Did Abraham Know God's Name?

by
Jack M. Lane

Was God referred to only as El Shaddai in the days before Moses? That's what God seemed to be saying to Moses when He commissioned Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt! Was God's name a secret up to that time? Let's find out!
In the short story account of Abraham and Isaac's sacrifice, Abraham seemed to refer to God mostly as "El Shaddai," but at one point in the story Abraham called out to "Yahweh." Of course, we're not really sure today precisely how the name of God is actually pronounced, so this was a bit of literary license, as was the entire short story.

But there is a scripture where God is quoted as saying to Moses, "And I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, by the name of God Almighty, but by my name YHVH was I not known to them" (Exodus 6:3, KJV).  (We have substituted "YHVH" in place of the King James Version's "LORD.")

Was God's name YHVH not known before the time of Moses? That's what this verse seems to be saying! Was he known only as El Shaddai (God Almighty) or some other descriptive name before Exodus chapter 3? Let's see!

GOD'S NAME USED IN SCRIPTURE

Here is the first verse in the Bible where God's name appears: "These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that YHVH God made the earth and the heavens" (Genesis 2:4, NIV, with name substitution). So we see that the Creator is identified by name right from the start. What about the people He created? "Adam lay with his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, 'With the help of YHVH I have brought forth a man'" (Genesis 4:1). Later, "Seth also had a son, and he named him Enosh. At that time men began to call on the name of YHVH"(verse 26).

There were others mentioned who also knew God by name. Noah was quoted as saying, "He also said, 'Blessed be YHVH, the God of Shem! May Canaan be the slave of Shem'" (Genesis 9:26). Nimrod "was a mighty hunter before YHVH; that is why it is said, 'Like Nimrod, a mighty hunter before YHVH'" (Genesis 10:9).

Next we come to the story of Abram. "YHVH appeared to Abram and said, 'To your offspring I will give this land.' So he [Abram] built an altar there to YHVH, who had appeared to him. From there he went on towards the hills east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to YHVH and called on the name of YHVH" (Genesis 12:7-8). Abram returned there later, "where he had first built an altar. There Abram called on the name of YHVH" (Genesis 13:4).

God pronounced His name to Abram: "Abram believed YHVH, and he [YHVH] credited it to him as righteousness. He also said to him, 'I am YHVH, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it'" (Genesis 15:6-7).

Sarai also knew God's name and freely used it. "She said to Abram, 'YHVH has kept me from having children. [Notice how God got blamed for things, clear back then!] Go, sleep with my maidservant; perhaps I can build a family through her.' Abram agreed to what Sarai said. ... Then Sarai said to Abram, 'You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my servant in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May YHVH judge between you and me'" (Genesis 16:2,5).

Of course, the Creator was also known by His other names. To stress His authority, and to reinforce Who was speaking, He used both of these names: "When Abram was ninety-nine years old, YHVH appeared to him and said, 'I am God Almighty [El Shaddai]; walk before me and be blameless'" (Genesis 17:1).

Even Abram's nephew Lot knew God's name. The angels who visited Sodom warned Lot to flee, "because we are going to destroy this place. The outcry to YHVH against its people is so great that he has sent us to destroy it.' So Lot went out and spoke to his sons-in-law, who were pledged to marry his daughters. He said, 'Hurry and get out of this place, because YHVH is about to destroy the city!' But his sons-in-law thought he was joking" (Genesis 19:13-14).

And on Mount Moriah, where the sacrifice of Isaac took place, the name of God was also freely utilized. "So Abraham called that place 'YHVH Will Provide.' And to this day it is said, 'On the mountain of YHVH it will be provided.' The angel of YHVH called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, 'I swear by myself, declares YHVH, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son ..." (Genesis 22:14-16).

The phrasing of the sentence leaves some doubt as to who is being quoted in this verse. Was the spirit being who speaks here simply an angel quoting YHVH? Or was the "angel of YHVH" who is doing the speaking actually the One who later became Jesus Christ, but was here acting as a messenger (angel) of the Most High God? (In this case, the implication is present that "YHVH" is appropriately used as a name for both the Most High and the Eternal! Indeed, there are several scriptures that show this.) In either case, the fact remains that God's name, YHVH, was known, understood, and freely used from the beginning, not only in these scriptures, but in many, many others throughout Genesis and the beginning of Exodus.

WHAT DID GOD MEAN?

But how, then, are we to understand what YHVH told Moses: "I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name YHVH I did not make myself known to them" (Exodus 6:3)?

Theologian John Gill proposed that, "though the name Jehovah itself was known to the patriarchs, by which they were assured that God is eternal, immutable, and faithful to his promises; yet he was not known as to the efficacy [that is, the potency or the effectiveness] of this name, or with respect to the actual performance of his promise, as he now would be by delivering the children of Israel out of Egypt, and bringing them into the land of Canaan...."

This may be a very sound explanation just as it is, but Gill went a step further and also suggested that the sentence quoting God might actually be better formed as a question! "...perhaps, by reading the words with an interrogation, the clause will appear more plain, 'and by my name Jehovah was I not known to them?'" This also seems like a valid possibility, since the question mark is not a part of the written Hebrew language. As with so many other areas of scriptural understanding, the context in which we find the verse may show us the true answer. Since it's evident that God's name was actually known and used from the days of Adam, the statement we've been looking at in Exodus 6:3 may indeed make more sense when phrased as a question!

THE SPLENDOR OF GOD'S NAME

God's name was known from the beginning, as we have seen from the scriptures. The explanations by John Gill quoted above seem to fit in well with the way YHVH proclaimed the fuller meaning of His name to Moses: "Then Moses said, 'Now show me your glory.' And YHVH said, 'I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, YHVH, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,' he said, 'you cannot see my face, for no-one may see me and live.' Then YHVH said, 'There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.' ... Then YHVH came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, YHVH. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, 'YHVH, YHVH, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation'" (Exodus 33:18-23; 34:5-7).

Imagine if you had been there with Moses during this awesome moment! I'm sure that, not only would there be no dry eyes among any people there, but there might also be a question about the possibility of soiled undergarments!

But even this did not fully convey the meaning of God's name! A few verses later, He added, "Do not worship any other god, for YHVH, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God" (verse 14)!

There may be many more meanings than we don't yet know, which are not recorded in scripture. The name of our God may very well be as great, and as limitless, as its Owner!

What is most astounding, though, is that this great Being, the One who is the same then, and now, and forevermore (Hebrews 13:8), wishes to establish a close, personal, family relationship with every human on earth, past, present and future. In fact, that has been His plan from the foundation of the world (Matthew 25:34; Ephesians 1:4)!

Philosophers and poets have pondered the name of God for millenia. Yet nothing could be more poetic, or more direct, than this: "God said to Moses, 'I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: 'I AM has sent me to you'" (Exodus 3:14).

The name is sublimely simple, yet profoundly unsearchable!
 
 

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