by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah
Go to the king of Egypt, and tell him to declare a three-day holiday for his labor force, so they can go out into the wilderness and worship a god the king has never heard of.
This is the mission God gives Moses in the first Torah portion of Exodus/Shemot. Moses tries to get out of it, but God insists, and Moses gives in.
And afterward Moses and Aaron came and said to Pharaoh: Thus says YHWH, god of Israel: Send out My people and they will celebrate-a-festival for Me in the wilderness. And Pharaoh said: Who is YHWH that I should listen to His voice and send out the Israelites? I do not know YHWH… (Exodus/Shemot 5:2)
YHWH = probably a form of the verb hayah (היה) = be, exist, become, occur. A variant spelling of this verb is havah or hawah (הוה). If the initial Y (י) indicates a third-person singular imperfect form, YHWH = he/it becomes, he/it exists, he/it will be. If the four-letter word is a unique verb form, YHWH = us-was-will be; being-becoming.
(YHWH is considered the most sacred name of God, God’s four-letter personal name. I do not include the Hebrew spelling here because according to Jewish tradition, any text containing the personal name of God must be treated with respect and disposed of by special means. Furthermore, the name YHWH is not supposed to be pronounced except once a year inside the Holy of Holies—which has not existed since the fall of the second temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E., almost 2,000 years ago.)
Since Pharaoh does not know YHWH, he refuses to give the Israelites three days off. Instead he doubles the work of the Israelites forced to build his cities. The Israelite foremen complain to Moses, and Moses complains to God:
Since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has done evil to this people, and You certainly did not rescue Your people! (Exodus 5:23)
Moses’ complaint implies that using the name of God was ineffective. But for God, everything is going according to plan. As God tells Moses repeatedly in this week’s portion, Va-eira (“And I appeared”), God’s purpose in performing miracles in Egypt is: 1) so that the Israelites will know their own God as YHWH, and 2) so that the Egyptians will know the power of the god YHWH.
From God’s point of view, the ten miraculous “plagues” God plans to create will be all the more effective coming from a previously unknown god. God assures Moses that although it will be a long process, at its conclusion God will indeed rescue the Israelites from Egypt and bring them to Canaan.
But first God insists on being known by the right name.
And Elohim spoke to Moses, and said to him: I am YHWH. And I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as Eil Shaddai, but [by] my name YHWH I was not known to them. (Exodus 6:2-3)
elohim (אֱלֹהִים) = gods (when used with a plural verb suffix); God (when used with a singular verb suffix).
eil (אֵל) = god
shaddai (שַׁדָּי) = of breasts (if it comes from shad = breast), of devastation (if it comes from shadad = devastate), of the mountain (if it comes from the Akkadian word shadu).
In the book of Genesis Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob certainly know that YHWH is one of God’s names; all three of them sometimes use that name to refer to God. So why does God claim, in this week’s Torah portion, “my name YHWH I did not make known to them”?
Most commentators explain that the three patriarchs knew God in terms of the attribute or power associated with the name Eil Shaddai, but not in terms of the power associated with the name YHWH.
In fact, the name Shaddai only appears six times in the book of Genesis, four times followed by blessings for being fruitful and multiplying (17:1, 28:3, 35:11, and 48:3). Jacob also uses that name of God to pray for rachamim (רַחֲמִים) = mercy (literally, “wombs”—43:14) and to bless Joseph with “blessings of breasts and womb” (49:25).
Although Eil Shaddai took on other meanings in later books of the Hebrew Bible, it seems safe to say that as far as the three patriarchs are concerned, Eil Shaddai is the name of the god of fertility. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are all concerned with the question of fertility, and want to be founders of a people or nation.
But in the book of Exodus, the Israelites in Egypt are already fertile. (The first pharaoh worries about the rapid birth rate of the Israelites; his son, the pharoah Moses speaks to in God’s name, agrees that there are far too many Israelites.) So a different aspect of God is needed to impress both Israelites and Egyptians. And God Itself seems eager to promote a new identity.
One can deduce the divine power associated with Eil Shaddai from context, but this cannot be done with the name YHWH. The four-letter name appears 162 times in the book of Genesis alone, in a wide variety of actions and statements by God.
Commentary on which divine aspect is represented by the name YHWH ranges from the god of miracles (12th-century rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra); to the god expressed by all ten sefirot, i.e. divine emanations (Sefer Yetzirah, a book of kabbalah possibly written in the 4th century); to the preserver of existence (16th-century rabbi Ovadiah Sforno).
All three of these interpretations boil down to the idea that God is the supreme deity; if any other gods can be said to exist, they are only emanations of YHWH, the god whose name means existence itself.
In the Exodus story, God wants Egypt to know that the god of the Israelites is the most powerful god in world, far more powerful than any of Egypt’s gods. And God wants the Israelites to know that the god who is making a covenant with them is not merely a fertility god, but a god with power over everything. Once everyone knows that God is YHWH, nobody can question God’s existence or decisions.
Or so God thinks, in the first two portions of the book of Exodus.
As the story continues, we read that after each time Pharaoh admitted the superior power of the god of the Israelites, he changed his mind and behaved as if he could win the contest with YHWH. Even after the tenth and final plague, when Pharaoh finally lets the Israelites leave Egypt, he changes his mind again and sends his army to pursue them. He only gives up after God splits the Reed Sea for the Israelites, then drowns the Egyptian army.
The Israelites themselves keep forgetting their god’s awesome power over life and death. As they travel through the wilderness of Sinai they worry whenever they run out of water or food, when Moses does not return from the top of Mount Sinai for 40 days, and when they face enemy forces. They cannot seem to trust the god who has taken them as Its people, even when the name of that god is YHWH.
Why doesn’t the name work?
I think that the idea of God as “being” or “becoming” is intellectually appealing. And sometimes I feel grateful that this universe exists, or that everything is in the process of becoming.
But psychologically, human beings cannot have a relationship with “existence” or “becoming”; the concepts are too abstract. To be followed, or loved, or feared, or trusted, God must be named after a more human attribute.
Eil Shaddai, the god of fertility, is not a useful divine name for most people today. When we lack children, we take practical steps; otherwise, we enjoy being fruitful in our own creative endeavors. Elohim, the God who combines the powers of all gods, is an irrelevant name at a time when nearly everyone is either an atheist or a monotheist. And YHWH, the concept of being and becoming, is too abstract for a relationship.
Then what name can inspire us to strive to “know” God? I welcome your suggestions.
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