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.) (10.10.2017 edit to add: and also, in Greek it is the same wording as how the Septuagint translates that bit in Exodus, so to his hearers it would have rung very loud bells.)
What was my point? someone asked me privately, and wondered if I was attempting to say that Jesus wasn’t claiming divinity. But this post wasn’t about that, and the whole discussion about that particular occasion when he talked about existing before Abraham – that was a tangent that came up in the comments. I did not set out to make any point whatsoever about that. In any case, as I said in the comments: “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.”
P.S. I 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 :)