16. If Mark 14:16 – I am, was written in the Hebrew language would it be
    written as the Tetagrammaton.
    To me it doesn’t seem like it was meant as the same, but someone preached as if it was Jesus saying/answering in the “I AM”

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    • You seem to be confusing the Tetragrammaton with the “I AM” – these are two different names for God.

      The name translated into English as “I AM” is the one I was talking about in this post – the one God used when speaking to Moses. As I explained, it is a Hebrew word which literally means “I will be” and God was using it in a special, poetic way in that particular instance.

      The name known as the Tetragrammaton is not a word. It’s not something that would be used in any other context, it’s a special name which in Jewish culture is considered sacred. In English translations of the Bible it is normally represented as: LORD. Other ways it’s commonly represented in English are: YHWH; Yahweh; Jehovah. I repeat: it is a name, not a word.

      I’m not sure which verse you meant to refer to (Mark 14:16 can’t be it) but there are plenty of places in the Bible where Jesus is quoted as saying sentences that start with “I am” and I’ve heard preachers make that sort of connection but I’m afraid that as a Hebrew speaker that makes no sense to me, because, as I explained, in Hebrew he would have just been saying “I”, which is *not* the word God used in Exodus 3:14, which is normally translated as “I AM”.

      It is difficult to try and explain this to someone who (presumably) doesn’t know Hebrew. But basically my view is this: when Jesus said, for example, “I am the truth, the way and the life”, in Hebrew this wouldn’t have sounded like it was connected with what is known as the “I AM”. Not unless he chose to use that particular word – which would have sounded very weird, and I can’t imagine the gospel writers omitting to mention such an unusual thing. (Let alone if he had used the Tetragrammaton in reference to himself – that would have been so totally and utterly outrageous, they would have definitely written about it!)

      I hope this helps a bit. It’s the best I can do.

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  2. Except for that bit in John 6, where Jesus says, “Before Abraham was, I AM”; the listening Jews knew exactly what He was saying and were ready to kill Him for blasphemy because He was referring to Himself as the God in Exodus 3:14. But here, of course, we’re talking Greek, and there are several instances where the two Greek words I AM are translated as “I am He”. Although I understand the Hebrew point, the NT is written in Greek and the writers would have used the Septuagint – the Greek version of the OT – for cross-references and quotations.

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    • Thank you for this insight – I don’t know Greek, and if this play on words works in Greek then that may explain it (assuming Jesus actually said it in Greek, but I understand that it was a language in common use at the time). So you’re saying that in Koine Greek there actually is a word for “am”?

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      • Yes. The actual clause in Greek is ἐγὼ εἰμί (ego eimi). And, sorry, my mistake earlier: it’s not Chapter 6: this is from John 8:58. You’re right that Jesus would almost certainly have been speaking in Aramaic, but as His words are reported in Greek, that’s what we have to go by. The Septuagint of Exodus 3:14 translates the Hebrew with ἐγὼ εἰμί – I am. So that is how Greek-speaking Jews would know that passage. Certainly, Jesus’ use of the clause is a claim to be God.

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        • That’s how I’ve always heard it interpreted – that he used “I am” to indicate his deity, and that’s why I’ve wondered about how it would have worked in the original language. If he said it in Aramaic, then I’d love to know how it works in Aramaic – since it’s a sister language to Hebrew, I expect it to behave similarly to Hebrew, but I don’t know for sure. (and yes, I know the Septuagint was in use at the time, so people might have made the connection through there.)

          But whether or not this interpretation is correct, it seems clear to me that he was claiming to be God anyway – I think saying he existed before Abraham was quite enough to explain the reaction he got. (I don’t think the idea of time travel had been invented yet…)

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        • Is Neil claiming that greek speaking jews would have studiously avoided the present tense of the verb “to be” in everyday speech? If they did then their neighbours must sometimes have thought they sounded very odd indeed, but if they spoke the language as everyone else did then surely they would place no more significance on ἐγὼ εἰμί than you or I would place on “I am” (as in “Right now I am puzzled”)

          It is easy to forget that koine greek was the everyday language of the marketplace, not the preserve (I nearly said plaything) of priests and theologians, and whichever version of greek the Septuagint was written in, the NT was written in koine – and in the case of John’s gospel probably written for people who wold be at least as at home with that language as they were with hebrew or aramaic.. (It was certainly not aimed entirely at Jews!)

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          • Interesting point! Which seems to go with my suggestion that the big deal in the “before Abraham” verse from John is simply about Jesus claiming to have existed before Abraham, not about his use of “I am”.

            And looking again at Neil’s comment, he says that the Septuagint translates the word in Exodus 3:14 as “ἐγὼ εἰμί – I am”, i.e. just the ordinary usage and not anything special. In Hebrew, as I explained in my post, the word used there for “I am” is not the usual way of saying “I am”, so if Jesus had said it in Hebrew and used the Exodus 3:14 word, that would have made that kind of impact – but I really think if he had done that, the gospel writers would have mentioned it as it was highly unusual.

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          • I’m saying no such thing. Greek works differently from Hebrew: it has “I am” which Hebrew doesn’t. Jesus’ statement, “Before Abraham was, I AM” was a claim to being God that wasn’t lost on the Jews who were angry at what they saw was blasphemy. In whatever language it was spoken. That’s all I’m saying.

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          • I do understand what you’re saying. It’s not about the use of “AM” – what He said in whatever language was understood by the Jewish hearers to mean He was claiming to be God. It’s not so much here the niceties of Hebrew or Greek, but the import of the message itself: that’s what riled them.

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          • I agree that his hearers understood him to be claiming divinity, I just don’t think it was because he said “I am” – and that was the bit we started this discussion from.

            The import of the message lies, I suggest, not in the use of “I am” but in the claim that he existed *before Abraham*.

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          • But let me try and sum this up more coherently:

            There is a claim that Jesus was sounding as though he was blaspheming because he said “I am”, which is the same as God’s name in Exodus 3:14.

            For that claim to make sense, I suggest, there would need to be a repetition in the John verse of exactly the same unique word used in Exodus 3:14. In Hebrew it is a unique usage. In Greek you’re saying it isn’t – it’s just the normal phrase “I am” which would be used a zillion times a day by every ordinary person, so it wouldn’t sound dramatic or unusual and it wouldn’t make people think “he’s saying he is God”, no more than when someone says “I am tired” or when someone answers the question “are you Joe Bloggs’ cousin” with “I am”.

            so I think what riled Jesus’ hearers was not that he used the phrase “I am”. And I think that’s what Mike was referring to – if the phrase used in Greek is one that was commonly used in everyday speech, why would people make the connection with Exodus 3:14?

            If the Exodus 3:14 bit was translated differently, then it would make sense. But this way, no, I don’t think it does.

            I repeat: I think what indicated his claim to divinity was not the “I am” bit, but the “before Abraham” bit. Saying he’d been around for centuries and centuries – that was the audacious claim. Who else has been around since before Abraham? only God.

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          • One more thought:

            Maybe what would have made his hearers make the connection is that the sentence is phrased oddly – it seems peculiar (in any language, I think) to say “before …., I am” – it’s odd to have a statement in present tense after a “before…” clause. So maybe that’s the thing that drew their attention to his use of the phrase “I am”, and then they’d have made the connection with the Exodus 3 reference. (because his hearers were Jewish and would have, in those days, been familiar with that.)

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          • Theres is a word for was in hebrew…perhaps he said “before Abraham I was…” I dont know just conjecture….

            Honestly at that time when Yahshua spoke, I would say that yes it was entirely for the ‘Jew’ and He most likely spoke it in Hebrew, possibly Aramaic, absolutely not greek koine or otherwise….and for your info, what is typically called the ‘new testament’ contrary to popular belief was originally written in Hebrew and Aramaic. ..then translated into koine…problem is the only complete documents we have are the koine, majority of the original Hebrew were by natural and/or human causes destroyed so that now we only have fragments of them…..please research this fact..

            why would we think anything else knowing Shaul was a Hebrew as were most of his followers…. a Hebrew that reminded us he was still a Pharisee till the day He died, im sure he spoke koine and used it for certain things but to think that he would have ‘Gods’ Word be written something other than ‘Gods’ language would be kinda ridiculous…not all laguages are equal…YHWH chose His people and He gave them His language, everyone else got theirs from babel and their own imaginations…..if you believe the scriptures are ‘Gods’ infallible Word then you must agree this is true….
            Bless

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          • When did I claim Greek-speaking Jews would have avoided the verb to be? I’m a linguist, and would never have suggested anything so preposterous. Perhaps it was another person with my Christian name. Or you’ve got the wrong end of the stick entirely. I might have ridiculed the idea: just because Hebrew might not use the verb to be in such contexts doesn’t mean that Jewish speakers of other languages would do so in those tongues. It is ludicrous: I’ve yet to meet an anglophone or francophone or Esperantist Jew who avoided using that language’s equivalent of the verb to be.

            Those of us brought up with the AV will recall that the translators, in their zeal to be faithful to the original language, used italics to indicate words they had added to make the English more comprehensible. In that regard, it is interesting that the famous “I AM” statements of Jesus add “He in italics – take it out, and you have the Greek record of His words as plain “I AM” (cf His arrest in Gethsemane for an example).

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  3. I think Jesus already had said he existed before Abraham in verse 56. Thats why the jews asked him the question in verse 57. So if the Jews were angry at his saying he existed before Abraham they would have done that then. Which sugest they were angry that he said “I am” not that he existed before Abraham.

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  4. Thanks, enjoy the blog.

    I think the key here is this. I’m guessing the Jews of the time had a word for I AM, that they did not say, or write – for argument sake, lets say that word is, YHWH.

    So in this passage Jesus said, “… before Abraham, YHWH.” Jesus used the word, that no Jew was suppose to say, or write – this was immediately evident to the Jews there.

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  5. It is important to note a few things. Jesus could have used a more common way of saying “I Am” but he does not. it is also important to note that Jesus ends with “I Am” making this word his final statement in which is in relation to his claim to be before Abraham.

    Jesus is using present tense (to be) This lines up with What God said to Moses. The I am here does not fit with the statement of being before Abraham tenses wise. One is a claim to being before eg past. the Other a claim to simply being. The self existing one.

    Jesus is claiming more than divinity, He is saying He is the God of the Old Testament. Paul understood this also in 1 Corinthians 10:4. Zechariah 12:10 where God claimes to be the one who will be pierced.

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    • Yes, as you’ll see from the discussion in the comments, this is the conclusion I came to – that it must be because of the tense that his hearers took it that way, not because of repeating some particular word or phrase.

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  6. This was very helpful. I agree that the issue for Yeshua’s (Jesus’) hearers was His being there/existing before Abraham and not the use of ‘ani’ which would have been normal conversation for the personal pronoun. It kind of ruins a few really good songs built around “I Am” though. “I will be what I will be” just doesn’t easily fit into a tune. Enjoyed the discussion.

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    • I’m afraid that’s incorrect. There’s no such word as “ahayah”. You’re almost right about “hayah” though – it’s the verb “to be” in masculine singular past tense, so it means “was”. For the rest – I’m pretty sure I covered this in my post, and I am a Hebrew speaker.

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    • Ok, having slept on this I think I can see where your confusion comes from. It’s a bit tricky to explain it to someone who doesn’t know Hebrew but I’ll try:

      The word used in Exodus 3:14 is pronounced “éh’yé” and it’s spelled Aleph Hey Yod Hey. Like I said in my post, that word literally means “I will be” – it’s the verb “to be” in future singular. But for someone who isn’t familiar with the way Hebrew works, if you don’t know our vowel system, you could mistakenly read this word as “ahaya” – you need to know what the Nikud is so that you know how to pronounce the word. Nikud is our system of vowels, they are symbols additional to the actual letters.

      I hope this helps.

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  7. Fr Neil, I apologize if there was a misunderstanding, I was not responding to any of your statements and I am no linguist….that us for sure…though I do love it…I wasnt arguing linguistics at all.

    I was discussing perspective…I am a novice of scriputural hebrew, but my area of expertise is unleavened hebraic thought…. and I thank you guys for this discussion it is very thought provoking…

    Having pondered awhile on the particular subject I had an insight…..it is very common for rabbis to use what we call ‘concealment’ techniques when translating scripture, they would never dare to change a single yod but they do mess with the vowel points, especially in regards to HaShem (The Name) hence YeshaYah becomes Yeshayahu, Yahshua becomes Yeshua or Yshua YAHoShuA becomes Yehoshua…YHWH becomes Elohim, Adonai or HaShem. ..etc……and since the Aleph is numerically HaShem, it is silent and only express’s its vowel point, which often is changed to ‘Eh’ instead of ‘Ah’ when it might reveal HaShem YHWH. ..so there is a possibility that ‘EhYeh’ (I will be) is actually ‘eHYAH’ (YAH [Shortform of YHWH] will be)….so perhaps when the Pharisee asked the question…YAHSHuA responded…”before Abraham was YAH(YHWH) will be… what YAH (YHWH) will be….” while making it clear through jesture that He was what YAH will be…YAHSHuA…by such a statement He would also be saying that YHWH who was before Abraham and who created Abraham was the authority, not those that came from Abraham who were attempting to follow the Authority by their own understanding….it appears that he established that His authority being connected directly even through His Name to the Father of the Universe, was greater than their authority being connected only to earthly fathers….they werent to happy about it either…lol

    Anyway these are things that came to mind praying on this topic, may Ruach Ha Kodesh be praised for any insight and truth that may be in it….

    Shalom Aleichem

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    • By the way, for whatever it is worth I am an Ethiopian Yahudim of the bloodline of Yehudah, raised in the U.S., as a youth I didnt pay attention to study as I should have but with age started to correct that…lol…but thats why my Hebrew is still only novice…for now….but I have been culturally immersed in Hebraic thought and Halakhal culture most of my life….. although unlike many of the western Yahudim and many of those in Yisrael today…we have accepted Yahshua as the Meshyach and Salvation, but have not like most ‘christians’ abandoned Torah or the Mitzvots…I just felt compelled to give a little background on myself, to give some insight in my perspective….
      Shalom Aleichem

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  8. Just a thought. The original conversation between Moses and God wouldn’t have been in Hebrew, Moses was raised as an Egyptian so would probably not have spoken Hebrew as a first tongue a that stage. I have no idea what the ancient Egyptian for the phrase would be, but any peculiarity about present/future tense could have been the only way to force the phrase ‘I am that I am’ into Hebrew.

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    • I’m not so sure about your statement that Moses would have been unlikely to speak Hebrew when he saw the burning bush. There are two reasons. Firstly, he was raised by his own mother, so it is likely he was bilingual (and this is really not a big deal to this day outside the arrogant English-speaking world who don’t think we need to learn another language). Secondly, he was away from Egypt for 40 years before the burning bush, and I don’t suppose for a minute his wife and in-laws spoke Egyptian (and Exodus is silent on what language they did speak).

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  9. Thank you keeping this great blog entry open, Lyagushka (Meirav). It is relevant enough to pop up on the first page of googling the “I am”.

    It should be obvious to all that you have the Hebrew sense of Exodus 3:14 correctly as “I will be”. Anything else, whether we all like it or not, is a distortion due to linguistic mistranslation. I used to blame the King James version. Now, thanks to you and Fr. Neil I think better.

    The problem is more than language, though, it is theology. There is a huge difference between the Jewish “I will be what/who I will be” which goes with Hebrew and the Christian “I am who I am” which goes with the Greek. The nature of God is seen as greater than and including the universe in the first.

    The Greek “ἐγὼ εἰμί – I am”, i.e. just the ordinary usage and not anything special. I existed before Abraham (Aristotelian existence and also Platonic existence) is very different from transcendence of (Jewish being and also Platonic being).

    By the way, how would God say “I should/could/would be what/who I should/could/would be”?

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    • According to scholars of ancient Greek (Mourelatos, Kahn, Nehamas, …), the Greek ‘esti’ can mean ‘is’ but not ‘existence’. So, contrary to what I said above, we should not jump to wrong conclusions based on mistranslating the Greek word ‘esti’. ~ :embarrassed:

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