(Ex. 6:3) How can this be the first time God revealed his name “Yahweh,” when this name is used often before this time?

CLAIM: In this passage, God tells Moses that he had not revealed his name (Yahweh) to Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob. But, throughout the book of Genesis, the name of Yahweh is used 162 times, and 34 of these uses are on the lips of the speakers.[1] Critics argue that this is a clear error. In fact, many argue that this is evidence for the JEDP theory of the OT (i.e. mixed sources of the Pentateuch).

RESPONSE: There are multiple possibilities here:

First, some argue that the name Yahweh was in use, but the meaning was unknown. Charles Gianotti writes, “Though the name YHWH existed well before the time of Moses, the meaning of that name was not revealed until the time of Moses. To understand the meaning of the divine name is to understand the character of God revealed by that name.”[2] For example, imagine if Superman was about to catch an atomic missile and hurl it into space. Before he did this, he might tell Lois Lane, “Now they’re going to see why they call me Superman!” In the same way, God might be saying, “While you’ve heard my name (Yahweh), now you’re going to see why they call me Yahweh.”

Second, some argue that the name was in use before Exodus 6, but the Jews learned of Yahweh in a relational sense. The concept of “knowing” can be a highly relational term, rather than a propositional term (e.g. a man knowing his wife). In this way, perhaps the Hebrews had heard Yahweh’s name, but they hadn’t come to know him personally. In other words, the nation as a whole believed that Yahweh existed, but they didn’t believe in him.

Third, some argue that Moses retrospectively wrote the name ‘Yahweh’ onto the story of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Since later authors clearly updated names to later cultures,[3] advocates of this view hold that Moses updated the name “Yahweh” onto the lips of the patriarchs—even though they didn’t use this name themselves.

Fourth, some argue that this should be translated as a question—not a statement. This could be rendered, “By my name Yahweh, did I not make myself known to them?”[4] In Hebrew, questions can sometimes be identified with the “interrogative particle.” Stuart explains, “The construction used here is common enough for interrogatives beginning with “is it not” or “did he not” or the like that require a positive answer (“is it not the case that x is y?” interrogatives). The disjunctive structure of the clause lends itself to the emphasis indicated by the interrogative, namely that Moses was supposed to understand that “my name Yahweh” was indeed already a proto-Israelite divine name.”[5] Other examples can be compared (Num. 23:19; 2 Sam. 23:5; 2 Kin. 5:26; Jer. 18:6; Jon. 4:11; Job 11:11; 30:25).

[1] Kaiser writes, “This would not be the first instance of the use of that name, for already it had occurred some 162 times in Genesis, with 34 of those examples on the lips of speakers in Genesis.” Walter C. Kaiser Jr., “Exodus,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1990), 342.

[2] Charles Gianotti “The Meaning of the Divine Name” Bibliotheca Sacra (January-March) 1985. 39.

[3] For instance, the city of Dan (Gen. 14:14), the city of Bethel (Gen. 28:19), and the names of Israelite kings (Gen. 36:31) are anachronistic titles.

[4] See footnote. Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, vol. 2, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006), 169.

[5] See footnote. Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, vol. 2, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006), 169.