I [God] appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make myself known to them by my name YHVH” (Exodus 6:3). On the level of consistency, this verse from this week’s portion seems wrong: Genesis 12 tells us that it was “YHVH” who said to Abram: Lech lecha/Go forth, Genesis 26 tells us that Isaac “invoked YHVH by name,” and Genesis 28 tells us that Jacob swore that if he returned to his homeland in safety that “YHVH shall be my God.” How can the Torah presume to introduce the name YHVH as unknown to the patriarchs?
Contemporary biblical scholarship would suggest that different literary streams of ancient Israel employed differing appellations for divinity: the so-called “E” writers used the word “Elohim,” what we render in English as “God,” and the so-called “J” writers used “YHVH.” Such scholars would explain the anomaly by positing different authors, one believing that YHVH was unknown until the time of Moses, the other retrojecting the divine name to the era of the patriarchs and matriarchs.
Of course Jewish tradition discovered millennia before that the Torah used different names for God. But traditional sources could hardly posit different authors for the biblical text. Torah for them was seamless revelation, not literary creation. Jewish sources understood the differing names to reflect different dimensions of God — Elohim reflecting God’s attribute of justice (midat hadin) and YHVH the attribute of mercy (midat harahamim].
Martin Buber, following many of the traditional commentators, suggests that what is revealed to Moses at this moment is not the literal name of God, but the meaning inherent in the name. Recalling that this episode occurs right after Moses’ failed initial encounter with Pharaoh, Buber notes that what is being revealed is not the name by which Moses and presumably the Israelites should call God; rather, it is the meaning of YHVH as the God of a people, rather than of a small clan of Semitic tribal families.
From this perspective, the patriarchs would not have “known” YHVH as “YHVH” — they were not part of what is now the Jewish people, of those pressed into servitude in Egypt, of those who would witness the unfolding of the meaning of YHVH as the God who would not only liberate Israel but repudiate the religion of Egypt.
In our time, with its attention to issues of spirituality, unfolding of the meaning(s) in the name of God is again a vital discussion. Arthur Green writes in his book Seek My Face, Speak My Name that YHVH is derived from and linked to the Hebrew root H-V-H, whose root sense is “being” or “to be.”
He notes that the root from which YHVH derives is a verb and suggests that the name YHVH “is a verb that has been artificially arrested in motion and made to function as a noun.” YHVH, for Green, is both Being and Becoming — stable and shifting, something we can name and grasp and something that eludes us. Green warns that the sense of divinity that was meant to be understood as dynamic slips almost unnoticed into being static.
The challenge of translating YHVH is most obvious in the multiplicity of contemporary Jewish prayerbooks, where there is neither consistency nor agreement.
Perhaps what we need to do is keep in mind Buber’s gloss on the commentators: It is not a new name for God we have to learn, but new meanings in the old names that have come down to us.