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).

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