Andrea at Dear Void shares the insight she gained from a footnote in Robert Alter’s The Five Books of Moses.
Concerning Exodus 9:3, she quotes Alter:
the hand of the Lord is about to be against your livestock.
The Hebrew verb here has a spine-tingling effect for which there is no obvious English equivalent. The verb “to be” in Hebrew is not supposed to have a participial, or present, tense. At this ominous and supernatural juncture, however, that verbal stem “h-y-h” yields an anomalous “hoyah,” rendered in this translation as “about to be.” This strange usage involves a kind of fearsome pun on the divine name YHWH that was mysteriously highlighted in the Burning Bush episode. God’s intrinsic and unique capacity for being, we are made to see, is not just a matter of static condition but an awesome power of action–the hand that is “about to be” against all the livestock of Egypt.
She goes on to conclude:
Alter has made me more aware than ever before of the concentrated amount of punning that occurs in these early books of the Bible. And so I found this pun on the name of God to be fascinating. I tend to think of “I Am” as a statement more about who God is—it is His state of being; He is the self-existent One. But today I began to think of this title as a statement not simply describing who God is, but what He does. In Exodus 9, the I Am, Defender of His people and Opposer of Pharaoh, is about “to be.” And so, no wonder Alter describes this strange verb as “spine-tingling” and “ominous.”
Puns are notoriously hard to translate because their nature ties them to their original language. A translator can often hope only to add a footnote that explains the pun. The ESV sometimes footnotes names to illuminate puns.
Genesis 4:1, for example, reads: “Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.” The footnote adds: “Cain sounds like the Hebrew for gotten.”