Hope many of you are settling down for Shabbat (the Sabbath). We have delightful smells coming from the kitchen. The house is quiet before the big night. Shabbat soup, chicken, wheat challah, and other foods will soon be eaten.
It is a Jewish custom [I’m saying this for readers who might not know] to read selected portions of the books of Moses each week. This week’s portion is Va’eira (“I appeared,” from Exod. 6:3).
Exodus 6:3 is a verse often used by those who do not believe Moses wrote the five books attributed to him. There is a theory called the Documentary Hypothesis. Here is a short explanation of the theory if you are unfamiliar: Modern scholars often assert that Elohim is the preferred name for God in one of the alleged sources of the Torah (most suggest five sources, J, E, P, D, and H). In this theory, J and E are earlier versions of the stories written anonymously. J prefers God’s name and E prefers Elohim. P (priestly), D (deuteronomist), and H (holiness) are later editors who added sections and made modifications based on their own theological ideas.
The way some people read Exodus 6:3, God revealed his name for the first time to Moses and to anyone in this story. Abraham and the other patriarchs did not actually know God’s name. The stories of the patriarchs contain God’s name only because a later editor inserted them.
First a quick explanation about God’s name. In Judaism, God’s name is not spoken. Indeed, we do not really know the vowels for certain, but only the four consonants. We say Lord, Adonai, or HaShem (the Name) instead. The New Testament follows a similar practice using kurios, Lord, in place of God’s name.
Now, let’s look at Exodus 6:3 and consider what God might mean: I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as El Shaddai, but by My name, HaShem, I did not make Myself known to them.
I am following the insight of Umberto Cassuto here in explaining what God means. Cassuto was an Italian Jewish scholar during the 1940’s and 1950’s with a tremendous knowledge of Ancient Near Eastern sources, the Hebrew language, and rabbinic interpretation.
Cassuto points out that El Shaddai is God’s name in all the verses where he blesses the people with fruitfulness. Check the blessings in Genesis and you will see this is true. So El Shaddai represents God’s nature as a God of blessing.
HaShem, on the other hand, is explained in Exodus 3 as being God’s name related to his fulfilling his promises (you simply must read Cassuto’s commentary–there are rabbinic interpreters with the same insight). So HaShem represents God as the keeper of covenant promises.
Now we are prepared to see what God means in Exodus 6:3. He is saying to Moses, “I am HaShem. The patriarchs knew me as the Blesser, El Shaddai, and I did not make myself known to the them as the Fulfiller, HaShem. But I am about to make myself know to you in that way.” The patriarchs received the promises, but did not experience them being carried out.
This Shabbat, my prayer for you is that you may know him as El Shaddai and HaShem. May El Shaddai bless you and make you fruitful. May HaShem fulfill his covenant promises in our day, speedily and soon. Amen.