Point / Counterpoint ...

A Reader Responds to
"Did Abraham Know God's Name?"

Donna Meahl

I have some comments about the article, "Did Abraham Know God's Name?". First, I must admit that it was an interesting topic but not exactly essential for salvation. A bit like worrying if Jonah was swallowed by a big fish or by a whale. I'm sure Jonah didn't care -- he probably just wanted out! For us, the point of the story is lost if we spend all our time on details and not on the lesson we are supposed to be learning. That said, I must admit that it is one of those nagging questions that can keep you up nights.

Recapping the Article

You have suggested that God's name YHVH was freely used from the beginning, and you quote many verses to prove your point. What did God mean about His name in Exodus 6:3? You suggested two understandings of this verse. The first is that, while God's name was known to the patriarchs, they did not know the full potency of that name. Since the word for "name" can also mean reputation or authority, they did not know the full authority of God.

The other suggestion you have made is that the statement in Exodus 6:3 is actually a question. You point out that there are no question marks in the Hebrew language. This is a less plausible suggestion. While written Hebrew may not use the question mark, there must be a way to indicate questions, or else the language would be too difficult to read. In English we indicate questions not only by a question mark but also by the use of interrogative pronouns and word order. If I say, "Where will the Feast be held this year?", you know it is a question even if the question mark is omitted because of the way the word "where" is used. However, some ancient languages indicate questions by suffixing a word (usually the verb) with a letter or letters to indicate a question. I know more about Latin than Hebrew, but I suspect the technique is similar in both languages. To give an example in Latin: Lavat vir vestem means "the man is washing the clothes." Lavatne vir vestem means, "Is the man washing the clothes?". The point is, while it is easy to lose an end mark in English and so make a question look like a statement, it is a little harder in Latin, and probably in Hebrew.

A Third Option

Is it possible that Exodus 6:3 means exactly what it says? That is, that God's name YHVH was not widely known before the Exodus? Consider this evidence: We know that the first five books (Genesis through Deuteronomy) were written by Moses. For the books Exodus through Deuteronomy Moses had first-hand knowledge, but the events in Genesis occurred long before Moses was born. They could have been revealed to him by divine revelation, but Jewish tradition tells us that he also used other written records. The idea that Adam, Noah and the other patriarchs kept diaries or records of their life seems strange to us because we have been taught through the schools to think of early humans as primitive cave dwellers, not as literate scholars. We must remember, though, that if Adam could name the animals he must have been created with the capacity for language. What was Noah doing on the ark besides feeding animals and shoveling manure? It would seem logical that he was keeping a written record of this momentous event for future generations.

There is evidence of this in the structure of Genesis itself. Ten times we are told, "These are the generations of ...", and a man's name is given. The Hebrew word translated "generations" is towledah (Strong's #8435). It can not only mean "generations" but also "history." So the phrase could be translated, "This is the history of ...." Perhaps Moses used these other documents to write Genesis.

(By the way, this is also an answer to my white supremacist neighbors who believe that Genesis 6:9, "Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations," means that none of Noah's ancestors intermarried with other races. Rather, it means that Noah was perfect in his history or story.)

Historical Anachronisms Provide a Clue

When Moses wrote the book of Genesis, and others in later generations edited it, they changed the language to be more familiar to the Israelites. For example, Bethel is called Bethel in Genesis 12:8, yet Jacob doesn't have his ladder vision and name the place Bethel until chapter 28. Similarly, Abram pursues an army in Dan in chapter 14 long before Dan the person was born or the land was given to his tribe. The reason for doing this is to make the place being described more recognizable to the reader by using names which were given to the location long after the event took place, but which the reader would recognize.

Moses could have done the same thing with the name YHVH. When we see quotations we think of exact quotes; that is, recording word for word precisely what someone said. In ancient literature, before modern recording devices (and lawyers who would sue if someone was quoted incorrectly), the tendency was to give the general idea of what someone said and consider that a quote. The people who used the name YHVH in Genesis may not have used exactly that word for God. Moses may have used the name most familiar to his readers. He also may have been showing that the God of the patriarchs was the same God who rescued them from Egypt.

Textual Examination Favors "El" Over "YHVH"

Is there any clue that the name YHVH was not in general use before the Exodus? One curious clue is in the names used in Genesis. There are several names based on the general word "God" (Eloyim). These words have the element "el" in them. For example, Bethel means "house of God" and Israel means "prince of God." (You have to be careful because some "el" words refer to oaks. Elon, for example, means "oak grove.")

There is only one place where a name is used that refers to YHVH. No other proper nouns used in Genesis and the beginning of Exodus have roots in YHVH. For example, we know that Melchizedek is king of Salem, not Jerusalem. Likewise, Bethel (house of God) is Bethel, not Bethjah. The only place that is named after YHVH is Moriah, where Abraham offered his son Isaac (Genesis 22:2). Moriah means "seen of YHVH (God)." In chapter 22 verse 14, Abraham calls that same place Jehovah-jireh, meaning "Jehovah will see." I looked up every proper noun in Genesis and the first part of Exodus, but I could not find any other person or place with a name that has a root in YHVH. This suggests that, perhaps, the name YHVH was not in common use.

This is another way to view Exodus 6:3. Surely I do not want to be dogmatic about this, and as I said before, there are more important issues in the Bible. I imagine that, since God is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent, He can have more than one name, each showing an aspect of His character.

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Editor's Reply:

Thank you for your excellent addition to our fund of knowledge on this topic. In fact, what you suggest had been considered, but it wasn't included in the article. We're glad you wrote on the subject, though, as you covered it very well.

To add yet another perspective on what may have taken place, please see the brief excerpt from a message given by Ronald L. Dart, of Christian Educational Ministries, in August of 1997, when he also addressed this topic.