How God's Revelation of the Name YHWH Continues to Enlighten
Introduction – Source Criticism and the Names of God
The Documentary Hypothesis (also called source criticism) in its classical form proposes that the Torah (or the Hexateuch, the Torah + Joshua) was made up of four sources, called J, E, P, and D. Alternative theories have been proposed (e.g. the supplementary hypothesis, the fragmentary hypothesis, etc.). While documentary scholars each have somewhat different nuanced versions of this hypothesis, most scholars agree on the significance of the observations that form the core of this hypothesis. I would like to take the opportunity of this week’s parasha, Vaeira, to explain one of the better known arguments – the issue of God’s name.
Torah contains many names for God, but two of them predominate: YHWH and E-lohim. The meaning of the first one is traditionally believed to signify “The Eternal One”, but in academic circles the origin and meaning of the name is considered to be unknown. The name is often left unpronounced by religious people and replaced most often with Lord (A-donai). The second is a generic word, a common noun, for God or gods, which was also used as the name for the God of Israel.
A Short History of the Four Sources
Although many who are familiar with the Documentary Hypothesis know it to encompass four sources and the entire Torah, nevertheless, it took time and a number of intermediate steps for scholars to reach this conclusion. In the 18th century, a French physician, Jean Astruc, anonymously suggested that the two names of God in Genesis came from two different sources.He believed that these two sources, which he just called A and B, had been combined by Moses to create the book of Genesis. In 1753, he separated out these sources in his Conjectures on the original accounts of which it appears Moses availed himself in composing the Book of Genesis. Over time, Astruc’s “source A” was renamed E, for Elohist, and his source B became J, for Jahwist.
Taking Astruc’s pioneering suggestion a step further, Johann Gottfried Eichhorn applied the source division to the rest of the Pentateuch. This was not just an expansion, but a conceptual revolution. Astruc believed in the Mosaic authorship of the Torah. The title of his (Astruc’s) book makes it clear that he believed that Moses himself was the redactor of Genesis. Eichhorn, however, writing less than twenty years later, dispenses with the entire concept of Mosaic authorship. In his view, the Torah was put together from these two sources years after Moses lived.
The next important step in separating out sources was taken by Wilhelm M. L. de Wette. De Wette showed, among other things, that Deuteronomy should be treated as a third, separate source, D (for Deuteronomist). In other words, whereas the rest of the Pentateuch is made up of sources spliced together, De Wette argued that Deuteronomy should be read as a self-contained work.
Most important for the purposes of this essay, was the contribution of Herman Hupfeld. Hupfeld pointed out that the Elohist source, as identified by earlier scholarship, actually is comprised of two different sources, both of which use E-lohim in Genesis. Since one of these sources focuses a great deal on priestly issues, he called it P, retaining the siglum E for the non-Priestly source that uses E-lohim. These four sources formed the basis of the now famous Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis, which forms the basis of the various iterations of the Documentary Hypothesis known today.
The Names of God in Genesis and Exodus – The Peshat Problem
Although Astruc was able to solve a number of narrative problems by dividing Genesis into two sources based on the two names of God, the biggest problem that this division solves actually appears in Exodus. In Exodus 6:2-3, God speaks to Moses:
6:2 E-lohim spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am YHWH. 6:3 I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as E-l Shad-dai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name YHWH.
According to the plain meaning of this passage, God is revealing to Moses a secret name, which even the patriarchs did not know. God says to Moses that God has another name, E-l Shad-dai, which the patriarchs did know, but that the name YHWH had remained secret until this moment.
The name E-l Shad-dai does appear in a number of the accounts of the Patriarchs in Genesis. God uses it when speaking with Abraham (17:1) and Jacob (35:11). Isaac (28:3) and Jacob (43:14, 48:3) use it when blessing or passing on messages to their sons. The name YHWH, however, also appears in the ancestral narratives. Moreover, in a number of these appearances, it is clear that the patriarchs know this name and use it.
When Eve names her son Cain (4:1), she does so to express that, “she created a man with YHWH.” In the generation of Enosh, the Torah claims (4:26), the people began to call (or use) the name of YHWH. Abraham calls the name of YHWH multiple times (12:8, 13:4, 21:33), as does Isaac (26:25, 27:7, 27:27). God uses the name YHWH when speaking with Jacob (28:13) and Jacob uses it as well (28:16, 28:21, 32:10, 49:18). Sarah (16:5), Leah (29:32, 33, 35), Rachel (30:24), and Laban (30:27) know the name YHWH. In short, when looking at all these passages, it seems clear that the name YHWH was hardly a secret and that it was well-known to the ancestors. And yet, Exodus 6:2-3 seems to be saying that they did not know it.
The contradiction between the assertion in Exod. 6:3, that the name YHWH was unknown before this encounter, and the fact that the name is used by multiple characters in Genesis all the time, forced many traditional commentators to devise answers that would ease the tension between this verse and the accounts in Genesis.
Suggestion A – Moses Anachronistically Wrote YHWH
Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra references the Karaite scholar, Yeshua, who suggests that the verse means what it says: the name YHWH was unknown before Moses. He explains that it was Moses himself, who wrote the name into the stories in Genesis, but it is really an anachronism. Not surprisingly, this out of the box suggestion had little caché among rabbinic commentators.
Suggestion B – God Revealed Both Names to The Ancestors
Ibn Ezra also refers to the very different answer of Rav Sa’adia Gaon (10th cent.). Sa’adia states that the verse should be read with an implied “only (בלבד).” According to this interpretation, God is saying that God used both the name E-l Shad-dai and YHWH when interacting with the patriarchs, but will use only YHWH with Moses.
Rashbam (1085-1158) and R. Joseph Bechor Shor (12th cent.) also believe that God is telling Moses that God revealed both names to the patriarchs, but they go about reading the verse in a very different manner. They suggest re-punctuating the verse by putting the comma after YHWH. The verse would then read:
6:2 E-lohim spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am YHWH. 6:3 I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as E-l Shad-dai and by my name YHWH, (but) I did not make Myself known to them.”
According to this reading, God tells Moses that God appeared to the Patriarchs as E-l Shad-dai and YHWH. This solves the contradiction, but how is the reader to understand the final clause? Rashbam and Bechor Shor suggest that it means that even though God revealed God’s names, God never fulfilled the promises; “revealed” means “fulfilled” in this reading. What God tells Moses here is that this time it will be different, Moses will not only hear God’s names and God’s promises but will see their fulfillment as well.
Yet another commentator who believes the verse communicates that both names were used in revelation is R. Yehudah ha-Chasid (1140-1217). He claims that the verse does not mean that God never appeared to them with the name YHWH. Of course, God did; it is documented. Instead, it means that God appeared to them with the name E-l Shad-dai, and not YHWH, once they became Patriarchs, i.e. once they had children. Before that, God used the name YHWH.
Suggestion C – The Ancestors Knew the Name But Did Not Understand It
Ibn Ezra (1089-1164) suggests that the term YHWH has both a nominal and adjectival meaning. In other words, YHWH is both a proper name, and thus designates God, and has a meaning, and can function descriptively, like some nouns do. The ancestors, he claims, were aware of the name (i.e. the proper noun) but they did not know its significance (i.e. its use as an adjectival description of God.) He claims that Moses’ understanding of the name demonstrates Moses’ greater grasp of matters divine; this is the reason that Moses could do miracles and the patriarchs could not. Hence, ibn Ezra writes, the meaning of the verse is that Moses will make the meaning of the name YHWH known to the world by performing miracles and making use of God’s power over the world.
Ramban (1194-c.1270), usually very critical of ibn Ezra, claims that in this case the philosopher hit it right on the money, the only problem being that since ibn Ezra was not a kabbalist, he didn’t truly understand the important truth he uncovered. Hence, Ramban writes, he will fill the readers in on real meaning of what ibn Ezra discovered. God appears to different prophets in distinctive emanations (specula, from Latin, literally “windows” or “mirrors”). God appeared to the patriarchs in a dim or unclear emanation and to Moses in a bright one. The ancestors may have known the name YHWH, but they could not see God well enough to understand what it signified. Moses, on the other hand, was able to speak with God face to face and gaze upon the bright or clear emanation. Hence, it was to him that the true meaning of the name YHWH was revealed. The approach of ibn Ezra and Ramban was adopted by Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) in his Biur as the correct peshat understanding of the verse.
Rabbi Joseph ibn Kaspi (1279-1340) also interpreted the verse in this way, albeit taking a more philosophical and less kabbalistic spin. He says simply that the ancestors may have known God’s name, but they never really had complete proven understanding of the concept behind it. Moses, on the other hand, understood the concept perfectly. Ibn Kaspi’s only bone of contention with ibn Ezra focuses on what it is that Moses understood—a philosophical debate far beyond the scope of this survey.
Suggestion D – Different Kinds of YHWH Revelations
A slightly different solution was offered by Maimonides’ son, Rabbi Abraham (1186-1237), in a very long excursus on this issue. R. Abraham surveys a number of the main interpretations surveyed here, that of Sa’adia, Rashbam, calling their answers  apologetics (התנצלות). He then admits that it would be worthy for him to offer apologetics as well, if he didn’t have a good answer. Luckily, however, he does (at least in his opinion.)
Rabbi Abraham says that upon looking at the various revelations to the patriarchs carefully, a pattern emerges. Whenever God uses the name YHWH, God inevitably qualifies the term with a description, like “I am YHWH, who took you out of Ur Kasdim” (Gen. 12:7), or “I am YHWH, the God of Abraham your father” (Gen. 28:13). However, when God uses E-l Shad-dai, God doesn’t qualify the name but moves on to the message, like “I am E-l Shad-dai; walk before me,” (Gen. 17:1) or “I am E-l Shad-dai; be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 35:11). However, with Moses, God simply says, “I am YHWH,” and moves on to the message, as God did with the patriarchs when using E-l Shad-dai. The meaning of this change, R. Abraham writes, is an important philosophical secret, the explanation of which occupies the next two pages of commentary.
Suggestion E – The Patriarchs Never Experienced the Truth of the Revelation
The best-known answer to the contradiction comes from Rashi (1041-1105). Rashi begins by pointing out that the verse uses the niphal form of the verb and not the causative form. (Onkelos translates the verse as if it were in the causative form, but Rashi does not mention this.) The verse does not mean that God didn’t inform them of the name YHWH, Rashi argues. Instead, it means that God did not demonstrate the “truth” of the name YHWH, a name that, according to Rashi, refers to God’s capacity to fulfill God’s promises. Since God intends to fulfill the promises now, God informs Moses that the Israelites will now experience the aspect of God’s being to which the name YHWH refers.
The modern academic biblical scholar, Umberto Cassuto (1883-1951), takes Rashi’s interpretation in a slightly different direction and sharpens it. Gods in the ancient world were known by their particular powers or attributes. Even if the Israelites had only one God, this God had different names. But these names functioned similar to the names of gods in general; each name specifies a particular attribute or function of the one God. Hence, Cassuto argues, from the context of the blessings to the patriarchs, who are always being told to be fruitful and multiply, the name E-l Shad-dai should be understood as referring to God’s capacity to assist with fertility and child producing.
The name YHWH, on the other hand, should be associated with the Promised Land. Since the patriarchs were not destined to live through the conquest of the land, God communicates their blessings through the persona of E-l Shad-dai, the aspect of God that will make them fruitful. In other words, Cassuto believes that the ancestors knew of the name YHWH, but that God never demonstrated the function of that attribute to them. Moses and the generation of the exodus, however, are supposed to be part of the conquest—until the sins in the desert change the plan—so God appears to Moses in the aspect of YHWH, the God of the land.
Suggestion F – God as the Source of Good and Evil
The eclectic 19th century Italian commentator, Rabbi Samuel David Luzzatto (Shadal), takes an approach somewhere between Rashi and ibn Ezra. He claims that the patriarchs never really understood the name YHWH, because that name signifies that God is the source of everything in this world, all good and all bad. Since the patriarchs never experienced anything bad (Shadal’s words not mine) they could not really digest the significance of that name. However, now that Moses has said to God (5:22): “Why have you done evil to these people?” God now has the opportunity to really explain God’s nature. God does good and bad, everything comes from God.
The Source-Critical Solution
All of the above explanations use resourceful, even ingenious interpretations to solve a very problematic verse within the framework of the Torah being of single authorship. Yet the plain meaning of the verse remains that God never told the patriarchs the name YHWH, and that it was a secret until the moment of this revelation. What is the person who searches for the straightforward explanation to do with the internal biblical evidence that points to the fact that the ancestors all know this name of God starting with Eve herself and continuing all the way through Jacob!
Source criticism although may sound ominous to some, in fact solves this contradiction in an elegant and complete fashion. Exodus 6:2-12 comes from the P source, is first time the name of YHWH is mentioned and God informs him that he is, in fact, the first human ever to learn this name. However, according to the J source, represented by all of the references above, God was known as YHWH by the ancestors, and it is not depicted as a once secret name. The important question of why P would believe that the special name was only introduced now is beyond the scope of this essay, but, briefly, it may represent the idea that the period of Moses is somehow special, and fundamentally differentiated from what precedes.
In other words, according to the Documentary Hypothesis (in simplified form), the first four books of the Torah are a combination of three sources, J, E, and P. One of the main distinguishing features of these sources is the name the human characters use for God. In the J source, YHWH was always used, going back even to primordial times. Certainly, the ancestors were well aware of it. In E and P, only Moses is first introduced to this name by God. Although E does not state specifically that the name was unknown before, the primary name of God in the E narratives is E-lohim. The P source states unequivocally that before Moses no human knew this secret name of God.
Tying Up Loose Ends: Revelation of YHWH Round Two?
Hupfeld’s division between P and E solves yet another interpretive problem related to God’s name. In Exodus 3:6, God introduces Godself to Moses as the god (elohei) of his fathers. Moses then asks God, in v. 13, how he might respond to an Israelite question of what the name of this god is. God responds in v. 15 by telling Moses the name YHWH. Now if Moses learned this name in chapter 3, why would God present it again to Moses as the revelation of a secret name in chapter 6? The answer source criticism provides is that chapter 3 comes from the E source while chapter 6 is from the P source.
The different names used for God was one of the first tools the early academic Bible scholars came up with to distinguish between these three main sources in Genesis-Numbers. The source distinction was developed to solve certain textual problems, and it remains a powerful tool fulfilling that purpose today as well. It remains a hypothesis—no ancient document from the Dead Sea Scrolls or elsewhere contains, e.g., the separate J or P texts of the Torah. But it is a very powerful hypothesis, that offers a single explanation for many contradictions of precisely the type that midrashim resolve in disparate fashions.
The division of the Torah into sources is not, however, based only, or even primarily upon the different names used of God. The evidence concerning divine names overlaps with other pieces of evidence, making it a very powerful, and for many, a most-compelling hypothesis.
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January 15, 2014
October 7, 2019
Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is a fellow at Project TABS and editor of TheTorah.com. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures (Hebrew Bible focus) and an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period focus). In addition to academic training, Zev holds ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter, BZAW 457) and the editor of Halakhic Realities: Collected Essays on Brain Death (Maggid).
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