Ever since the last post I’ve been contemplating this amazing “second revelation” that we see in the very beginning of Torah Portion Va’era, in Exodus 6. There are some crucially important details in this revelation, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I couldn’t and shouldn’t just skip them. So, we are still in Parashat Va’era – and from now on, we will be discussing Torah portions here just a few days after it is read in the synagogues all over the world (instead of a few days before).
Do I Know You?
First, I want to talk about the Hebrew word “know”. You may remember the question I posed in the previous post (and many had asked before me): did the Patriarchs know the sacred name of God – יהוה (YHWH) – before God revealed it to Moses? In Exodus 6:2-3, God says to Moses: “I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by My name Lord I was not known to them”. We spoke about the alleged contradiction between this statement and the frequent occurrence of the name YHWH in Genesis. I shared with you some Jewish commentaries and then wrote that the explanation of this “contradiction” should be sought in Hebrew: most Christian students of the Bible fail to understand the meaning of the Hebrew verb “to know” (Yada). When someone reads this verse as an indication that the name of YHWH was not known before Moses, he just doesn’t understand the depth of this verb. Yada in Hebrew Scriptures is a very profound word, and today we are going to look into it more deeply.
The Hebrew root “yada” (usually rendered as “know”) appears more than 900 times in the Hebrew Bible. The idea of “knowing” in Biblical Hebrew is much more personal and intimate than our modern understanding of knowing. In the Hebrew Scriptures, “to know,” means not just to be intellectually informed, but to experience reality. Knowledge is not the possession of information: it is an experience. To “know God” in the Bible is not “to know about him” in some abstract and impersonal manner, not to grasp philosophically his eternal existence, but to recognize and experience His reality and to obey His will.
In this sense, we see a very clear connection between the verse we just quoted, where God reveals His name to Moses (Ex. 6:3), and verse 7 of the same chapter, where God continues to speak to Moses and says: “I will take you as My people, and I will be your God. Then you shall know that I am the Lord your God who brings you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians”. Do you remember that even before this second revelation, Moses was supposed to tell the people of Israel the name of the Lord – this was a commission he received in Exodus 3, at the Burning Bush? However – pay close attention – God does not expect the Israelites to know Him and His name after Moses tells them this name, between Exodus 3 and Exodus 6. It is only after they experience the reality of the Exodus – the reality of His faithfulness, His compassion and His power – that they will know Him. No wonder, He “was not known” like this to the previous generations, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob – because they had not experienced Him like this.
It is remarkable, that also in the New Testament, the Greek words usually rendered as “know” have been influenced by the same meaning of “yada” that we find in Biblical Hebrew. Here also, knowing God is not simply an intellectual and philosophical contemplation, rather it is a response of faith and obedience. Both in Hebrew Scripture and in the New Testament, it’s not ignorance that is the opposite of knowledge, but rebellion.
The Divine Name revealed to Moses –יהוה (YHWH) – is widely transliterated in Christian Bibles as Jehovah. Is this pronunciation correct? What was the original vocalization of this name?
The original pronunciation was most likely Yahweh – however, I have to admit that we do not have enough data for making any definitive statement. We know that in the beginning, it’s pronunciation was restricted to Temple service only; later – to the High priest only, and on the Day of Atonement only; finally, after the destruction of the Temple, it received a substitute pronunciation: it became customary to say the word Adonai (“my Lord”) when reading יהוה.
So, how do we get Jehovah from here? You might be surprised by the explanation. The Masoretes who vocalized the Hebrew Scriptures took the vowels from the word Adonai and vocalized with these vowels the word יהוה – as a reminder to a reader that he needs to substitute. The Christian translators who were unaware of that, transliterated the word יהוה according to this substitutional vocalization – and thus the name Jehovah entered Christian Bibles.
You probably know that in the first chapter of Genesis, the Creator is called God (Elohim), and in the second chapter, he is referred to as “Lord God” (Adonai Elohim). Here for the first time, we encounter that same name that was revealed to Moses in Exodus 6, and allegedly, was not known before that. So, how do the two names of God relate and correlate one to another?
Jewish tradition interprets the names Elohim and Adonai as the explanation of the two sides of the nature of God: His Justice and His mercy. This understanding of the different names of God explains also these two different accounts of creation – Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. The Midrash says that God originally created the world as Elohim (Genesis 1), but that afterward He is called Adonai Elohim (Genesis 2) because He saw that without His mercy His creation would not survive.
Keeping that in mind, let us read again the “second revelation”. It begins by saying, “Elohim spoke to Moses”, and then proceeds to say, “I am YHWH”. Isn’t it often like this? First, God reveals Himself as an awesome and fearsome God of justice, but then you lift up your eyes – and you sense there are tears in his eyes. He hears the groaning of the Israelites. He hears your groaning. In Genesis 22, it was Elohim who commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. However, it was the Angel of the Lord, who stopped Abraham’s hand in the end. He is YHWH – God of Compassion and Mercy.
 Please remember: we are talking about Biblical Hebrew; in Modern Hebrew, this verb more or less corresponds to a regular English “know”.
I would like to remind you, dear friends, that eTeacher offers a wonderful course, where you can learn from Parashot Shavua commentaries along with their New Testament interpretation. As always, you are welcome to contact me for more information! Also, if you like the articles on this blog, you might enjoy also my books, you can get them here .