Question: To whom it may concern--I hope you have experts in Hebrew on hand. I have a question about Ex. 3:14. I know that it is literally, "I Will Be", not "I AM" in Hebrew. But I also know that Hebrew tenses can be a bit tenuous, and that it can be translated either way. I was wondering what the rationale is, for translating it "I Am" when it is literally, "I Will Be."? Is it only to match up with John 8:58? It would seem to me, that there must be more reason than that. Don't worry, I am a Christian, but I was wondering about it. Thanks for any help you can give me.
Response: You are certainly correct that the Hebrew imperfect tense (what we have at Exodus 3:14) covers a rather wide semantic range in Biblical Hebrew. For while in Modern Hebrew these pre-formatives are more or less exclusively and "literally" the future tense, Biblical Hebrew does not work the same exact way. For example, there are plenty of times in BH where the perfect can express a future and the imperfect a simple past tense. The classic work on these matters (but by no means the only important one) is S.R. Driver's The Use of the Tenses in Hebrew (Oxford 1892). As far as the basics are concerned, any introductory pedagogical grammar of BH will tell you the same thing. One of the important things (for our purposes here) which the imperfect can also do in BH is to express the subjunctive/optative notions (which in Indo-European languages often have their own distinct mood forms).
So why do people translate it "I AM"? A good question. In addition to the passage you cite (Jn.8:58 - which is, after all, something to take into account), two other factors need to be considered: 1) all the possibilities of the imperfect: e.g., I am, I was, I will be, I can be (or nearly any other modal idea); 2) the fact that the divine name JHVH is itself a deliberate derivative of the verb to be, not an exact and clearly defined and identified form, but unquestionably related to the verb "to be" in Hebrew.
So it is not a simple matter to translate this verse - as is often the case in the scriptures, "all translation is interpretation"; selecting one translation selects out another and one has made a choice to tell the reader "it means this and not that". Most translators/translations try to steer a middle course on this one. One can understand why, but without notes that explain the choice, it can be confusing for those who want to "know what it says and means". Here is what I have said on this passage (the reference is from "Bible Basics: Essential Doctrines of the Bible in Outline, Part 1; Theology: The Study of God"):
To speak of the essence of God is to speak about who God really is. By essence we mean "being". The word essence is derived from the Latin verb "to be" and is in turn a translation of the Greek word ousia, which also means "being". More than having being or existence, God is being. He makes this clear to all when He proclaims His name Jehovah (or Jahweh) to Moses and explains its meaning:
Then God said to Moses, "I shall be who I am. This is what you will tell the sons of Israel: 'I am sent me to you.'" And God also said to Moses, "Thus you will say to the sons of Israel: 'the Lord [the "is"], the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob sent me to you. "This is My name forever, and this is how you are to think about me for all generations."
Jehovah and Jahweh are the two most well-known English vocalizations of what is often called the "tetragrammaton", i.e. the four consonant name for the Lord explained in these verses. In Hebrew, יהוה, (yhvh) is traditionally vocalized as `adonai, though it occurs in the Old Testament without vowels. The divine name "Lord", explained in these verses as based on "I am/shall be", can potentially be derived from either the Hebrew verb "to be" or the verb "to become" (very close in the Hebrew). Likewise, the form יהוה is a unique form which appears to be a cross between an imperfect (indicating repeated action irrespective of time as in "I shall be/I am") and an infinitive absolute (summing up the meaning of a verb at one throw: "being/becoming"). Thus it is clear enough from the Hebrew context and verbal forms that "the Name" is a declaration that the Lord is the very definition of being and existence without regard to time or phenomena. Q.E.D.
You might also consult these links:
The Names of Jesus Christ (in BB 4A)
Changing the Name of God?
Divine Names in the Bible
The Names of the Trinity
The Name Jesus
Hope this is of some help.
Yours in Christ,