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Bible Q

How can Exodus 6:3 say “by my name YHWH I was not known” when Genesis uses the name YHWH around 140 times?

Context in Exodus 6 – God Promises Deliverance

6:1 But the Lord said to Moses, “Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh; for with a strong hand he will send them out, and with a strong hand he will drive them out of his land.” 2 God spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am the Lord. 3 I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty [El Shaddai], but by my name the Lord [YHWH, Yahweh, Jehovah] I did not make myself known to them. 4 I also established my covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they lived as sojourners. 5 Moreover, I have heard the groaning of the people of Israel whom the Egyptians hold as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant. 6 Say therefore to the people of Israel, ‘I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment. 7 I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. 8 I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. I will give it to you for a possession. I am the Lord.’” 9 Moses spoke thus to the people of Israel, but they did not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and harsh slavery. (Exodus 6:1-9 ESV)

There are a number of different answers to this problem.

An error by Hezekiah’s scribes?

The first is a textual solution, which starts with the observation that the five books of Moses as we have them now are not written in the very oldest form of Hebrew in the Old Testament but like most of the pre-exilic books is written in what is usually termed Middle Biblical Hebrew. In fact there are very few chapters of archaic Biblical Hebrew suggesting a pre-Davidic origin in those books. So the idea that the five books of Moses were at least extensively edited or at most actually compiled by the priests and prophets of Judah some time between Hezekiah and Josiah. This is not controversial. In fact the clock has turned back from scholarly consensus fifty years ago that these books were edited and compiled in exile in Babylon, to if not a consensus but at least a substantial number of scholars who take the view that the difference between earlier material (as seen in 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings) is too different from later material (as seen in 1 & 2 Chronicles)  for those earlier books to have originated in exile.  So from this point of view some commentators could argue either that the editors and compilers of Genesis simply forgot to remove YHWH from their source texts for Genesis, including where the name YHWH is actually spoken (Genesis 2:4, 4:26, 13:4, 15:7), or alternatively they added YHWH instead of other names – such as El Shaddai – in writing from their own narrator perspective as priests in the kingdom of Judah and then over-added it into actual spoken statements in the mouth of characters in Genesis.

This is of course possible. The problem is that Genesis-to-Deuteronomy is usually seen as one large editorial project. So whether the books took the form that we know today during the period Hezekiah-to-Josiah, or in the first years in Babylon, really doesn’t make it any easier to explain how the editors in chief – either priests in the temple, or Levites in exile, could have missed such a glaring contradiction, easily obvious to any first time reader of Exodus 6:3 today. Anyone who has been involved in any collective proofreading exercise in a modern school or office environment can see that if spoken use of the name YHWH in Genesis 2:4, 4:26, 13:4, 15:7, etc. is an error, then it should have been caught in the first proofread and corrected to El Shaddai. But it wasn’t.

Which suggests that the priestly editors knew that YHWH was in Genesis in prominent positions (and in the mouths of speakers as Gen 2:4, 4:26, 13:4, 15:7 etc.) and yet didn’t see a contradiction with Exodus 6:3 saying that previously God had been known as El Shaddai. That then opens up several possible solutions as to why:

A deliberate editorial decision:

We’re going to include here two sections from longer articles dealing with this question:

Agora article ‘Yahweh’, by George Booker

A problem has been imagined in Exo 6:3 because of the words “by my name the Lord [Yahweh] I did not make myself known to them [ie, the patriarchs].” Yet there are several references to Yahweh in the patriarchal narratives and earlier (eg, Gen 2:4; 4:26; 13:4; 15:7) and in names like Jochebed (Exo 6:20), apparently meaning “The Lord [Yahweh] is glory.” Kidner points the way to one solution: “In Exo 3:14 the divine exposition, ‘I am… ‘ introduces and illuminates the name given in Exo 3:15, and this remains the context for Exo 6:3 as well… The name, in short, was first known, in any full sense of the word, at its first expounding.” Another approach is to let the emphasis fall on the personal, intimate, experiential sense in which the Hebrew verb for “know” is often used (see, eg, in Exo 6:7; 7:17; 8:10,22; 9:14,29; 10:2; 11:7; 14:4,18; 16:6,8,12; 18:11). (The point being made here is valid whether the verb is to be translated “I did not make myself known” or “I was not known.”) In effect God would be saying: “By my name Yahweh I was not intimately and experientially known to the patriarchs. Their experience of me was largely as El Shaddai (‘God Almighty’). But now, beginning with the Exodus and deliverance from Egypt, I am about to reveal myself fully and personally in the experience of my covenant people Israel in that aspect of my character signified by Yahweh, ie, as the God who is ever present with his people to help and redeem them and to keep covenant with them.” This view seems to be supported by Exo 6:4–8. In particular, the verbs in Exo 6:6 — “bring out,” “free,” “redeem” — stress the true significance of the name Yahweh, who is the Redeemer of his people. Exo 6:3, then, does not necessarily mean that the patriarchs were totally ignorant of the name Yahweh (“the Lord”) but it indicates that they did not understand its full implications as the name of the One who would redeem his people… That fact could be comprehended only by the Israelites who were to experience the exodus, and by their descendants. Although Motyer’s interpretation of Exo 6:3 is somewhat different, his conclusion is similar: “The place of the verse in the scheme of revelation, as we see it, is this: not that now for the first time the name as a sound is declared, but that now for the first time the essential significance of the name is to be made known. The patriarchs called God Yahweh, but knew Him as El Shaddai; their descendants will both call him and know him by His name Yahweh. This is certainly the burden of Exo 6:6,9.

The Testimony Magazine, January 2002, The Exodus, A commentary on Exodus 1-15 E. Moses and Pharaoh: first encounters—Exodus 5-6 (Part 3) by Mark Vincent

“The question is, what is meant by being ‘known’ by a name? Does it mean that Abraham and the fathers were unaware of the Name YHWH, and that no one spoke this Name until God revealed it to Moses in Exodus 3 and 6? This would seem to be the most straightforward way of reading our passage. The difficulty with such a reading is that the Name YHWH is found around 140 times in the book of Genesis. These occurrences are found not just in the words of the narrator, but also in the mouths of the characters such as Abraham and Joseph. An oft quoted passage is the statement in Genesis 4:26 that in the days of Seth/Enos “men [began] to call upon the name of the LORD [YHWH]”, which is most easily read to imply that people did use the name YHWH in those days. So how is Exodus 6:3 to be interpreted? There seem to be two options: 1 At face value—before this time the Name YHWH was not used, and God’s revelation of the Name in Exodus 3 and 6 is entirely new. However, the Pentateuch was put together in its final form at a date later than this, and it was entirely natural to write or project the Name YHWH back into the narrative, even though it would not have been used in those days. One can make a loose parallel with the way in which we might speak about the childhood of the Queen of England, even though she was not queen at all when she was a child. This kind of reading strategy is fine for the narrator’s words in Genesis; it is more tricky when Abraham himself uses the Name—it requires that what Genesis records is not a verbatim documentation of what Abraham said, but an account which under God’s inspired hand conveys in the best possible way for later readers the gist or force of his words and of his relationship with God. This is a view which many would find difficulty in accepting, and which requires Genesis 4:26 to be read in a less than obvious way. In its defence, however, it provides the most straightforward way of reading Exodus 6, and is corroborated by the fact that there seem to be no personal names with the prefix ‘Yeho-’ or ‘Yo-’ and no personal names with the suffix ‘-yahu’ or ‘-yah’ (all generally understood to be contractions of YHWH) before Exodus 3, whereas they are abundant afterwards (the only exception is apparently Jochebed, Moses’ mother; this name may be derived from some other source). This latter is quite a forceful argument, for it implies that the Name YHWH was not known at all beforehand.* 2 The alternative is to understand Exodus 6 and the expression ‘I was not known by the Name YHWH’ in a less literal way, such that, although people were aware of the Name and used it beforehand, it was not until Exodus 3 and 6 that the true significance of the Name was finally revealed (see note 4). The disadvantage of this view is that it tends to assume the characters in Genesis were quite happy using a Name for God that they did not really understand, and that God Himself used the Name when communicating with them, despite their ignorance. One might say that they had ‘some’ understanding of the Name before the Exodus, but that God revealed a new dimension to it at this point, and that the full power associated with the Name was not revealed until the time of the Exodus. But again, it is somewhat difficult and conjectural to distinguish between what they might have understood beforehand and what they understood from this point forwards. Readers must come to their own conclusions. In my opinion there are sensible arguments on both sides. Whatever the preferred explanation, the Name YHWH, ‘fully’ understood (to the extent that this is possible), only came into prominence as the characteristic personal Name of God in the time of Moses. Whatever its prehistory might have been, the Name is now intimately associated with God’s great covenant purpose, with His timeless existence, and with His determination to fulfil what He has promised in redeeming His people and being their God.

Other solutions could be added.

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