IBRI Research Report #29 (1986)

Exodus 6:3 and Patriarchal Knowledge of the Name "YHWH"

John L. Ronning
Bible Institute of South Africa

Copyright © 1986 by John L. Ronning. All rights reserved.


Although the author is in agreement with the doctrinal statement of IBRI, it does not follow that all of the viewpoints espoused in this paper represent official positions of IBRI. Since one of the purposes of the IBRI report series is to serve as a preprint forum, it is possible that the author has revised some aspects of this work since it was first written. 

ISBN 0-944788-29-7



In the past century and a half, a number of theories have been proposed suggesting that the Pentateuch was compiled of divergent, even contradictory sources. These sources have been given various names, but in the classic formulation of Julius Wellhausen they were labelled J, E, D and P. Exodus 6:3 has held an important place in such arguments. De Wette cited Ex 6:3 as proof that in the E document, "God is not recognized as Jehovah, therefore the name does not occur."1 More recently, but in the same well-worn rut, E. A. Speiser has cited Ex 6:3 as explicit testimony to the validity of the methods which gave rise to this theory:

The Pentateuch itself lends a measure of credibility to this argument from divine appellations. For Exod vi 3 (P) states explicitly, and Exod iii 14 (E) indirectly, that the personal name Yahweh [= DeWette's Jehovah] was not employed prior to the time of Moses; what this adds up to is that the use of the name Yahweh had been unfamiliar to these two sources [E and P] until then. This lends circumstantial confirmation to the hypothesis of the composite character of the Pentateuch, since the frequent occurrence of the term Yahweh in Genesis would otherwise involve the two passages in Exodus in outright contradiction of inescapable facts.2

Defenders of the unity of the Pentateuch and of the traditional view of Mosaic authorship have generally interpreted Ex 6:3 in one of two ways. Most saw the verse as an assertion that the patriarchs did not realize the full implications of the personal name of God, YHWH, whereas the nation Israel, as a result of the Exodus from Egypt, now would. This explanation is somewhat less than satisfactory, however, since the events of the Exodus, by which the Israelites are to know YHWH, were foretold to Abraham (Gen 15:13-16). And who could read the accounts of the patriarchs and conclude from them that they did not know God as YHWH? On the contrary, one might rather say that the Genesis accounts (especially Gen 15:6 and 28:16) show us how the patriarchs came to know YHWH!

A more defensible alternative has been to understand Ex 6:3b as an implied question, "by my name YHWH was I not known to them?" But this also is not very satisfactory, since it is quite easy to indicate a question in Hebrew. There is no such indication here.

An Alternative Translation of Ex 6:3

The traditional translation of Ex 6:3 is: "... and I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as God Almighty [El Shaddai], but by My name, LORD [YHWH], I did not make Myself known to them." We propose instead the following translation, which involves reading the preposition wl in place of the negative particle al: "... and I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai; but as for My name YHWH, by it I had been known to them." In more idiomatic English, this could be rendered, "When I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai, I was already known to them by my name YHWH." In the Hebrew, the text would read:

la <hrba la arAw

bquy law qjxy

ytudwn wl hwhy ymvw yDv laB

This last clause is grammatically equivalent to

<hl ytudwn hwhy ymvlw

but is more emphatic. The confusion of al for wl is very easy, especially before verbs, just as wl is often confused for al after verbs which take the preposition l. An example is 1 Sam 2:3d.

Evidence for the Correctness of This Translation

In the following discussion, we suggest that the proposed reading is more than just an alternative, that it is actually to be preferred as the original reading of the passage.

1. In the traditional translation, the second half of the verse has no preposition. While it is possible to assume the proposition is implied, this is not in keeping with the first half of the verse (yDv laB) Nor does it fit with the message as a whole, which is in very elementary Hebrew, perhaps for the benefit of the intended audience, slaves and their children. Gesenius3 discusses this passage under the heading "Pecularities in representation of subject," stating that ymv

(implying a third person construction) is subordinated to the following passive ytudwn (first person). But in our proposed reading, no such peculiarity is present.

2. That l is the preposition to be expected in Ex 6:3b may be seen from Ps 48:4 (verse 3 in English), which also uses the niphal of udy, has God as its subject, and has the preposition l to specify what He is known as:

hytvnmraB <yhla God, in its palaces

bGcml udwn Is known as a stronghold.

3. The proposed translation is more compatible with the use of the emphatic conjunction <G, which occurs in vv 4 and 5. Following a negative statement, <G should introduce another negative statement (as in Ex 5:2 and Gen 21:6). Since it doesn't, we are forced to see it as continuing the thought of v 3a, with the result that v 3b is left hanging. There is thus no further explanation why the patriarchs did not know God as YHWH. Instead, there is simply a recital of God's dealing with the patriarchs and a repetition of the promises He made to them. Nothing new occurs here to explain the introduction of the new name.

4. In addition to the contextual matters mentioned above, our proposed translation fits much better with the rest of the context, through v 9; it does not contradict the plain record of Genesis; and it develops the theme of the use of God's name in response to a question first asked by Moses in chapter 3, at the burning bush, before he returned to Egypt.

Reading on in Ex 6:4-7, note that the LORD uses themes (and sometimes even the same terminology) as first revealed to Abraham in Genesis chapters 15 and 17. Exodus 6 brings together the promises of Gen 15 (note v 7, "I am YHWH") and 17 (note v 1, "I am El Shaddai").

From Gen 15 we find the themes:

(a) I am YHWH! (Ex 6:2,6,7; Gen 15:7)

(b) YHWH as the One who brings forth (ayxwh) (Ex 6:6,7; Gen 15:7)

(c) Abraham's seed oppressed in a foreign land (Ex 6:5; Gen 15:13)

(d) Judgment of the oppressor (Ex 6;6; Gen 15:14)

(e) Exodus from oppressor's land (Ex 6:6; Gen 15:14)

(f) Return to the promised land (Ex 6:8; Gen 15:16)

Isn't it strange that a passage supposedly denying knowledge of the name YHWH by the patriarchs should draw so heavily on a passage in which "YHWH" appears seven times (twice by Abraham, once by God, four times by the narrator)? No other designation of God is used!

From Gen 17 we find the following themes in Ex 6:

(a) God's appearance as El Shaddai (Ex 6:2; Gen 17:1)

(b) The promised land as that of the fathers' sojournings (Ex 6:4; Gen 17:8)

(c) God to be God to Abraham's seed (Ex 6:7; Gen 17:7,8)

The concept of the covenant is stressed in all three passages. Ex 6:4 uses terminology from Gen 17:7:

Ex: ytyrB-ta ytmqh;

Gen: ytyrB-ta ytmqhw.

Ex 6:8 (ydy-ta ytacn) seems to recall the graphic portrayal of the making of the covenant in Gen 15:8-21 -- the LORD's response to Abraham's faithfulness displayed in his actions toward Lot, Melchizedek and the king of Sodom (note Gen 14:22, ydy ytmrh).

In view of the above, it is clear that the context favors a translation which asserts the historical primacy of the name YHWH. Notice that the recorded appearances of God as El Shaddai to Abraham and Jacob were both after He had appeared to them saying, "I am YHWH" (Gen 15:7 and 17:1; Gen 28:13 and 35:11). The emphatic placement of the pronoun in Ex 6:3 leads us to see ytudwn as indicating a time prior to the main verb arAw. Thus we translate (with the rest of the context):

I am YHWH. When I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai, I was already known to them by My name YHWH. Furthermore, I set up a covenant... And furthermore, it is I [yna, that is, hwhy] who have heard... And I remembered My covenant. Therefore say to the children of Israel, "I am YHWH, and I will bring you forth... and I will take you for My people and I will become your God, and you shall know that I am YHWH your God"... I am YHWH.

One may well ask, "If the name YHWH was so well known to the patriarchs, why should it be necessary to emphasize its importance here? And why did Moses ask how he should respond to the imagined question of the Israelites, `What is His name?' (Ex 3:13)?"

We do not need to speculate about the answer to this latter question; it is given in the context! Note Ex 6:9: "And Moses spoke thus to the children of Israel. But they did not listen to Moses." If they had believed the promises given to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, they would have believed Moses - but they didn't. Previous revelation does not necessarily entail obedience to or belief in that revelation. In their dullness of mind and hardness of heart, the Israelites in slavery may well have perceived the stories of the patriarchs as a collection of confusing, repetitious and contradictory narratives (as many do today), and not as attractive as the beliefs of their Egyptian overlords. These were, after all, the same people who later died in the wilderness for their unbelief.

Moses' question is not unreasonable in view of his previous experience with his people. Years earlier he had been forced to flee Egypt because he was betrayed by one of them after saving the life of another. No wonder he objected (Ex 4:1) that they would not believe YHWH had appeared to him. But God's answer, both in our passage and earlier at the burning bush, was to assert the historical primacy of the name YHWH:

Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, "YHWH, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you." This is My name forever, and this is My memorial for all generations (Ex 3:15).

That is, "YHWH has always been My name."

Indeed, the Genesis record states that it was in the days of Enosh that men began to call on the name of YHWH (Gen 4:26). Yet even this passage need not be understood as recording the first usage of the name "YHWH." It may imply that God removed His visible presence about this time, so that men had to begin calling on His name to worship Him. Prior to this time, it seems God maintained some sort of visible presence with men (see Gen 2:7, 15, 19, 21, 22; 3:8ff; 4:3-15, esp v 14).


In summary, the suggested translation of Ex 6:3 given above puts both Exodus 3 and 6 in perfect harmony with what is recorded in the book of Genesis. Moses is instructed in the proper history of the names YHWH and El Shaddai as recorded in Genesis. He is instructed to act as representative to the Israelites of the God of their fathers, YHWH, the One who is about to fulfill His promises, so that they too might know He is YHWH, just as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob did.


1Wette, W. M. L. de, A Critical and Historical Introduction to the Canonical Scriptures of the Old Testament, trans. by Theodore Parker (Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1843), 2:102n2.

2Speiser, E. A. Genesis. The Anchor Bible, (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964), p xxiii.

3E. Kautzsch, ed., Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar, trans. by A. E. Cowley, 2nd Engl. ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1910), sect 144l, p 461.

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