August 5: Exodus 3:13-15 (continued)

Exodus 3:13-15, continued

Verse 14

In Exodus 3:14, God gives his answer to Moses’ question (in v. 13), regarding His name: “…if (they) say to me, ‘What (is) His name?’, what (then) do I say to them?”. The significance of this question was discussed in the previous note. It implies an unfamiliarity with the name given in v. 14—Yahweh (hwhy). The identification of the divine voice with “the Mighty One [i.e. God] of the fathers [viz. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob]” leads to the important point that, in the ancient traditions in the book of Genesis, the Creator God is worshiped (and referred to) as °E~l rather than Yahweh (cf. also the explicit notice in Exod 6:3). All of this means that the revelation of the divine name here in vv. 14-15 is something truly unique and revolutionary, which will provide a new religious definition for the people of Israel. From this point on, God’s people will worship him by the name corresponding to the tetragrammaton hwhy.

But what of this name Yahweh/YHWH? To begin with, here is how it is introduced in the divine declaration of verse 14 (working with the Masoretic text and its pointing):

And (the) Mightiest [°E_lœhîm, i.e. God] said to Moshe, “I am that which I am [°ehyeh °¦šer °ehyeh]”, and (then) He said, “You shall say this to (the) sons of Yisrael: ‘I am [°ehyeh] sent me to you'”.

I have rendered the MT syntax quite literally; however, many commentators would maintain, quite plausibly, that true sense of the expression hy#h=a# rv#a& hy#h=a# (°ehyeh °¦šer °ehyeh) in context is “I am (the One who) is”. I tend to agree with this assessment. A more difficult critical issue surrounds the relationship of the expression to the name hwhy (YHWH) itself.

It is all but certain that hwhy has its origins as a verbal name or title, most likely derived from the root ywh > hwh (later hyh), a principal verb of being/becoming (i.e. “to [come to] be”); the explanation here in v. 14 confirms that derivation. If so, then it would have to be parsed as an imperfect form—hwhy being the third person singular, and hwha (= hyha) being the first person singular form, respectively. The real question (and one much disputed) then becomes whether it should be read as the simple G/Qal stem or a (Hiphil) causative stem. A strong argument can be made for the latter, even though there are no (other) clear occurrences of the hiphil for hwh / hyh in the Old Testament. However, if Exodus 3 contains genuinely ancient traditions from the time of Moses, then it is possible that the text here preserves older Semitic usage that disappeared from later Hebrew. The 2nd millennium evidence, such as the Mari personal names with a yahweh verbal element, tend to support this view (cf. below).
For a more detailed exposition and defense of the causative-stem view, see the now-classic studies by D. N. Freedman, “The Name of the God of Moses”, Journal of Biblical Literature [JBL] 79 (1960), pp. 151-6, and F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History and Religion of Israel (Harvard: 1973), pp. 60-71. Their essays build upon the earlier ground-breaking studies of Paul Haupt and W. F. Albright.

If the causative stem in verse 14 is correct, then the vocalization would need to be altered slightly from the MT—viz., hy#h=a^ rv#a& hy#h=a^ (°ayheh °¦šer °ayheh), “I cause to be that which I cause to be”, or “I create that which I create”, i.e. “I am (the One who) creates”. In other words, the declaration identifies the God speaking to Moses, the “God the the Fathers”, as the Creator (= °E~l), through the specific verbal name/title “the (One who) causes to be”. Cross (pp. 68-9) would reconstruct the expression in the older language as °ahw£ ¼¥ °ahw£—or, using the third person singular, yahw£ ¼¥ yahw£.

Note: ¼¥ (> ) is the older relative particle (corr. to Aramaic yD!), which came to be replaced in Hebrew by °¦šer (rv#a&).

There is some reasonably good evidence to support the view that Yahw£ (= Yahweh) was a name or title applied to the Creator °E~l in parts of the Semitic-speaking world (i.e. Canaanites and Amorites) during the 2nd millennium B.C. For example, there are attested a number of personal names in the Mari texts which contain a yahw£ -verbal component, following the pattern yahw£-{name of deity}, including yahw£-°Il (cf. Cross, pp. 62-3). The meaning in such instances, presumably, is “the deity caused to be”, i.e. caused this child to be, brought it into existence, gave it life, etc; the imperfect as jussive (or precative) would indicate a wish or prayer, i.e. “God, give life”, etc.

Regarding the existence of Yawheh as an independent divine name , there is no certain extra-biblical evidence prior to 9th century, where it occurs in the famous Meša± stele. More questionable is the apparent (or possible) occurrence in syllabic lists of South Palestinian place names in the 14th and 13th centuries, roughly contemporary with the time of Moses (cf. W. F. Albright, JBL 67 [1948], p. 380; Cross, pp. 61-2). This may not seem so significant, except for the fact that there are clear connections in the Moses/Exodus traditions between the Israelites of the period and the Semitic-speaking peoples of south Palestine (Edom), the Negev, and Sinai. Moses is associated in the tradition with the Midianites and Kenites, for example, and this may not coincidental, but rather may involve relationships that had existed among the Semitic peoples of the region. The 15th century Sinaitic inscriptions from Serabit el-Hadem provide evidence of cultural contacts among regional south Canaanite speakers, outside the immediate confines of Egypt; such contacts likely evolved over a number of centuries, providing the cultural and historical background for the traditions in the book of Exodus.

Along these same lines, we should note that Moses’ own mother has a Yah(weh)-name—db#k#oy (Yôke»e¼, “Yah[weh] is worthy [?]”)—the oldest such name recorded in Scripture (Num 26:59; cf. Exod 6:20). Beyond this, we must also take seriously the occurrences of the tetragrammaton within several of the Patriarchal traditions in the book of Genesis (24:12, 27, 42, 48; 28:13; 32:9). Taken together, and viewed objectively, this evidence suggests that, even if the Creator God was not worshiped by the ancestors of Israel primarily with the name Yahweh, it was a name or title that would have been familiar to the Israelites by the time they were dwelling in Egypt in the mid-2nd millennium. It may also have been the principal name used by the Midianites and other south Semitic peoples of Palestine and Sinai.

These points discussed above will be considered further, along with the overall significance of the divine revelation of vv. 14-15, in the next daily note.

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