I Yam What I Yam

In the second animated short featuring Popeye the Sailor Man, who made his film debut in 1933, the scrappy little hero is seen standing at the bow of a rowboat in the pouring rain singing the little ditty that became his signature song:

I’m Popeye the Sailor Man,
I’m Popeye the Sailor Man,
I yam what I yam,
And that’s all what I yam,
I’m Popeye the Sailor Man!”

As someone predisposed to let his fists do the talking, Popeye was never noted for his snappy patter, even by cartoon standards. His unabashed declaration, “I yam what I yam,” signaled that he felt no need to justify his existence to anyone. He was who he was, and if you didn’t like it, be prepared to duck, especially if Popeye had been eating his spinach.

“I yam what I yam” bears more than a casual resemblance to the phrase that the Lord God used to introduce himself to Moses in the Book of Exodus. Moses had been grazing his father-in-law’s flock on the slopes of Mt. Horeb when he saw a flaming bush that burned but was not consumed. “I AM THAT I AM,” the Lord said from the midst of the bush — all caps in the King James Version. Moses had been commanded to go to the pharaoh and demand the release of the Hebrew people from enslavement in Egypt. Who am I that I should go to the pharaoh?, Moses wanted to know — but more to the point, who was this God who spoke to him from the midst of the burning bush? The Lord had already identified himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, ancestors whom the Hebrew people might only have been dimly aware of -- if at all -- after 400 years’ bondage in Egypt. That was all well and good, but Moses wanted an actual name.

The answer he got was less a name than an enigma that biblical scholars have been puzzling over ever since it was first written down. I am that I am? What kind of name is that? In Hebrew, the name was ehyeh asher ehyeh, which is variously translated as “I am that I am,” “I am who I am” and “I will be who I will be.” Biblical Hebrew is ambiguous as to tense, so it could be any or all. “Tell them, 'I AM has sent me to you,’” the Lord added for emphasis.

As one who was also predisposed to let his fists do the talking on occasion, the God of the Old Testament may have been proclaiming his existence much as Popeye did, saying in effect, “I am God, and you are not.” His demeanor when he met up with Moses again on Mt. Sinai certainly lent credence to such an interpretation. The biblical narrative noted that “the mountain burned with fire to the heart of heaven, wrapped in darkness, cloud, and gloom.” Moses was warned to hide himself when the Lord passed by, because no mortal could look on the face of God and live. The Lord explained he was “a consuming fire, even a jealous God.”

Pyrotechnics aside, I suspect the Lord had more in mind than merely overwhelming Moses with his presence when he revealed his name. The ancient Hebrews believed names carried great significance, defining the essence of the thing named. How was the Lord of heaven and earth to be defined? In mystical Kabbalist tradition, all of creation is contained within the ineffable name of God. In the biblical creation story, the Lord literally calls the world into being by naming it.· The power of naming is God’s gift to mankind in delegating that power to name all the other creatures. But the man does not name himself or the Lord who made him.· Naming rights belong to the Creator, and the name of God is uniquely his own.· He is Being in the first person singular: I AM. More than that, he is, was and ever shall be. No wonder his name is such a mystery: it expresses the essential mystery of all Being.

Exodus 3:14
Deuteronomy 4:11,24
Genesis 1

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