August 4: Exodus 3:13-15

These daily notes during the month of August are supplemental to the current Study Series The People of God. Before proceeding with these notes on Exodus 3:13-15, I would recommend reading the current article (Part 1 of the topic “Israel as the People of God”).

Exodus 3:13-15

Following the initial revelation of God to Moses (vv. 1-6), the revelatory message comes in vv. 7-15. This message provides the basis for the commission of Moses to serve as God’s representative in leading Israel out of Egypt (3:16-4:17). The revelatory message climaxes with the declaration of God’s name (vv. 13-15). This is one of the most famous passages of the Old Testament, and yet one that is fraught with considerable difficulties for interpretation. In particular, the historical-critical issues surrounding these verses are significant.

Verse 13

The first point to note comes from a careful reading of verse 13:

And Moshe said to the Mightiest [°E_lœhîm]: “See, I am coming to (the) sons of Yisrael, and (if) I say to them ‘(The) Mighty (One) [°E_lœhîm] of your fathers has sent me to you’, and they say to me ‘What (is) His name?’, what do I (then) say to them?”

As noted on numerous occasions, I take the plural form <yh!ýa$ (°§lœhîm) in such instances to be an intensive (or comprehensive) plural, meaning something like “(the) Mightiest (One)”, more or less equivalent to the more common (and older) word la@ (°¢l < °il[u]), “Mighty (One)”, i.e. “God”. By the mid-1st millennium B.C., <yh!ýa$ was the established word for “God” in Hebrew, and is used regularly throughout all the writings of the period. In works which contain much older traditions (such as Genesis and the Pentateuch), these typically have been ‘modernized’ in certain respects, including the regular use of <yh!ýa$. Earlier Hebrew/Canaanite speech would have used °il[u] (= la@) instead—i.e., “the Mighty (One) [°E~l] of your father(s)” (e.g., Gen 49:25, preserved in poetry). Cf. further on the names El and Elohim.

The force of Moses’ question is curious, especially when one considers it from the historical standpoint. Does Moses already know God’s name (Yahweh/ hwhy)? or does the question imply that the name is unfamiliar to him? Indeed, what name would the Israelites, and other south Canaanite-speaking peoples, in the 14th-13th centuries, have used to worship their Creator God? Can a distinction be made between the Israelites in Egypt and their earlier ancestors (in Canaan)?

To begin with, it is important to note that the evidence from the book of Genesis strongly indicates that the ancestors of Israel worshiped (and referred to) the high Creator God as °Il / °El (la@), rather than Yahweh (hwhy). The early traditions themselves clearly support this (14:18-22; 16:13; 17:1; 21:33; 28:3; 31:13; 33:20; 35:1, 3, 7, 11; 43:14; 46:3; 48:3; 49:25). Moreover, there are no Yah(weh)-names recorded in the book of Genesis, whereas many El-names (personal and place-names) are attested, including a number of key religious/cultic sites (35:7, etc).

To this must be added the direct statement in Exodus 6:3, that God made himself known to the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), not by the name YHWH, but as °E~l (spec. °E~l Šadday, something like “Mighty [One] of the mountain”). Some commentators have sought to gloss over this, and thereby harmonize the passage with occurrences of hwhy in the book of Genesis. However, it is important to distinguish the use of hwhy in the Genesis narrative, written in the kingdom period (and certainly no earlier than Moses’ time), from the older traditions (where la@ is used). A devout Yahwist surely would make use of the tetragrammaton in writing a history based on those traditions. There are, however, several references where the tetragrammaton appears to be prominent within the early tradition itself (cf. 24:12, 27, 42, 48; 28:13; 32:9), and these are a bit harder to explain in light of the statement in Exod 6:3.

Even so, it is all but certain that the divine name Yahweh was not entirely unknown to the Israelites of Moses’ time. This can be affirmed, with some confidence, based on objective evidence from the Semitic-speaking world of the mid-2nd millennium B.C. It is also worth noting that, by all accounts, the earliest Yah(weh)-name recorded in the Old Testament is that of Moses’ own mother—Yôke»e¼ (db#k#oy), meaning something like “YHWH is worthy”. This will be discussed further in the next daily note (on verse 14).

The People of God: Israel as God’s People (Part 1)

Israel as the People of God

The first part of this series (cf. the introduction), looking at the Old Testament background of the “people of God” concept, will focus on the central idea of Israel as God’s uniquely chosen people. This ethnic-religious aspect of the concept is fundamental to the thought-world of the Old Testament, and deserves careful consideration, especially since it differs so markedly from the later Christian understanding, and is apt to be misunderstood by many today.

It is to the Pentateuch, containing as it does traditional narratives of Israel’s earliest history, that we must turn for the key passages which establish the idea of Israel as the “people of God” (on this expression itself, cf. the brief discussion in the introduction). With the exodus from Egypt, Israel essentially comes into being as a distinct nation, though the roots of the Israelites as a chosen people go back to the traditional (patriarchal) narratives in Genesis, and the binding agreement (covenant) God established with Abraham and his descendants. This subject will be discussed in detail (along with the Genesis passages) in the next part, on the Covenant. Instead, it is best to begin with the exodus traditions, as recorded in the book of  Exodus.

Exodus 2:24-25

Chapter 1 establishes the point of conflict for the narrative—viz., the mistreatment and oppression of the Israelites (the descendants of Jacob) by the Egyptians. The resolution for the conflict is set forth in chapter 2, presenting Moses as the chosen one who will lead the people out of bondage; two episodes are used for this—the perilous birth of Moses (vv. 1-10), and his flight to Midian (vv. 11-22)—both episodes illustrating the conflict, between Israel and the oppressive Egyptians. At the close of these two chapters, the stage is set for the Exodus narrative, with the notice of Israel’s continuous cry to God for help (v. 23), and God’s response (vv. 24-25) to it. The wording of the latter is most significant for our study, as it introduces the theme of Israel as God’s people:

“And (the) Mightiest [<yh!ýa$] heard their groaning, and (the) Mightiest remembered His binding (agreement) [tyr!B=] with Abraham, with Yiƒµaq, and with Ya’aqob, and (the) Mightiest saw (the) sons of Yisrael, and (the) Mightiest knew.”

There are four repeated statements here which specify <yh!ýa$ (°E_lœhîm, “the Mightiest [One]”, i.e. God) as the subject of the verbal action—four verbs in sequence: hear (um^v*), remember (rk^z`), see (ha*r*), know (ud^y`). These verbs are used to focus the drama:

    • hear—God heard the collective groan of the people =>
      • remember—it brought to mind the binding agreement (covenant) He had made with their ancestors (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob) =>
        • see—He recognized the Israelites, as the sons of Jacob (Israel), and thus heirs to the promises/obligations of the covenant =>
          • know—He truly recognized them as a people belonging to him (through the covenant bond)

The climactic statement that God “knew” His people must be understood as in contrast with the earlier notice that the king of Egypt (the new Pharaoh) did not “know” Joseph (1:8). This key verb (ud^y`) occurs repeatedly in the book of Exodus, and has a wide semantic range which the English translation “know” does not entirely capture. Here, as in the earlier notice of 1:8, the term carries a strong covenantal connotation. A bond had been established between Pharaoh and Joseph (cf. the Joseph narratives in Genesis), which extended to the Israelite people as a whole. For a time they obtained a privileged and protected position in Egypt; but this all changed with the “new king” that came to the throne. The new Pharaoh did not recognize the prior relationship with Joseph and his people, and, instead of the covenant bond, there was active hostility against Israel. As noted above, this hostility and oppression serves as the conflict-point for the Exodus narrative.

Exodus 3:1-6ff

The historical traditions of chapter 3, follow directly upon the notice in 2:24-25, and serve to develop the theme of Israel as God’s people. Exodus 3:1-4:17 narrates the call and commission of Moses, whereby God chooses him as the leader who will bring Israel out of Egypt. It is, however, the details in chapter 3 which are most relevant to our study, since here we find the fundamental religious (and theological) tradition identifying the God of Israel as YHWH (hwhy). This is altogether more significant, from the standpoint of the Exodus narrative, than many readers and students today realize. The two propositions go hand in hand: Israel as God’s people, and the identification of YHWH as Israel’s God.

Chapter 3 begins (vv. 1-6) with the manifestation of God (theophany) to Moses in the ‘burning bush’ on Horeb, called the “mountain of God” (<yh!ýa$h* rh^, “mountain of the Mightiest”). This marks what follows as a unique revelation of God, to Moses, and, at the same time, for the people of Israel as a whole. The climactic moment of revelation comes in verse 6, which echoes the earlier notice of 2:24 (cf. above):

“…I (am the) Mighty (One) [i.e. God] of your father, (the) Mighty (One) of Abraham, (the) Mighty (One) of Yiƒµaq, and (the) Mighty (One) of Ya’aqob!”

The expression “God of (the) father” (ba* yh@ýa$) involves a genuinely ancient tradition, well-attested in the book of Genesis (26:24; 28:13; 31:5, 29, 42, 53; 32:9; 43:23; 46:1, 3; 49:25; 50:17; cf. also 24:12; 48:15, 21), and confirmed by 2nd millennium B.C. parallels in the Semitic world (cf. Cross, pp. 4-12ff). It is, distinctively, an ethnic-religious expression, identifying a deity with a particular family, clan or tribe. The recognized deity serves as the patron and protector of the people, in a manner comparable to the ancient “binding agreement” (i.e. covenant) concept. Certain ancestral deities (i.e., deified ancestors) fill this role as well; however, in the case of Israel, it is the Creator and high God °E~l who acts on their behalf as the “God of the(ir) father(s)”. It was He who appeared to their ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as is stated here, and as the Genesis narratives clearly indicate.

The word used here, <yh!ýa$ (°§lœhîm), came to be the common term for referring to deity (comparable with “God” in English). It is related to the older Semitic word °il(u) (= °E~l, la@), which would appear to mean something like “mighty (one)”. The plural form <yh!ýa$ is, in my view, best understood as an intensive or comprehensive plural—i.e. “the Mightiest (One)”. For more on this, cf. my earlier articles on El and Elohim, respectively.

What is most important in the Exodus 3 narrative is how the deity who reveals himself to Moses identifies himself as the God of the Israelite ancestors (i.e., the Creator °E~l), and also by the name represented by the tetragrammaton (hwhy/YHWH)—Yahweh. This is the focus of God’s message to Moses in verses 7-15, which may be divided as follows:

    • Vv. 7-10—Announcement that He will act on behalf of His people, through Moses as His chosen representative
    • Vv. 11-12—The promise that He will be with Moses
    • Vv. 13-15—His identification as the God of the Fathers (v. 13), with the divine name of YHWH (v. 14), both aspects now definitively united together (v. 15)

For a more detailed discussion of the critical issues involved in these verses, see the supplemental set of notes, as well as my earlier article on the name Yahweh.

In his subsequent commission to Moses (vv. 16ff), God (YHWH) reiterates his role as protector of the Israelite people, implying that the belong to him (as His people), in a special covenantal relationship going back to the time of Abraham. Moses is to gather together the leaders (elders) of the Israelites in Egypt to give them this message (v. 16), a point repeated again for emphasis in 4:5. This assembly of the representatives of Israel symbolizes an early stage of the new nation taking shape—the people that will emerge from Egypt with a new ethnic-religious identity, centered on the revelation of YHWH as their God.

In Part 2, we will examine how this theme is developed further within the Exodus narrative, by looking at the exodus event itself, the essence of which had already been expressed in chapter 3—most notably, by the declaration of YHWH in verse 10:

“And now, go, and I will send you to Pharaoh, and (you must) bring out my people, (the) sons of Yisrael, from Egypt!”