Six weeks after they leave Egypt, the Israelites grumble that they are starving, and they would rather have died in Egypt with full stomachs.1
So in this week’s Torah portion, Beshallach (“When he sent away”), God promises to provide bread and meat in the form of manna and quail every day.
Y-H-V-H spoke to Moses, saying: “I have heard the grumblings of the Israelites. Speak to them, saying: In the evenings you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall be sated with bread. And you shall know that I am Y-H-V-H, your Elohim.” (Exodus/Shemot 16:11-12)
Y-H-V-H (yud-heh-vav-heh) = the “tetragrammaton”, God’s most holy and personal name. (In Jewish tradition this name may no longer be pronounced, and can only be spelled in Hebrew in sacred texts. When prayers are said aloud, the tetragrammaton is read as “Adonai”)
elohim (אֱלוֹהִים) = God; gods in general.
Being God’s personal name, the tetragrammaton is not a reference to God’s status as a god, or even as a lord, master, or ruler. The common English written translation of Y-H-V-H as “LORD” can be deceptive. So can the Jewish practice of saying Adonai for Y-H-V-H in prayers, since Adonai literally means “my lords”. When God says that people “shall know that I am Y-H-V-H”, God wants them to know that the god they are thinking about is the one named Y-H-V-H.
But surely the Israelites know by now that the name of their god is Y-H-V-H.
The book of Genesis/Bereishit calls God by several different names, including Y-H-V-H. (See my post Lekh-Lekha: New Names for God.) But the personal name of God becomes more important in the book of Exodus/Shemot. In the first Torah portion (also called Shemot), God chooses Moses as a prophet at the burning bush, and Moses asks for God’s proper name:
Hey, I come to the Israelites and I say to them: “The Elohim of your forefathers sent me to you”. And they say to me: “What is his name?” What shall I say to them? (Exodus 3:13)
First the voice from the burning bush replies:
… Thus you shall say to the Israelites: “Ehyeh sent me to you.” (Exodus 3:14)
Ehyeh (אֶהְיֶה) = I am, I will be, I become, I will become. (A form of the verb hayah (הָיָה) = be, become, happen.)
In the next verse, God amends the answer.
… Thus you shall say to the Israelites: “Y-H-V-H, the Elohim of your forefathers, the Elohim of Abraham, the Elohim of Isaac, and the Elohim of Jacob, sent me to you.” … (Exodus 3:15)
The name Y-H-V-H may also be a form of the verb hayah, which also appears as havah.2 Biblical Hebrew lexicons list no hifil (causative) form of either root. But if there were a hifil form, one conjugation would use the letters Y-H-V-H and would mean “He/it brings into being.”3
Thus the first name God gives to Moses might mean “I become” and the second name might mean “He makes [things] become”. God decides to stick with the second name, Y-H-V-H.
… This is my name forever; this is how I shall be remembered forever. (Exodus 3:15)
But the name is unfamiliar to the Pharaoh of Egypt when Moses and Aaron first ask him to grant the Hebrew slaves a leave of absence.
Pharaoh said: “Who is Y-H-V-H that I should listen to his voice to send away Israel? I do not know Y-H-V-H.” (Exodus 5:2)
After that, God wants someone to “know that I am Y-H-V-H” nine times in the book of Exodus/Shemot.4 Five times God declares that the Pharaoh or the Egyptians will “know that I am Y-H-V-H” once God has performed a miracle that damages Egypt.5
And four times in Exodus, God declares the Israelites will “know that I am Y-H-V-H”: after God has brought them out of Egypt (Exodus 6:7), mocked the Egyptians with miracles (Exodus 10:2), given them manna and meat in the wilderness (Exodus 16:12), and dwelled among the Israelites after they have made a sanctuary (Exodus 29:46).
After the book of Exodus, the Israelites and their fellow-travelers sometimes disobey or rebel against God, but at least they know the name of the god who has adopted them. The statement that somebody “shall know that I am Y-H-V-H” does not appear again until the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim, when Moses reminds the Israelites that God took care of them in the wilderness, giving them water, manna, and quail, and ensuring they would not need to spend time on making clothes.
I led you across for 40 years across the wilderness; your clothes did not wear out upon you, and your sandals did not wear out upon your feet. You ate no bread and drank no wine or liquor—so that you would know that I am Y-H-V-H, your Elohim. (Deuteronomy 29:4-5)
In short, people shall know that God is Y-H-V-H when they witness or remember miracles. The miracles might be as benign as the provision of manna in this week’s Torah portion, or as devastating as turning the whole Nile River into blood.
If Y-H-V-H means “He brings into being”, then a miracle demonstrates that even though the natural world was created long ago, the god of miracles can still bring major new events into being.
And if Y-H-V-H has a different meaning? Some modern scholars have suggested that the four-letter name may derive from a more ancient god-name used by nomads living in an area south of the Dead Sea called “the land of Yehwa”.6 Three of the most ancient poems in the bible refer to Y-H-V-H as coming to Israel from an earlier home in the south: the Song of Moses (Deuteronomy 33:2), the Song of Deborah (Judges 5:4, part of this week’s haftarah reading), and the Song of Habbakuk (Habbakuk 3:1-3).
If the name Y-H-V-H came from the name “Yehwa”, what did “Yehwa” mean? It might be related to the later Arabic word hawaya = love, passion.7 And if Y-H-V-H means “He is passionate”, then a miracle demonstrates that this god is deeply emotional about human beings at the collective level, and does extraordinary things to arrange their fates. In Exodus the God of passion makes the Egyptians suffer and helps the Israelites—except when they enrage him by worshiping the golden calf, and he kills 3,000 of them with a plague. Y-H-V-H also gets furious over some Israelite actions in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, and kills many thousands more. (See my posts Balak & Pinchas: How to Stop a Plague, Part 1 and 1 Samuel: How to Stop a Plague, Part 4.)
Today most people do not believe in miracles, and those who do often apply the word “miracle” to events that do not defy the laws of nature and could just as well happen by coincidence. They might be awed by the pseudo-miracles they notice, and they might consider God responsible. But their concept of God is different from the God in Exodus: either more abstract, or milder and kinder.
What would it be like today to believe that God is Y-H-V-H, “He brings into being” or “He is passionate”?
- Exodus 16:2-3.
- This verb is most often conjugated from the root hayah (היה), but occasionally the bible uses a conjugation of the synonymous root havah (הוה)—for example, in the imperative in Genesis 27:29, Isaiah 16:4, and Job 37:6.
- The verb spelled with the letters Y-H-V-H would be the third person singular imperfect hifil. A more elegant but slightly less literal translation is: “He who brings things into being”. Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, A Translation with Commentary, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2004, p. 321-322, footnote on Exodus 3:14.
- In addition to these nine times, God also wants the Israelites to know that there is none like Y-H-V-H in Exodus 8:6, 9:14, and 18:11; to know that Y-H-V-H owns the earth in Exodus 9:29; to know that Y-H-V-H distinguishes between Egyptians and Israelites in Exodus 11:7; and to know that Y-H-V-H sanctifies them with Shabbat in Exodus 31:13.
- The miracles are bringing the Israelites out of Egypt (Exodus 7:5), turning the Nile and all the surface water in Egypt into blood (Exodus 7:17), releasing swarms of mixed vermin (Exodus 8:18), and eliminating Pharaoh’s army (Exodus 14:4 and 14:18).
- The “land of Yehwa” appears in a 14th-century BCE Egyptian list discovered in Amunhotep III’s Soleb Nubian temple. Israel Knohl, “YHWH: The Original Arabic Meaning of the Name”, www.thetorah.com, 01/01/2019, . Also see Richard Elliott Friedman, The Exodus, HarperCollins, 2017, pp. 122-123.
- Knohl, ibid.