More than just a Name
I suppose, most of my readers have watched “The Lord of the Rings”; maybe some even love the book, as I do. Today, however, I actually want to refer to the movie. You might remember how we all were waiting for the second part after seeing the first one? Then finally, it came out – and we all ran to see it. I distinctly remember the feeling of an incredible darkness and heaviness after I had watched it – it was definitely heavier and darker than the first part. I was trying to analyze it, but I was only able to understand it after I had watched the third part: both the first and the third parts had something besides the darkness – the happy beginning in the first, and the happy ending in the third. However, the second part in-between was completely covered by the darkness of the battles and the enemies – and it was very heavy indeed. It was still a brilliant movie, but it was not easy to watch.
Something like this happens in our weekly parashah. There are three Torah portions covering the Egyptian part of Israel’s Exodus – and while in the first portion, Shemot, we still hear some echo of the happy ending of Joseph’s story, and in the third one, Bo, we actually witness the amazing victory and the miracle of His redemption, this portion, Va’eira, is all about the enemies and the confrontation. It comes after Moses’ bitter words to God: “since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has done evil to this people; neither have You delivered Your people at all.” Moses is desperate at this point: everything appears dark and hopeless and seems to be only getting worse.
It is in response to Moses’ despair that God speaks to him and reveals His name. We will discuss this revelation shortly – but first, I want to show you something interesting about the Hebrew name of Egypt: Mizrayim. After all, this portion in its entirety happens in Egypt; all the darkness and confrontation happen here, and therefore it’s important for us to understand how this name would sound to a Hebrew ear.
Egypt was called Musuru, Misir or Masri in several languages—and Mizraim might be just a transliteration into Hebrew of any of these names. However, we can derive it from a Hebrew root instead. The word מצרים looks like a dual form of the Hebrew root מצר (mesar)—so what does this root mean?
The word מצר (mesar) means trouble: distress, pain, strait. In a dual form, it would form the word מצרים, Mizraim—and would therefore read Double Distress, or Double Trouble. For instance, in Lamentations 1:3, the very word mizraim, מצרים occurs with the meaning of “distress[es]”, and with no connection to Egypt. Some scholars suggest that this is what Mizraim would have meant to a Hebrew audience even long after the Exodus: for Israelites, to be in Egypt would mean distress and trouble —double distress and double trouble.
The Second Revelation
Did the Patriarchs know the sacred name of God – יהוה (YHWH) before God revealed it to Moses? This question has been asked endlessly. In Exodus 6:2-3 Moses experiences the second revelation (after the burning bush): “And God spoke to Moses and said to him: “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”. When we reflect on this solemn revelation, we meet an obvious difficulty: this statement contradicts the frequent occurrence of the name YHWH in Genesis. According to Genesis, the patriarchs knew this name. So, did they – or did they not?
Of course, there are various ways to solve this contradiction; you may be familiar with some of them. However, as always, I would like to share with you the wisdom of Jewish tradition, which says that the people of Israel had, since patriarchal times, known the name YHWH as God’s name, but it had been almost forgotten in the centuries since. At his initial revelation at the burning bush, Moses did not really comprehend the essence of God; but now, when God reveals Himself to Moses again, he begins to understand God. Many Jewish commentators add that the Patriarchs knew God and His name only in a limited way, and that now, after this second revelation, Moses acquires a new insight into the character of God. Rashi writes: God does not say “they didn’t know me”, but “I was not known to them”. This means: “I was not recognized by them with my attribute keeping faith.” But now Moses begins to recognize this attribute and to see God in a new light: as faithful, merciful and compassionate.
Is there anything in the Hebrew Scriptures that proves this theory? In fact, there is. Dr. Segal, an expert in the Hebrew language, writes: “The whole thesis, that … the name YHWH was unknown in the world till it was revealed to Moses, has no basis in fact. It is disproved by the name Joshua… by the name Jochebed… both names earlier than the alleged revelation of the name of YHWH to Moses, and both containing the abbreviated element of the name YHWH usual in Hebrew theophorous names. Also the patriarchal name of Joseph most probably contains this element”.
What does this mean? It means that if Jochebed was the mother of Moses, his grandparents had to know the name of YHWH, because they gave their daughter the name Jochebed, and the first component of this name is Jah, a shortened form of YHWH. The same can be said about the parents of Joshua, they also gave their son a name with Yah as the first component.
However, one can ask, if the linguistic proof is so obvious, why has Exodus 6:3 been interpreted as revealing the name YHWH for the first time? Once again, the explanation should be sought in Hebrew: most Christian students of the Bible fail to understand the meaning of the Hebrew verb “to know” (Yadah). When someone says that “to know the name of YHWH” means that this name was not known before Moses, he doesn’t really understand this phrase. “Yadah” in Hebrew Scriptures is a very deep word (it’s a separate topic, which I won’t discuss here), and in this sense, knowing a name cannot be understood in a literal sense only. The phrase “to know the Lord” occurs several times in the Old Testament – and it never means just knowing the name: “Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, nor was the word of the Lord yet revealed to him”; “I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness, And you shall know the Lord”. These are just a couple of examples – and it’s clear that the words here imply a profound inner transformation. Why would it have been different when God revealed Himself to Moses in the midst of his trials and failures – in the darkest times? When we think of Moses, we usually think of the “Burning Bush” revelation – and understandably, we all want the “Burning Bush” in our lives. However, don’t we all need this second revelation as we learn to know God deeper in the midst of our trials and failures – even in the darkest times?
 H. Segal, The Pentateuch: Its Composition and Its Authorship and Other Biblical Studies (Jerusalem: At the Magnes Press, The Hebrew University, 1967), pp. 4-5.
 1 Sam.3:7
As we continue with the Torah Portions’ comments on these pages, I would like to remind you, my 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 (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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