Responding to the meta call for contradiction In Exodus 6:2 we find the following quote:

And God spoke to Moses and said to him

I am Yahweh. And I showed to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as El-Shaddai, and by my name, 'Yahweh', I did not make myself known to them.

How can this be? Abraham hears/says Yahweh in Genesis 15:2,15:7,15:8,18:14,22:14, and his servants/relatives do in ch 24.

Isaac and Jacob use "Yahweh" less frequently, only in Gen 27:20 and 27:27.

Why does God say he didn't reveal his name "Yahweh", when he obviously glaringly did so in Genesis, many, many times?

  • The way it is worded here (likely due to the - questionable? - reference to El-Shaddai) this text truly is problematic in his - again questionable - negating of YHWH as having been known to the patriarchs.
    – hannes
    Commented Aug 6, 2013 at 9:40
  • @raygrant No explanation makes as much sense as the one I just posted in my answer which explains the Hebrew behind the translation. It's a translation problem, not a textual problem.
    – Biblasia
    Commented Aug 5, 2023 at 2:02

10 Answers 10


Because the writer of the Exodus passage believed it, and the writer of the Genesis passages believed differently.

While scholars continue to debate its exact shape, source criticism – in Documentary, Supplementary, Fragmentary, or other form – continues to be among the most helpful tools for examining apparent inconsistencies of exactly this sort in the Pentateuch.

Brief Background: The consensus within modern critical scholarship sees within these Books two or more earlier, written sources, woven together, redacted, and amended over several centuries. The original sources can be distinguished, or at least hypothesized, by differences in vocabulary, tone, ideology, and historical detail. Such obvious inconsistencies and variations in the Bible often puzzle close readers (see below). But Jeffrey Tigay notes:

“Their preservation side by side [in the final text] has led modern scholars to conclude that the redactor(s) was/were fundamentally conservative. Perhaps they believed all the traditions valid, perhaps even inspired, and therefore preserved them with minimal revision even if that left inconsistencies, non sequiturs, and redundancies.” (p.104)

For source critics an awareness of the possibility of multiple authors or sources adds a level of richness to the text. It also often makes simple work of otherwise puzzling problems.

So it is with this question: The two most popular names used for God in the Pentateuch – Jehovah (YHVH) and Elohim – were among the first and most consequential differences to be explored and mapped by source critics. The obvious discrepancy between the use of the name YHVH by the Patriarchs (e.g. Gen.15.7, 28.13) and the revelation of the divine name to Moses centuries later ostensibly for the first time (Ex.6:2-3) is therefore well known. Like most scholars today with an eye for possible source issues, Tigay easily explains:

“[I]t is another indication that different sources underlie the present narrative. One source (J) holds that the name YHVH was first known in the days of Enosh (Gen. 4.26), while others (E and P) hold that it was first revealed in the days of Moses.” (p.115)

Some exegetes see in the apparent inconsistency of Ex.6:3 a profound problem, as for example The Pulpit Commentary: “The explanation of this passage is by no means easy... The apparent meaning of the present passage cannot therefore be its true meaning. No writer would so contradict himself.”

That's true, but two or more authors might. Source criticism not only offers insight into the original sources and intentions of biblical texts, it also suggests clear and meaningful explanations for some of their apparent problems.


James H. Tigay, “Introduction and Notes on Exodus”, The Jewish Study Bible (Oxford, 2004).

Marc Zvi Brettler and Adele Berlin, "The Modern Study of the Bible", The Jewish Study Bible (Oxford, 2004); pp.2084-2096.


This apparent contradiction can be resolved without the documentary hypothesis. As Bruce Alderman pointed out, Gen 17 is considered an E passage, yet it uses YHWH in the very first verse. Similarly, there are J passages that use Elohim (the very first J passage actually uses YHWH-Elohim). There are certain patterns in Hebrew thought for when one name would be preferred over the other in a given situation.

The Meaning of the Names

YHWH is a proper noun referring to the God of Israel. It is often translated "LORD" (with either all caps or with small caps to keep it distinct from occurrences of "adonai"). Elohim is the generic term for god or gods that only later became a proper name.

As such, YHWH is used whenever the Bible stresses God's personal relationship with His people and the ethical nature of His character. Elohim refers to God's power, His creating all things, and how He is the ruler of all life and all things. Psalm 19 is one of the best examples of how these names are used. The first 6 verses speak of Elohim and His relation to the material world. However, beginning in verse 7, YHWH appears and the focus of the Psalm shifts to the law, precepts, and His relationship with humans who know Him.

The name YHWH is used to show the personal nature of God and how He relates to human beings. On the other hand, Elohim refers to the transcendent creator of the universe, who shaped it. YHWH is appropriate when emphasizing the relationship with Him in personal and ethical matters. Elohim connects deity with existence and humanity.

Accordingly, Genesis 1 uses Elohim to show God's power in creating all things. Genesis 2:4-3:23 uses YHWH-Elohim to show the very intimate and detailed relationship between God and Adam and Eve. Both names are used to show that the same Elohim who created all things maintains a personal relationship with those who walk in His ways. Note that in the very first "J passage," (who is supposed to know God as YHWH) the name is YHWH-Elohim.

Exodus 6:3

However, a complication comes in the verse in question. In Exodus 6:3, God states, "I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name [YHWH] I did not make myself known to them.” YHWH is used some 150 times in the patriarchal period. How is this to be made sense of?

The Beth Essentiae

However, a technical point of Hebrew grammar, known as beth essentiae, renders the contradiction moot.* This refers to how a name in Hebrew may not just be a construction of pleasing sounds but refer to a person's essential character and nature. The beth appears at the front of the name El Shaddai, meaning "in the character of the Almighty I appeared to them." Thus, Abraham, Jacob, and Isaac certainly heard and used the name YHWH but it was not until Moses that the essence of the name was revealed. As summarized by Kaiser, "'By the name' is better translated 'in the character [or nature] of Yahweh [was I not known]'" (Kaiser, W. C. 1997, c1996. Hard sayings of the Bible . InterVarsity: Downers Grove, Il). However, Kaiser has now changed his mind about and reads the verse as a rhetorical question, "By my name YHWH was I not known to them?" (Kaiser, The Old Testament Documents: Are They Reliable and Relevant, 142).

Kaiser has changed his stance based on the fact that the Hebrew has the beth only on El Shaddai. He argues that a beth essentiae should be on both names if the second is also to be read as such. However, Motyer argues that the first use sets the stage and it should be understood as on the second. He uses Isaiah 48:9 ("For the sake of My name I delay My wrath, And for My praise I restrain it for you, In order not to cut you off." [NASB]) as an illustration. The governing preposition, "for the sake of" makes better English (and something is required). However, "for the sake of" only appears on the first phrase in Hebrew. We add the "for" to the second for clarity in English. Thus, we do the same for the beth essentiae in Exodus 6:3.

Beth essentiae appear also in Exodus 3:2, 18:4, Isaiah 66:15, and other places. What is perhaps most significant to our study here is the usage in Exodus 3:2. The beth essentiae will be in bold below.

Exd 3:1 Now Moses was pasturing the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian; and he led the flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. Exd 3:2 The angel of the LORD appeared to him as a blazing fire from the midst of [in]a bush; and he looked, and behold, the bush was burning with fire, yet the bush was not consumed. [NASB with a modification by this author to show the beth essentiae. NASB transs. it as "in."]

Just as the beth essentiae on flame here shows the nature of God, we can similarly conclude that the same construct is being used in Exodus 6:3 and carry it over to both nouns. Motyer translates the verse 'I showed myself ... in the character of El Shaddai, but in the character expressed by my name Yahweh I did not make myself known.'

Likewise, the Hebrew understanding of shem includes a person's reputation and glory (Brown, Driver, Briggs Lexicon s.v. shem. See Gen 11:4, 12:2; 2 Sam 7:9; Isa 63:14; Dan 9:15; and others.)

Jewish Commentators

The Targum of Pseudo Jonathan and medieval Jewish commentaries take it similarly. TPJ says that the name was known to them, but it was just sounds as the Shekinah glory had not appeared to them. Rashi said that El Shaddai was God's characteristic of giving promises and YHWH showed the fulfillment of said promises. However, Rambam said that El Shaddai demonstrated the providential power of God while YHWH showed the miracle-working power. Umberto Cassuto said El Shaddai referred to God as the giver of fertility (because El Shaddai is connected to Gen 17:1-2 and other passages with being fruitful) while YHWH is the One who carries out those promises. The patriarchs knew the name but they had no experience of what was entailed in the name.

W. J. Martin has suggested this translation.

I am YHWH. I allowed myself to appear to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as El Shaddai. My name is YHWH. Did I not make myself known to them?

Martin argues that the translation of the key clause as a question is demanded by verse 4 beginning with "And also I established my covenant." That would seem to imply that the preceding clause ought to be taken in a positive sense and not a negative sense, such as "by YHWH I was not known to them."

My understanding of Exodus 6:3 is that they knew the name but now they would experience the character of YHWH.

*More information on the beth essentiae can be found in Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar, § 119i. If that is not on hand, Waltke/O'Connor's Hebrew Syntax should have an entry on it. You may also see Zondervan's Pictoral Encyclopedia of the Bible s.v. "Name".

  • 2
    This is a just-so story allowing you to make the text self-consistent. None of these readings is supportable. "Be-El Shaddai" is an artsy but acceptable way of saying "using El Shaddai". I don't like unlikely stretching of text to fit a theology, when the text is unfriendly to this reading. The grammar contortions by theologically minded people make their analysis untrustworthy. As for the connotation, Shaddai->fertility/providence Yahweh->Miracles/direct-action, I agree. The distinction between the personal Yahweh and the impersonal Shaddai is due to the different vision of God in J and E.
    – Ron Maimon
    Commented Apr 9, 2012 at 0:56
  • 2
    @RonMaimon, shem with the connotation of reputation is well supported throughout the Old Testament (I listed several). Are you saying this is not the case? Also, are you saying that the beth essentiae is nowhere found in the Old Testament?
    – Frank Luke
    Commented Apr 9, 2012 at 2:01
  • 10
    @RonMaimon, the downvote is your prerogative. However, "intellectual dishonesty" implies that either I am committing plagiarism or I have written something that I know is false. I have listed my sources above, and I assure you that I do believe what I have written. I am not committing any kind of intellectual dishonesty.
    – Frank Luke
    Commented Apr 10, 2012 at 2:16
  • 1
    @hannes, Abraham did know him by YHWH, that is seen many times in Genesis. A promise was given to Abraham (and one to Eve as well).
    – Frank Luke
    Commented Aug 4, 2013 at 22:43
  • 2
    Without getting into documentary hypothesis at all... since shem means BOTH 'name' and 'reputation'... and since others knew his name previously; the proper and simple answer is: Common courtesy does not presume a contradiction by an author, therefore God intended 'reputation' to be understood.
    – Bob Jones
    Commented Aug 23, 2016 at 14:48

In addition to Frank Luke's excellent answer, I've found some additional material that might be of interest. Duane A. Garrett (coauthor of A Modern Grammar for Biblical Hebrew) writes on Exodus 6:2c-3:

But the Hebrew text, as Francis I. Andersen points out, contains a case of noncontiguous parallelism that translators have not recognized: “I am Yahweh...and my name is Yahweh.” The “not” is therefore assertative in a rhetorical question rather than a simple negative, and it should not be connected to what precedes it (1974:102). In fact, the whole text is set in a poetic, parallel structure beyond what Andersen notes (see fig. 1).

Figure 1

The Structure of Exodus 6:2c–3 ==============================

  A I am Yahweh.
B And I made myself known to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shaddai.
  A' And My name is Yahweh;
B' Did I not make Myself known to them?

Unlike modern poetry, which is typeset in very conventional and often obvious ways, Hebrew poetry was often indicated through parallelisms. It would be rash to say that the Garrett's interpretation is certain, since parallel thoughts can occur in prose and would not force B' to be a rhetorical question. But by the same token, it does provide a reasonable doubt that the author of Exodus asserts that Moses was the first to hear the Tetragrammaton.

He further quotes Andersen:

There is no hint in Exodus that Yahweh was a new name revealed first to Moses. On the contrary, the success of his mission depended on the use of the familiar name for validation by the Israelites—The Sentence in Biblical Hebrew (1974:102).

A portion of the NET Bible note on this text addresses the question directly:

[The] texts of Genesis show that Yahweh had appeared to the patriarchs (Gen 12:1, 17:1, 18:1, 26:2, 26:24, 26:12, 35:1, 48:3), and that he spoke to each one of them (Gen 12:7, 15:1, 26:2, 28:13, 31:3). The name “Yahweh” occurs 162 times in Genesis, 34 of those times on the lips of speakers in Genesis (W. C. Kaiser, Jr., “Exodus,” EBC 2:340-41). They also made proclamation of Yahweh by name (4:26, 12:8), and they named places with the name (22:14). These passages should not be ignored or passed off as later interpretation.

Personally, I find it odd that the redactor of Genesis and Exodus (assuming of course that it was just one person) would have missed this obvious contradiction. In the context of the story, this is the first time God has spoken to His people for many generations. All of God's promises, which seemed certain to be fulfilled at the end of Genesis, have seemingly been destroyed within the first chapter of Exodus. In fact, God immediately emphasizes that it is His intention to remember the covenant He had made to the Patriarchs:

I also established my covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they lived as sojourners. Moreover, I have heard the groaning of the people of Israel whom the Egyptians hold as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant. Say therefore to the people of Israel, ‘I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment. I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the LORD your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. I will give it to you for a possession. I am the LORD.’—Exodus 6:4-8 (ESV)

The plagues are structured to show God's power against the pantheon of Egyptian deities and His authority over creation. The emphasis of the entire passage seems to balance a continuity with the God of Genesis with the discontinuity of what He is about to do. It seems that the Israelites have forgotten, but the story tells us that God has not forgotten His previous commitment to them. He is preparing to shake them up and out of slavery to another nation in order to establish a nation of His own.

  • This begins with the most ridiculous of all possible answers. The words "lo noda'ti la-hem" cannot be a question, and this text is obviously all (high quality) prose.
    – Ron Maimon
    Commented Apr 11, 2012 at 19:18
  • Ah, following W. J. Martin (or maybe Martin followed them). Poetry in Biblical Hebrew has it's own rules. Something I forgot to mention (I see it hinted at in your answer) is that when Moses asked who shall I say has sent me, God answers as if they are familiar with the name YHWH.
    – Frank Luke
    Commented Apr 11, 2012 at 19:18
  • @FrankLuke: No he doesn't! He says "I am that I am", then he says "My name is Yahweh". There is no familiarity.
    – Ron Maimon
    Commented Apr 11, 2012 at 19:20
  • 2
    @Ron: Your argument is with Garrett and Andersen, not me. I'm just parroting what I read and what makes sense to myself as a layman. I'll leave the disagreements to the authors of Hebrew grammar texts, professors of Biblical studies, and translators of Hebrew to battle out. Commented Apr 11, 2012 at 19:44
  • @JonEricson: Please exercize your own judgement as well--- if you post the Hebrew, I can give a word-for-word gloss, and there are other experts here who can do the same. It is important to check what people say, to keep them honest.
    – Ron Maimon
    Commented Apr 12, 2012 at 0:04

The verb נֹודַעְתִּי (noda'ti) is exceptionally rare. It is conjugated in binyan Nif'al, 1st person, singular number. It only occurs twice in scripture, the other instance being in Eze. 20:9 which actually has a similar context.

In Eze. 20:9, it is written,

And I did for the sake of My name, in order to prevent it from being dishonored in the eyes of the Gentiles whom they were among, which was made known to them in their eyes when I brought them forth from Egypt.

וָאַעַשׂ לְמַעַן שְׁמִי לְבִלְתִּי הֵחֵל לְעֵינֵי הַגֹּויִם אֲשֶׁר־הֵמָּה בְתֹוכָם אֲשֶׁר נֹודַעְתִּי אֲלֵיהֶם לְעֵינֵיהֶם לְהֹוצִיאָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם

According to this scripture, the name יהוה was made known to the Israelites when they were brought forth from Egypt. Therefore, it is possible to say that it was not known to them before they were brought forth from Egpyt. What is it about the exodus from Egypt that had the ability to make the name known to the Israelites?

The name יהוה reveals God's faithfulness to His promises, including the covenants He makes.

In Deut. 7:7-9, it is written,

"YHVH did not set His love upon you nor choose you because you were more in number than any people. For, you were the fewest of all people. Because YHVH loved you, and because He would keep the oath that He had sworn to your fathers, YHVH brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you out of the house of bondmen, from the hand of Pharaoh, king of Egypt. And know that YHVH (יהוה) is your God. He is God, the faithful God (הָאֵל הַנֶּאֱמָן), who keeps covenant and mercy with those who love Him and keep His commandments to a thousand generations."

YHVH made a host of promises to the fathers, but the fathers never saw those promises fulfilled. In fact, they still will not have experienced their fulfillment until they are resurrected from the dead. The fathers — such as Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya'akov — "these all died in faith without having received the promises" (Heb. 11:13). Yes, they knew of the name YHVH, but they did not see it made known to them or revealed to them like the Israelites, for יהוה is הָאֵל הַנֶּאֱמָן, "the faithful God."

The name YHVH was made known to the Israelites when YHVH brought them forth from Egypt because it was fulfillment of God's promises to the fathers (cp. Gen. 15:7-21).

In Exodus 6:8, it is written,

And I will bring you into the land, concerning which I swore to give to Avraham Yitzchak, and Ya'akov, and I will give you it for an inheritance. I am YHVH."

So, in summary, the meaning is that YHVH, which represents God in His faithfulness to His promises and covenants, was not realized by or made known to the patriarchs who died in faith without having received the promises. Rather, it was made known to the Israelites when God brought them forth from Egypt because that was the fulfillment of God's promises and covenant (in part).

  • 4
    Well put. God revealed His faithfulness and "Am-ness" to Israel in a new way via the Exodus. His promises don't have an expiration date. (I note in passing that the quote from Hebrews (a Christian text) is really secondary to the argument. The main point is that the promises of God were not fulfilled by the end of Genesis. If anything, they were further off than before. God used the events of Exodus to bring the promises closer to fulfillment.) Commented Nov 19, 2012 at 20:10
  • 2
    Good answer. In the Exodus, they experience God as the great I Am while before they had heard the name. The difference is in knowing someone and knowing of someone.
    – Frank Luke
    Commented Dec 4, 2012 at 19:05

Abraham did receive a son at the old age of Sarah and his. He as good as sacrificed him and received him back. He did not enter into God's rest as surely as the Israelites didn't who died in the wilderness and their children didn't who were lead into the land by Joshua.

I can not favour the thought that those Israelites should have experienced God differently from the way Abraham did. If so, how is he supposed to be(come) their father in his faith to God? Most of the difficulties with these texts arise from the introduction of the name El-Shaddai in connection with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This name does not appear elsewhere. Shaddai is found in the oracle of Bileam, in Ruth, in Job (first being used there not by Job but by Eliphaz of Teman) - Job adresses God by the name YHWH.

Interestingly God is referred to throughout all scripture including the sayings of Jesus as the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob. It seems to me a textual-semantic difficulty, if God introduced himself as God Almighty, when being their God. The early Greek translation (Septuagint, LXX) does not have any remembrance of El-Shaddai in neither Genesis nor Exodus. However, it does have this: EGO EIMI HO THEOS SOY. I am your God. (The like with the personal pronouns of my, your, their in all instances where the later Massoretic text introduced El-Shaddai, possibly for universalistic reasons, after the destruction of the second Temple. A replacement of El-Shaddai by THEOS SOY (your God) in the Greek is a lot less than likely. There is nothing that would have spoken against translating THEOS HO PANTOKRATOR (God Almighty), on the contrary, given the context of antique Alexandria for this 3rd B.C. translation.

As Frank Luke and Jon Ericson have shown, there is good evidence for end of Exodus 6:3 really having been a question affirmative:

I am YHWH I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob Being their God I am YHWH Did I not make Myself known to them?

It is here probably in place to reference to this:

And God said again to Moses: Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel - YHWH, the God of your fathers, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is an everlasting name of mine and for memorial of generations to generations. - Exodus 3:15

  • 1
    But the Samaritan has El-Shaddai, so it's not something that's introduced, and the Hebrew roots don't allow an interpretation of "Your God" very naturally. But perhaps it was a borrowing in a different language, who knows. "Shaddai" means something like "my breast", or "my teat", in Hebrew, and perhaps has a fertility goddess connotation, but I am not sure, it's too isolated. If only there were more ancient texts... +1 for the sources and interesting thoughts, thank you.
    – Ron Maimon
    Commented Aug 5, 2013 at 15:45
  • @Ron Maimon. I keep thinking about it. In Ruth the LXX renders Shaddai as ho Ikanos (the Sufficient One). In Job as Pantokrator (Ruler of All), Ikanos, and Kyrios (Lord). El-Shaddai is nowhere used for God except Gen and Ex these few instances where it is foreign and confusing everything. None of the Prophets, not a single Psalm speaks of El-Shaddai.
    – hannes
    Commented Aug 5, 2013 at 21:09
  • 1
    Ezekiel has El together with Shaddai ones. The translator of the LXX here simply writes (genitive) THEOU SHADDAI, employing a double Delta (of the Overpowering One), not the single one of breasts and fertility. The meaning may be close though.
    – hannes
    Commented Aug 6, 2013 at 8:42

Without getting into documentary hypothesis at all... since shem means BOTH 'name' and 'reputation'... and since others knew his name previously; the proper and simple answer is: Common courtesy does not presume a contradiction by an author, therefore God intended 'reputation' to be understood.

In verse 1, God explained that he would bring woe upon Pharaoh.

In verse 3, he says the Fathers knew him by the reputation of the God who suffices.

In progressive revelation of his character, he is now making his reputation as the God 'Yah' י of woe 'hovah' הוה.


Just a poor sojourner through the text and I appreciate all the above answers. Like the poetry aspect, the question aspect, etc.

But maybe another part of it is taking a look at the big picture of the Exodus story - God calling the nation of Israel - (whose patriarchs after Abraham all struggled to be firstborns but actually weren't) - in Exodus 4 God comes along and says this story is going to be about you as a nation becoming "my firstborn" to carry out my purposes and inheritance into this currently mostly polytheistic world. Then in Ex 6:3 we get this juxtaposition between ra'ah "seeing' and yada "knowing". Perhaps the patriarchs "saw" or "became aware" of Yahweh as El Shaddai in their Genesis stories, but now they were going to yada "experientially know" Yahweh as the one true God i.e. Ex 3:15.

Maybe one of the ideas in this passage is they as His firstborn had to go through a process beginning with "seeing" this God (be His Name El Shaddai or Yahweh, or even "I am that I am" in Exodus 3 when He first meets up with Moses) and ending with "knowing" this God, that He is worthy to be their God and they "believe" in Yahweh at the end of the story Exodus 14:31. Maybe this story was about the Israelites "knowing", (Ex 6:7) the Egyptians"knowing" (Ex 7:5) and Pharaoh "knowing" (Ex 5:2, 9:14) that Yahweh was God.



This passage in Exodus is simple to explain when once a little history of the Hebrew language is understood.

Moses wrote the first books of the Bible, including Job and the so-called "Books of Moses" (the Pentateuch or the Torah). These books were written in what some might call early Hebrew. No word spaces were used between words. No vowel pointings, accent marks, punctuation, etc. existed. During the time of Moses, no vowels were represented in the language: only consonants.

Over time, Hebrew scribes began to write with the addition of consonants that functioned as vowels, termed matres lectionis (Latin for "reading mothers") by scholars today which, as the Latin term suggests, assisted the reader with pronunciation of the words. These "vowels" were still very few. It was about the time of David that we see these enter the Hebrew language, including the heh, and the yod or vav. Languages evolve.

Hebrew words are based on a three-consonant system. The typical Hebrew word has three root letters. The addition of vowels is what changes the part of speech understood by those letters--but vowels were not in the text, so Hebrew readers relied heavily on oral tradition and on context to know how to pronounce each word.

It was not until well after the time of Christ, AD 500 - AD 1100, that the Masoretes added the Hebrew niqqud (vowel pointings) and the te'amim (cantillation marks). Many scholars today depend heavily on these Masoretic additions: but they are not always unchallenged. The Masoretes were not inspired, and in some cases their interpretations may be incorrect.

Back to Exodus 6:3.

The word "YHWH" has three consonants, like all typical Hebrew words. Those are the first three letters, i.e. the "YHW." The final "heh" that was added is a matres lectionis that did not enter the language until the times of the kings of Israel.

The "heh" in Hebrew has multiple uses. At the end of a word, it can represent a directional preposition, a pronoun, or a matres lectionis. At the beginning of a word, it can represent the definite article ("the"), a specific verb formation, or it can be what is called the interrogative heh, meaning it marks the start of a question. A question can begin at any point within a sentence.

The reason Exodus 6:3 is usually translated as it is is because the translators believed that the final "heh" in "YHWH" had been added during the scribes' copying of the text. This, however, is an assumption. There is no proof for this. Virtually all scholars would agree that in the time of Moses, the final "heh" was not part of this word: i.e. Moses would not have written it.

Remember, there were no spaces between words at this time, either. So if Moses had written the "heh," it must necessarily be the first letter of the next word in the sentence, and not part of the "YHWH." Contextually, this would mean it functioned as the interrogative heh, starting a question.

Now, consider the difference it makes to the meaning of this text when that "heh" is understood as interrogative.

Exodus 6:3 (Typical translation)

And I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, by the name of God Almighty, but by my name JEHOVAH was I not known to them. (Exodus 6:3, KJV)

Exodus 6:3 (Reinterpreted translation)

And I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, by the name of God Almighty, and by my name JEHOVAH was I not known to them? (Exodus 6:3)

The difference is very little. In fact, the "vav" which was translated as "but" in the KJV is far more commonly translated as "and"--so there is nothing wrong with this adjustment. The question mark at the end makes all the difference in meaning.

As a question, the text maintains consistency with the language of Moses' time, as well as with passages in Moses' other books that show the patriarchs did know God's name.

For example:

And Abraham called the name of that place Jehovahjireh: as it is said to this day, In the mount of the LORD it shall be seen. (Genesis 22:14, KJV)

"Jehovah" is God's name, and "jireh" is Hebrew for "will see/consider/look after."


Abraham knew God's name--and God does not lie. Therefore, the common translation of Exodus 6:3 cannot be correct. Understanding the interrogative heh, which shows this to be a rhetorical question, removes all contradiction and difficulty with this verse.

  • ISV uses such translation in rhetorical interrogative. But Greek and verse 6 seem to go against such interpretation. Exodus 6:3: “καὶ ὤφθην πρὸς Ἁβραὰμ καὶ Ἰσαὰκ καὶ Ἰακὼβ θεὸς ὢν αὐτῶν καὶ τὸ ὄνομά μου κύριος οὐκ ἐδήλωσα αὐτοῖς”(ISV) Exodus 6:6: “Therefore, say to the Israelis, «I am the Lord. I'll bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I'll deliver you from their bondage. I'll redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment.” also 3:13 states they didn't know God's name it's the first time he is creating or revealing it
    – Michael16
    Commented Aug 5, 2023 at 3:54
  • 1
    Frank Luke answer covers your point but only the point of the characteristic of the name is valid. God was known to the fathers as the provider but now he's giving a new name for a new characteristic here, the saviour YHWH deliverer. This is the meaning of the name which is defined in the context 6:6. The stories of fathers was written by Moses so there's no reason to keep the name mystery until Exodus, anachronism is natural.
    – Michael16
    Commented Aug 5, 2023 at 4:10
  • @Michael16 The books of Moses were not written in Greek.
    – Biblasia
    Commented Aug 5, 2023 at 10:38

If Moses actually wrote the Pentateuch, and since he knew that the name of that Elohim is YHVH, then as an author of those books, he would use the name that he knew. Thus, Moses used YHVH, but he also emphasized that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob knew that Elohim to be El Shaddai.This should not be problematic at all as one sees how that authors of the books in the New Testament called this YHVH, the Creator God, Messiah is called Jesus Christ. So, if I only know Jesus as the name of YHVH, when I do my narrative of events, I would write, "Jesus was not known to Abraham,Isaac and Jacob but known to them as El Shaddai and to Moses as YHVH". What is so difficult about that narrative?

  • Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange! Be sure to visit the tour to learn more about this site. Due to the nature of this site, references may be required in order to support your conclusions. Commented Sep 23, 2014 at 13:14
  • The Father of Christ is the creator of all but actually did the creating through the Word. And according to John, this actual Creator and Word was the incarnated Jesus/YahShuah and Genesis confirms that the same person was YHVH to Moses but El Shaddai to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The same person with different names depending on his function. Commented Oct 2, 2014 at 16:44
  • The Father of Christ is the creator of all but he actually did the creating by and through the Word. And according to John, this actual Creator and Word was the incarnated Jesus/YahShuah and Genesis confirms that the same person was YHVH to Moses but El Shaddai to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The same person with different names depending on his function. The Father was never introduced as YHVH; rather he is the Ancient of Days in Daniel 7. Commented Oct 2, 2014 at 16:55

The reason is that there were (at least) two independent narratives for Genesis and Exodus that are combined to make the modern text. The Elohist narrative does not use Yahweh until Exodus 6:2, while the Jahwist narrative uses Yahweh throughout.

The two narratives are clearly distinguished, and have slightly different versions of the same stories. The best evidence that the Elohist narrative was an entire coherent narrative, and not just some incorporated stories, is from this verse--- which requires a consistent story of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob using El-Shaddai to match, and this is provided by some of the stories in the book of Genesis (but not by the J ones).

Again, this contradiction is simply resolved using the documentary hypothesis. It cannot be resolved in any other reasonable way.

  • 4
    Why do you translate the words “לא נודעתי” as “I did not make known” rather than the reflexive “I did not make myself known”? In order to get at the translation you’re using, the text should have been “לא הודעתי”. Commented Apr 11, 2012 at 4:57
  • 4
    The b- prefix would better translate as “with” rather than “in”, hence “with my name YHVH I did not make myself known to them”. Considering the strong association between name and identity, this can equally be read as a lacuna in the Patriarchs’ understanding of God’s YHVH-ness as their ignorance of the name. Commented Apr 11, 2012 at 5:14
  • 4
    @Ron "you have complete academic consensus on DH" - not according to wikipedia? What is your source for that assertion? Commented Apr 11, 2012 at 18:15
  • 5
    @RonMaimon, I'd trust someone who has studied Biblical Hebrew, but that's just me. I can suggest some BH grammars for you. They may be written by Christians and Jews, but I've never seen theology factor into their teachings of the grammar. And Gesenius follows the Documentary Hypothesis. I usually don't recommend him for first books. He's just too deep for those just coming into Hebrew at all, but that wouldn't be you. Look for Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar. If you want something more current, others have suggested Jouon & Muraoka, but I have no personal experience with that one.
    – Frank Luke
    Commented Apr 11, 2012 at 19:12
  • 6
    @RonMaimon, you have already admitted that you have never studied Biblical Hebrew. Yet, now you say that those who do make up grammar exceptions. Which book of grammar have you seen this in? I need titles and authors, please. Grammar books. Not commentaries.
    – Frank Luke
    Commented Apr 11, 2012 at 19:29

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