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Exodus 6:3 - was God's name Yahweh known before the time of Moses?


  1. Introduction
  2. Interpretation of earlier passages
  3. Some comments
  4. El Shaddai


This verse has often been taken to mean that Moses was the first person to whom God revealed his covenant name Yahweh (YHVH, translated as 'The LORD' in most English Bibles). The Hebrew reads:

The first main verb is vâ’êrâ’, the Niphal imperfect (consecutive) first person singular form for râ’âh, suggesting appeared to, or was seen by. This verb normally has to do with the external appearance of something, that which strikes the eye or other senses. Imperfect consecutive indicates a completed action.

The second main verb, nôwda‘etîy, is the Niphal first person singular perfect form of yâda‘, suggesting one of I made myself known, I was made known, I was known, I was perceived, or I was instructed. It has more to do with comprehension and understanding than appearance. The use of the perfect again indicates a completed action. The Niphal here can be either passive or reflexive.

The prefix û- before shemîy (my name) can be translated as and, but, or similar conjunctions in English, and in many cases is not needed in translation - for example many Hebrew sentences start with û- or ve-, whereas in modern English this is much less common.

As rendered by most major translations, the statement is viewed as contrasting two different ways of referring to God - El Shaddai (God Almighty), and Yahweh, the personal and usually covenant-related name for God. Although the contrast is clear, the exact sense is not. Hence two translations of the sentence are possible:

  1. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai, and by my name Yahweh I was not known to them.
  2. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai, and by my name Yahweh was I not known to them?
The first suggests that Moses was the first person to whom God revealed himself under this name, whereas the second does not - rather it suggests that Moses was being reminded of a fact that should have been clear to him. A quick review of some translations shows variation here - as a few examples, the New International, American Standard and Good News Versions choose the first, while the Authorised and King James 21st Century Versions choose the second. So both variations are encountered.

However, neither of these alternatives do justice to the verse construction. In both cases it is assumed that the prefix be before "El Shaddai" also applies to "my name". However, the prefix is not present, and it would be most unusual for it to be implied but absent. Hence, a third alternative for the sentence is:

  1. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai. My name is Yahweh. Did I not make myself known to them?
in which the one verse is broken into several portions, each progressing the idea in small steps. In terms of practical outworking there is little difference between this translation and (b) above: however it is more faithful to the language construction. In terms of sentence construction the final sentence lô’ nôwda‘etîy lâhem is then entirely regular, with the verb first.

So far this page has dealt with a linguistic approach. What about interpretational issues?

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Interpretation of earlier passages

If Exodus 6:3 is taken in sense (a) above, then the various uses of Yahweh prior to that verse need explanation. If all uses were in narrative passages, then this is straightforward. Traditionally, the Pentateuch originates as a document in essentially the form we have today at the time of Moses. Since it was he to whom the revelation described in Exodus 6 came, his use in narrative sections is explicable. However, if the divine name Yahweh is found not just in narrative passages but in dialogue, the problem is more acute. This would mean that Moses inserted a name into dialogue which (according to his own testimony) was unknown to the speakers - at very least a careless slip. If sense (b) or (c) was intended by the passage, this problem does not arise.

The use in early Genesis passages will now be reviewed. A separate discussion of the various names used in connection for and about God is in preparation - on this page the different uses are noted but only briefly discussed.

Genesis 1 - Creation in general
This chapter uses the term ’Elôhîm - God - throughout.
Genesis 2 - the Creation of mankind
This chapter contains predominantly narrative, and uses Yahweh ’elôhîym almost entirely. Amongst other things it outlines the original covenantal relationship between God and man - at this stage the covenant does not contain a redemptive element, unlike all subsequent covenants (a companion set of pages describes the various covenants in much more detail).
Genesis 3 - the Temptation and Fall
This contains a mixture of narrative and dialogue. The narrative uses Yahweh ’elôhîm, whereas the dialogue (insofar as it uses an appellation for God) uses just ’elôhîm. This is particularly striking in the conversation between the serpent and the woman. The chapter closes with the banishment of Adam and Eve from the Garden, and the establishment of a new framework for relationship in which redemption is essential.
Genesis 4 - the start of human society
This chapter opens with the conception and birth of Adam and Eve's first child. Eve's comment here is "With the help of Yahweh I have brought forth a man..." - in other words for the first time the name Yahweh is used in dialogue. Near the end of the chapter, after the birth of Seth, she comments "’elôhîm has granted me another child...", and the chapter closes with the comment "men began to call on the name of Yahweh".
Genesis 12-25 - The account of Abraham
Abraham's life was punctuated by encounters with God, so the material available to study is rather more extensive here. He is frequently said to have built an altar to Yahweh, and to have called on his name (eg. 12:8, 13:4, 13:18, 21:33). After the Battle of Nine Kings related in Genesis 14, he is met by Melchisedek, priest of ’êl ’el'yôwn (God most high), who blesses him in this name rather than that of Yahweh. However, immediately after this Abraham speaks to the king of Sodom, "I have lifted up my hand to Yahweh ’êl ’el'yôwn", with the implication that Abraham identified Yahweh as God Most High. Chapter 15 describes the establishment of the covenant with Abraham, and Abraham opens his part of the dialogue with "’adônây Yahweh..." (Lord or Sovereign Yahweh). Sarah's response in chapter 16, "Yahweh has kept me from having children..." indicates that she too knew God by this name. At the (theologically crucial) announcement in Genesis 17 of the covenant to Abraham, God introduces himself as ’êl shaddây. When Abraham's servant was sent to Paddam Aram in search of a wife for Isaac, he prays, "Yahweh, ’elôhîm of my master Abraham, give me success today...", and Laban and Nethuel answer him with "This is from Yahweh...", suggesting that God was known by this name to both households.
Genesis 26-28 - The account of Isaac
The name Yahweh is used less here. In 26:22 he named a well 'Rehoboth', saying "Now Yahweh has given us room...". In the crucial exchange concerning Isaac's blessing reported in chapters 27 and 28 it occurs several times. Isaac wishes to bless Esau "... in the presence of Yahweh before I die", Jacob says to Isaac, "Yahweh your ’elôhîm gave me success", but Isaac blesses him with "May ’êl shaddây bless you".
Genesis 28 to end - The accounts of Jacob and Joseph
Yahweh is used decreasingly as Genesis progresses. In Jacob's younger days we find him using this name on occasion - for example during his flight to Paddan Aram he prays "If God will be with me... then Yahweh will be my ’elôhîm...". Both Leah and Rachel use the name in snippets of speech while naming their various children. The final use of the name in Genesis is by Jacob in the anxiety of meeting Esau again, "O ’elôhîm of my father Abraham, ’elôhîm of my father Isaac, O Yahweh... save me I pray...". After that we find only ’el or variants in use, for example Joseph says, "Do not interpretations [of dreams] belong to ’elôhîm", "’elôhîm will give Pharaoh the answer he desires". Jacob says to his sons, "May ’El Shaddai grant you mercy...", and to Joseph, " ’êl shaddây appeared to me at Luz...", and Joseph says to his brothers, "Am I in the place of ’elôhîm...".
Other examples could be given, but it is clear that the most natural reading of these passages is that the Old Testament figures before the time of Moses knew God by his name Yahweh. Thus, whilst major translations of Exodus 6:3 vary between choices (a) and (b) above, consideration of these passages suggests that the second interpretation is more helpful. Linguistic considerations lead to case (c), which in practical terms is the same as (b). The most frequent and routine use amongst the patriarchs of Yahweh is by Abraham. Although less is known of Isaac's life, he is reported as using the divine name until his old age, whereas Jacob seems only to have used it in his youth, in the years leading up to his return to Canaan. As time progressed, he increasingly uses the more generic term ’el or ’êl shaddây in reference to God, and his children (and in particular Joseph as the main focus of the narrative) seem to have followed this lead. Joseph and his brothers are not indicated to have used the name Yahweh - perhaps of relevance here is that God in later books is occasionally referred to as "God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob...", but not "God of Joseph".

There are a few uses in the early chapters of Exodus, before 6:3. Moses was told to say to the elders of Israel concerning his task, "Yahweh, the ’elôhîm of your fathers... has sent me to you". To Pharaoh he says, "...let us take a three-day journey into the desert to offer sacrifices to Yahweh our ’elôhîm", and a little later, "This is what Yahweh, the ’elôhîm of Israel, says...", to which Pharaoh retorts, "Who is Yahweh that I should obey him?". So, God's revelation of his name to Moses did not provoke comment either from him, or from the elders of Israel after his return to Egypt. Since Moses questioned virtually everything else God told him about which he was in the least uncertain, a natural conclusion is that this particular fact was not new to him. Had God informed him of a new name about which he had formerly known nothing, it would be surprising had he not questioned further. In fact he did not do this, but accepted the link with the patriarchs without question. Similarly the elders of Israel seemingly had no difficulty accepting the assertion that Moses had been sent to them by Yahweh.

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Some comments

Yahweh is not simply used as an alternative, interchangeable title for God. The name most commonly occurs in connection with his covenant-redemptive activity, and so its use would normally indicate to the reader that God is being viewed here by the author as the establisher, enforcer, or rescuer-figure of a covenant with mankind. In this light, the usage in the first chapters of Genesis is important. As overall creator (chapter 1) the name is not used, but rather the general title 'God' (’elôhîm) - this is in keeping with the general-revelation nature of this chapter. In chapter 2, the special relationship with mankind is noted in the narrative by use of the compound name Yahweh ’Elôhîm, but the man and woman do not use this title during their period of pre-fall enjoyment of the Garden. Only after the banishment from Eden, and the need for a new redemptive dimension in the relationship of mankind wth God, do the human participants begin using the name Yahweh. Abraham and the other patriarchs are presented as knowing and being familiar with this name, though in their dealings with other people they often do not use it.

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El Shaddai

As an addendum, this section looks at the Old Testament uses of the phrase ’êl shaddây - God Almighty. The occurrence of this phrase is in fact restricted to a few specific areas. Amongst the historical books (Genesis - Esther) there are 11 uses, 9 of which are to be found in the Pentateuch (6 of these in Genesis).

The six uses in Genesis are:

  1. God to Abraham when announcing the covenant, chapter 17:1
  2. Isaac when blessing Jacob (thinking it was Esau), ch. 28:3
  3. God to Jacob, shortly after returning to Canaan, ch. 35:11
  4. Jacob to his sons (except Joseph) before their second journey to Egypt, ch. 43:14
  5. Jacob to Joseph shortly before his death, ch. 48:3
  6. Jacob's final blessing to his sons, ch. 49:25
As well as Exodus 6:3, there are two uses (by the nonIsraelite prophet Balaam) in Numbers 24, and 2 uses by Naomi in Ruth chapter 1. There are no uses of this appellation for God in the historical narrative books after the book of Ruth.

Amongst the wisdom and prophetic literature there are a total of 37 uses, 31 of which (over 3/4) are in the book of Job. Outside of this, there are 2 occasions in the Psalms and 4 amongst the prophetic writings.

It can therefore be seen that as regards the historical books, there is a concentration amongst the early writings. Thus, the assertion in Exodus 6 that this was a distinctive way in which God revealed himself to the patriarchs is supported by this investigation. However, it was distinctive rather than exclusive, and in fact the patriarchal accounts in Genesis show that they were familiar with several different titles and appellations for God - one of which was his covenant name Yahweh.

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