Moses, therefore, is not asking for God’s name because he does not know what it is. He is asking for God’s secret name. But notice that he is not wanting to learn God’s name for himself. He is picturing the Israelites in Egypt as wanting to know God’s name. He sees himself coming to the Israelites and telling them that he has met with God. He sees the Israelites as figuring this to be their golden opportunity, for if Moses has really met with God, then perhaps he has learned God’s secret name. So he sees their first reaction to his news not as rejoicing that God has finally answered their prayers but as wanting to extract information so they can force God to do their bidding.
This is why God’s answer, “I AM WHO I AM,” is so appropriate. In English, it sounds like a tautology, a statement that is true but gives us absolutely no new information. Of course, God is who God is, but that does not tell us who he is in the first place. It sounds like God is trying to evade Moses’ question, even as Re tried to avoid Isis’.
But God is not Re and he is not evading Moses’ question. In Hebrew, this syntax is used to express determination. Thus, when Moses returns to this very mountain, God says to him, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (Exod. 33:19), that is, God will determine to whom he will be gracious and on whom he will have compassion. What God is saying to the Israelites, therefore, is, “I determine who I am. I chose to have this personality and this character, which means that I chose my own name. Unlike Re, I was not given a secret name by someone else. So your attempt at manipulating me through the use of my secret name will be in vain.”
His answer subtly—or perhaps not so subtly—reminds the Israelites that because he, and only he, determines who he is, he is a God who does not change. Ever changing circumstances do not determine who he is. Fleeting emotions do not determine who he is. And certainly their puny attempts at magic do not determine who he is. Nothing can make him change except himself. This fact may cause consternation among some of the Israelites who think he is not moving fast enough to free them from slavery, but it should also comfort them. For a God who does not change is a God who can be counted on to be there when you really need him and who can be counted on to follow through on his promises. He is not the kind of God who one day promises to do something and the next day changes his mind. He is an unchanging God, which means that he is a faithful God.
He reminds them of all of this in the next part of his answer to Moses when he says, “Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.'” …”Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, “Yahweh, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you” (Exod. 3:14f). He is the same God who introduced himself to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He has not changed since then. He was faithful then, he is faithful now. But this answer is also a mild rebuke, for when he answers Moses’ request to reveal his secret name by giving him the name the Israelites already knew, he is telling them, “I have already revealed to you who I really am. I have already revealed to you the deepest, innermost part of me. You should have already known that my heart belongs to you and that I would be faithful to you. You should have never doubted me.”
Thus, God recalls for the Israelites not only his chosen name but also the meaning of that name. The name Yahweh does not simply mean “He is,” but “He is unchanging and therefore faithful.” And it is his faithfulness, more so than any other aspect of his character, that he wishes everyone to think of when they think of him: “This is My name forever, and this is My memorial to all generations” (Exod. 3:15).
This is also why in Exodus 6 (and in Genesis) he emphasizes the name Yahweh over his other name, El Shaddai. To be sure, God is El Shaddai, the Almighty One, which means that he is capable of delivering the Israelites from slavery. But just because someone is capable of doing something does not necessarily mean that he will actually do it. What the Israelites needed to know was that God is faithful, that he can be counted on to do what he said he would do. The actual deliverance was going to be a long process, and the march across the wilderness was going to be perilous. They needed to know that he could be trusted.
And so, he emphasizes his name again and again in his speech to Moses in Exodus 6:
And God spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am Yahweh, the Faithful One. I allowed myself to appear to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shaddai, for did I not let Myself be known to them by My name Yahweh, the Faithful One? I have also established My covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their pilgrimage, in which they were strangers. And I have also heard the groaning of the children of Israel whom the Egyptians keep in bondage, and I have remembered my covenant. Therefore, say to the children of Israel: ‘I am Yahweh, the Faithful One; I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, I will rescue you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. I will take you as My people, and I will be your God. Then you shall know that I am Yahweh, the Faithful One, your God who brings you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. And I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and I will give it to you as a heritage: I am Yahweh, the Faithful One’” (Exod. 6:2-8, with some modifications).
There is no need to manipulate a faithful God. One can simply trust that he will do what he said he will do.
Thus, an understanding of the Hebrew (and Egyptian) culture and language reveals that the contradictions are merely illusions. There is no contradiction between Exod. 3 and Genesis or Exod. 6 and Genesis.