August 6: Exodus 3:13-15 (continued)

Exodus 3:13-15, continued

Verse 15

In the previous note, we looked at the famous revelation of God’s name, Yahweh (YHWH/hwhy), in Exodus 3:14. There is strong evidence, both here in the book of Exodus (see esp. 6:3), and in the Patriarchal traditions of Genesis, that Israel’s ancestors did not worship or refer to the Creator God primarily as Yahweh, but as °E~l. This makes the revelation of the divine name in verse 14 something genuinely new—a distinctive revelation to his people from God himself. At the same time, as we saw, there are indications that the name Yahweh (in older form, Yahw£ or Yaµw£) would not have been entirely unknown to the Israelites in Egypt in the time of Moses.

The evidence is perhaps best explained by positing that Yahweh was an epithet or title used of the high Creator °E~l, in certain parts of the Semitic-speaking world (i.e., among Canaanites and Amorites), by  the mid-2nd millennium B.C. It may have come to greater prominence, as a divine name, among the peoples of south Palestine, the Negev, and Sinai, reaching even to the Israelites in Egypt. It is plausible to surmise that the name was in use among the Midianites and Kenites, SW Semitic peoples closely associated with Moses and the Israelites in early tradition. The narrative episode of chapters 3-4 is, of course, set in the context of Midian. The extent to which the name was in use among the earlier ancestors of Israel in Canaan is a matter of some dispute (cf. the occurrences in the traditions, Gen 24:12, 27, 42, 48; 28:13; 32:9).

In any event, beginning with verse 14, the “God of the fathers”, previously known primarily by the name °E~l, is now identified definitively for the people of Israel by the name Yahweh. This is clear from the words that follow in verse 15:

And (the) Mightiest [°E_lœhîm, i.e. God] said yet again to Moshe: “You shall say this to (the) sons of Yisrael: ‘YHWH, the Mighty (One) [°E_lœhîm] of your fathers—(the) Mighty (One) of Abraham, (the) Mighty (One) of Yiƒµaq, and (the) Mighty (One) of Ya’aqob—sent me to you’. This (is) my name for (the) distant (future); this (is) my memorial [i.e. how I am to be remembered] for circle (to) circle [i.e age to age]”.

God thus declares here that the tetragrammaton name (YHWH/Yahweh) is to be his name from this point on, into the distant future (<l*u)l=). Whenever the Israelite people—God’s people—think or call on him (vb rk^z`), it is to be with the name hwhy. And, indeed, we can note that the earlier °E~l names and titles recorded in the early Genesis traditions have generally fallen out of use by the 1st millennium, mainly being preserved in the older/archaic poetry of the Old Testament.

This leads to the interesting point of how the name would have been vocalized or pronounced. The Masoretic text offers no real indication of this. As is well known, the vocalization ho`hy+, reflects the customary reverential substitution of yn`d)a& (“my Lord”) for the divine name. This restriction against pronunciation of the name itself is of later origin, developing and becoming widespread during the Second Temple period. For Israelites in the late-2nd millennium, and into the kingdom period, we can only make an educated guess as to how the name would have been pronounced. The simple English transliteration Yahweh (Yahw£ > Yahwê) would seem to give an adequate approximation. Since a literal translation of the name remains difficult (and a bit awkward), and in regard for the pious convention of avoiding its pronunciation, I typically render it as “YHWH” in my own translations (cf. above).

The establishment of God’s name is preliminary to the act of delivering his people from their bondage (in Egypt). With the declaration in vv. 14-15, the message shifts to a commission of Moses in his role as God’s representative, who will lead Israel out from Egypt. It is noteworthy that the same identification of YHWH with the “God of the fathers” is repeated at the start of this commission in verse 16. It also is foundational for the message that Moses (with the elders of Israel) is to deliver to the Pharaoh (v. 18). Thus, the Exodus itself is rooted in Israel’s newly realized identity as God’s people, with their protecting God known forever more by the name YHWH.

Before concluding, let us return once more to the question of the precise meaning of the divine name (discussed in the previous note). On the generally accepted premise that it is a verbal name, derived from the root ywh / hwh (verb of being/becoming), there remain two possibilities:

    • It is a 3rd person (stative?) imperfect of the G/Qal stem, in which case it would essentially mean “He (who) is” or “He (who) will be”; this meaning is supported by the explanatory expression in v. 14 (according to the Masoretic pointing).
    • It is a 3rd person active (yaqtil pattern) imperfect of the causative (= Hiphil) stem, meaning “He (who) causes to be”, i.e. “He (who) creates”, or (possibly) “He (who) makes happen”. The external Semitic evidence, in my view, tends to support this meaning.

What significance would either of these have for the name in the context of our passage? First, it is clear that YHWH is the all-powerful Creator (= °E~l), and, as the Exodus narratives will detail, He holds power over all of creation, and will use it to protect and preserve His people. The causative stem more properly relates to this aspect of God as Creator. Second, the Exodus begins a process that will lead to YHWH re-establishing His binding agreement (covenant) with Israel; two aspects of this covenantal relationship are worth noting: (1) God’s role as protector of his people, and (2) the blessing/favor he provides, primarily in terms of the life-giving fertility and bounty of the promised land. Third, there is here also a newfound emphasis on YHWH’s presence with his people. This begins with Moses, and ultimately extends to the people as a whole as they emerge from their time in Egypt. Note the wording in 3:12; 4:12, 15, and how this relates to the revelation in 3:14:

;yP! <u! hy#h=a# (yk!n)a*) [3:12; 4:12, 15]
I will be with your face [i.e. with you]”
hy#h=a# rv#a& hy#h=a# [3:14]
I will be that which I will be

It seems likely that there is an intentional wordplay involved here, and that this wordplay may have influenced the particular form (and/or vocalization) of the expression in 3:14. Following the Masoretic pointing, the sense in this regard may be that God (YHWH) is the one who “will be” with his people, i.e. ,”I am the (One) who will be (with you)”. The same phrase “I will be with your face [i.e. with you]” is found also at other key points in the early history of Israel—cf. Deut 31:23; Josh 1:5; 3:7; Judg 6:16—all of which seem to relate to the same basic line of tradition.

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