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How are we to understand Exodus 6:2-3?

In Exodus 6:2-3, God states the following to Moses:

“And God spoke to Moses and said to him: ‘I am the LORD [YHWH or Yahweh; some translate erroneously as Jehovah. The expression “Eternal” is perhaps the best rendering in the English language to convey the correct meaning]. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty [El Shaddai], but by My name LORD [YHWH] I was not known to them.” The Authorized Version says: “… but by my name JEHOVAH was I not known to them.”

Compare also Exodus 3:14,-15, where God reveals Himself for the first time to MOSES as “the LORD [YHWH] God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, And the God of Jacob.”  He identifies Himself as “I AM WHO I AM,” and adds that “This is My name forever.”

The passage in Exodus 6:3, as translated in the New King James Bible, poses a big problem, as God was most certainly known to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as well as others, by His Name LORD (ETERNAL) or YHWH.

We read about ABRAHAM (then still called Abram) in Genesis 12:8: “… there he built an altar to the LORD [YHWH] and called on the name of the LORD [YHWH].” Also, in Genesis 13:4: “And there Abram called on the name of the LORD [YHWH].” Note also Genesis 14:22, where Abram refers to God as “the LORD [YHWH], God Most High, the Possessor of heaven and earth.” In Genesis 22:14, we read: “And Abraham called the name of the place, The-LORD-Will-Provide [YHWH Yireh]…”

In Genesis 26:22, 25, we read about ISAAC: “So he called its name Rehoboth, because he said, ‘For now the LORD [YHWH] has made room for us…’ … So he built an altar there and called on the name of the LORD [YHWH]…”

When God spoke to JACOB in a dream, He revealed Himself in this way, as Genesis 28:13 reports: “And behold the LORD [YHWH] stood above it [ a ladder] and said, ‘I am the LORD [YHWH] God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac…’” Compare also Genesis 28:21; 32:9. Even prior to his dream, Jacob had already referred to God as LORD or YHWH in Genesis 27:20.

In addition, the first human being who is reported as referring to God as YHWH is Eve. She said in Genesis 4:1: “I have acquired a man [Cain] from the LORD [YHWH]…” Later, at the time of Adam and Eve’s son Seth, “men began to call on the name of the LORD [YHWH]” (Genesis 4:26). We also read in Genesis 9:26 that Noah referred to God as “the LORD [YHWH], The God of Shem…” Finally, both Rachel and her father Laban knew God’s name, LORD or YHWH (Genesis 30:24, 27).

From the foregoing examples, it is obvious that the name LORD or YHWH was known to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as well as to others, prior to Moses.

The Pulpit Commentary states the following:

“The explanation of this passage is by no means easy. God himself, according to Genesis 15:7, revealed himself to Abraham as Jehovah [YHWH] before declaring his name to be El-Shaddai (God Almighty); and again revealed himself to Jacob as Jehovah [YHWH]-Elohim (Genesis 28:13). Abraham named the place where he had been about to sacrifice Isaac, ‘Jehovah [YHWH] –jireh’ (Genesis 22:14). That Moses regarded the name as known even earlier, appears from Genesis 4:1. It was probably as old as language. The apparent meaning of the present passage cannot therefore be its true meaning. No writer would so contradict himself…”

Many commentaries and scholars have attempted to provide an “explanation” for this apparent inconsistency, but many, if not most, of these explanations are unconvincing.

For instance, the Ryrie Study Bible says that “The name Yahweh was known to the patriarchs… but its significance as the One who would redeem Israel from Egyptian bondage was not known until this time.” Apart from the fact that God does not associate the meaning of His name with Israel’s freedom from Egyptian bondage, Abraham DID know about Israel’s future slavery and release (compare Genesis 15:13-14).

The Nelson Study Bible is also incorrect in stating that even though the patriarchs knew God’s name, YHWH, they did not know God in an intimate way. But they most certainly did, as can be seen, for instance, in the moving dialogue between God and Abraham regarding the coming destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Others have tried to explain Exodus 6:3 by saying that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob knew God’s name, but not His character. This is equally nonsensical. In order to enter the Kingdom of God, we must strive to become perfect, as God is perfect. This means, that we have to acquire and develop God’s holy and righteous character. The Bible tells us that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob will be in God’s kingdom. Therefore, they knew God’s character, and they were successful in developing it in their lives.

How, then, are we to understand the statement in Exodus 6:3 that God had not revealed His name YHWH to them?

The commentary of Jamieson, Fausset and Brown points out that God’s statement is not one of affirmative confirmation, but is to be understood as a self-evident rhetorical  question:

“… but by my name, etc.,—rather, interrogatively, by My name Jehovah [YHWH] was I not known to them? Am not I, the Almighty God, who pledged My honor for the fulfillment of the covenant, also the self-existent God who lives to accomplish it? Rest assured, therefore, that I shall bring it to pass…”

The New Scofield Reference Edition offers five explanations, the last four of which can be ruled out right away. But the first one is interesting and in harmony with the Jamieson, Fausset and Brown commentary. It says the following: “The statement, ‘By my name JEHOVAH [YHWH] was I not known to them,’ can also be translated as a rhetorical question, ‘By my name JEHOVAH [YHWH] was I not known to them?’”

Clarke’s Commentary offers this explanation as well as one of several “possibilities” (“The words should be read interrogatively, for the negative particle …..  not, has this power often in Hebrew. ‘I appeared unto Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob by the name of God Almighty, and by my name Jehovah [YHWH] was I not also made known unto them?’”)

The Ed Nelson Commentary agrees, explaining:

“Sometimes the way the Hebrew text is translated into other languages causes mind-puzzling questions in the minds of readers. Such is the case with Exodus 6:2-3 with its puzzling statement in English that contradicts the Book of Genesis… In our English Bibles, typically the name Yahweh is rendered as ‘LORD’—usually with all letters capitalized…Virtually, all [English] translations agree that God withheld the revelation of his Name Yahweh until He revealed it to Moses… In the final analysis, we [are] posited with the view that either Exodus 6:3 is right—that God did not reveal Himself as Yahweh before the time of Moses, or, if He did as Genesis claims, then Exodus 6:3 [is] wrong, or corrupt.”

The latter is indeed the conclusion of many biblical “scholars.” They claim that the “contradiction” is explained by the [false] concept that the book of Genesis and the book of Exodus were written by different “sources,” which do not always harmonize. Or, they offer the equally false idea that the writer of Exodus placed God’s name YHWH into the mouths of the fathers and others, in anticipation of the revelation of God’s name in the book of Exodus. This would mean, however, that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob did not really know God’s name YHWH and that they did not really speak of and pray to God as YHWH—and that the Bible would contain misstatements and lies. This absurdity must be rejected.

Nelson went on to state:

“In reading the Hebrew Bible, often we do not know if a question is being asked or not until we read the whole context of the passage. Does the sentence make sense without it inferring a question is being asked? Then it is likely a statement. Does the sentence make sense only by understanding it to be a question? Then it is probably a question. Often an interrogative statement, that is, a question, will include a negative word like ‘not’ to offset it from the rest of the declarative statements. If we find a negative in a sentence that translates as ‘not,’ we should consider if the negative is to be understood as a flag to alert us that a question is being asked.

“This is the case with Exodus 6:2-3. It has a negative ‘not’ in it, whereas the other sentences around it do not. So this is how the text ought to read in English:  ‘God spoke further to Moses and said to him, “I am Yahweh. And I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as El Shaddai. And by my name, Yahweh, did I not make myself known to them?”’ The answer is a resounding yes.

“By adding the interrogative, ‘And by my name Yahweh, did I not make myself known to them?’ the sons of Israel should recognize the higher authority of Moses over Pharaoh amidst the troubles they face as slaves… The Hebrew slaves should understand that Moses was sent by Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Divine help and deliverance was on the way. They should not be afraid, but be hopeful and supportive. Their time of tribulation was ending soon.”

This explanation appears to be the only logical and convincing one, which is consistent with and takes into account all pertinent Scriptures—and it is also compelling in light of the fact that there is no punctuation in the original Hebrew text. Further, the original does not use the words “but by” (in “BUT BY My name [YHWH] was I not known…”) rather, it says: “as to”, in “AS TO My name [YHWH] (compare Young’s Literal Translation) was I not known…” The misuse of the word “but” could signify a difference in God’s statement (“I revealed Myself to the fathers as El Shaddai, BUT not as YHWH”), but the original wording “as to…” does not contain the thought of such a difference (“I revealed Myself to the fathers as El Shaddai, and as to My name YHWH, was I not (also) known by that?”).

Whether a sentence is meant to be an affirmative statement or an interrogatory, can only be determined by the context. Here, it appears that Genesis 6:3 contains indeed a self-explanatory rhetorical question (“Did I not make Myself known to them as YHWH?”), which does not need or deserve an answer: God had revealed His name YHWH to the fathers, as well as others, and now He is revealing it again to Moses. He is the all-powerful, ever-living and never-changing God who will keep His promises to Abraham and lead the Israelites out of slavery.

Lead Writer: Norbert Link