Torah Portion of the Week: What’s in God’s Name?

Parashat Shemot.

Wikimedia Commons

Elohim (God) is a general noun that is declinable and can appear with a definite or possessive article: “the God,” “our God,” “other gods.” We cannot do this with a proper noun. We cannot say “the Abraham” or “our Abraham,” because proper names designate specific individuals. The distinction between these two categories of names is the basis for Moses’ question to God during their first encounter, described in Parashat Shemot (Exodus 1:1-6:1): “When I come to the Israelites and say to them ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” (Exod. 3:13).

Dispatched by God to lead Israel out of Egypt, Moses wants to know his name: who he is, not what he is – a logical query in a polytheistic world, where all gods have names. Seemingly evading the question, God does not immediately disclose his name – “And God said to Moses, ehyeh-asher-ehyeh” (“I am what I am” or “I will be what I will be”; Exod. 3:14) – but soon reveals to Moses his ineffable name, the Tetragrammaton, yod-heh-vav-heh, usually denoted with the single letter “heh” in Hebrew, because of its holiness.

This episode is not the source of God’s name, but rather a commentary on it. Like the Torah, the story is aimed at Israelites who already live in their own land, serve their god and are familiar with the divine name. While God presents himself before different figures in the story during their first meeting with him, the Torah does not present him to its readers before it begins to describe some of his deeds. Although Moses does not know God’s name, the Torah’s readers do. For them the story answers other questions: When does God reveal himself? To whom? What is the meaning of his name?

Rashbam (Samuel ben Meir, 12th century) considers God’s name to be disclosed in the verb “to be,” in the third-person future tense. When God himself reveals his name, he uses the first person: “Thus shall you say to the Israelites, ‘ehyeh [I will be] sent me to you’” (Exod. 3:14), but soon switches to the third person so Moses can utter it: “And God said further to Moses, ‘Thus shall you speak to the Israelites: YHWH, the God of your fathers has sent me to you: This shall be my name forever, this my appellation for all eternity’” (Exod. 3:15). The Tetragrammation, according to Rashbam, is the third-person singular future of “to be.” While God calls himself ehyeh (first-person singular future tense), which means “I will be” – others call him by a name that is in the third-person singular future tense and means “he will be.”

Why does Moses not know God’s name? Perhaps the story told in this week’s portion assumes the Israelites already know God’s name and that only Moses, who grew up in Pharaoh’s home and was severed from his family’s heritage, does not. According to this interpretation, Moses must demonstrate his knowledge of God to the Israelites to win their trust; that appears to be the purpose of his question. However, the extensive treatment of this issue in the story reinforces the impression that this is not simply a transfer of information, but a historic religious event. It is not only Moses who does not know God’s name; the people too apparently do not know it. Since God reveals his name here for the first time, he alludes to its meaning when speaking to Moses. But this meaning reveals nothing about God’s essence: His name is his most basic activity, his very being. God’s name reveals only that God exists and will continue to exist: He will be what he will be.

The belief that God’s name becomes public knowledge only when he reveals himself to Moses prior to the Exodus from Egypt, is reflected in the story that opens next week’s Torah reading, Va’era, which closely resembles what is recounted in Parashat Shemot. There, too, God reveals himself to Moses, presenting himself and telling Moses his name, as if for the first time: “I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make myself known to them by my name” (Exod. 6:3). God is telling Moses that when he revealed himself to the patriarchs, he used another name, “El Shaddai,” whereas now he is revealing his essential name to Moses alone.

The story in next week’s portion gives no indication that it is God’s second revelation to Moses, and creates the impression that it ignores the story in Shemot and is not its continuation. Apparently, these are two parallel versions of God’s initial revelation to Moses, and they belong to two of the narrative threads intertwined throughout the Torah. According to these two threads, in the patriarchs’ era, God was still not known by his first name and Moses is the first to learn it – in contrast with a third narrative thread that also extends throughout the Torah, according to which the God of Israel’s name has been known since the dawn of history.

Moses’ question, “and [if] they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” belongs to a cultural context where many gods have between them many different names. In a monotheistic world, this question receives new meaning. What signifies the distinction between a general name and a specific one, if they overlap completely? Why does one have to know God’s name if he is the one and only God? Does addressing God by name reflect a greater religious intimacy than addressing him by his general name?

Although Moses receives a reply, his question echoes in post-biblical Jewish tradition and the discussion concerning the divine name persists. The different names of the one God are often perceived as reflecting the godhead’s various aspects, or the divine personality’s various traits or modes of conduct. God has been given new names alongside the Tetragrammaton, including a substitute for that ineffable name. Since the Second Temple period, the holiness of God’s name has been expressed in the avoidance of its utterance and in the use of a substitute, Adonai. In classical rabbinical literature, various names were created: Hamakom (lit., the Place), Hagevura (the Courage), Ribono shel olam (Master of the Universe), and Hakadosh baruch hoo (the Holy One blessed be he). Even today, the decision of how to call God reflects a religious position and a cultural affiliation. Indeed, a clear example of the paradox and mystery surrounding God’s name is the custom of calling him Hashem (the Name).

All biblical quotations are taken from the JPS Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures, published 1985.