Vaera (Exodus 6, 2 – 9, 35) – the Biblical terms for God, YHVH and Elohim

In the Torah reading of Vaera, there is a verse that stands out in the Hebrew Bible in which God says that the great unpronounceable name of God, YHVH, was not known to the patriarchs – “I am the Lord (YHVH), and I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, as God Almighty (El Shadai), but by My name YHWH I made Me not known to them” (Exodus 6, 2-3). However, previously, the Bible presented the revelation of the name of God, YHVH, as a revelation to Moses (Exodus 3, 15) – and, strikingly, YHVH is described there as the God of the patriarchs. Moses is told – “Thus shall you say to the children of Israel, the Lord (YHVH) 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”. In addition, there are several verses in which it appears that the patriarchs did know God by the name YHVH, such as regarding Abraham – “And Abram said to the king of Sodom, I have lifted up my hand unto the Lord (YHVH), God Most High, Maker of heaven and earth” (Genesis 14, 22). How can we reconcile this apparent contradiction?

 

Before attempting to reconcile the contradiction, I want to give background regarding the great unpronounceable name of God, YHVH, in the Bible. There are actually two main terms for God in the Bible – YHVH, the very name of God (usually translated as “the Lord” in English), and Elohim, a generic term meaning God (and, usually translated as “God” in English). The term El Shadai (God Almighty) that appears in the verse from Vaera (Exodus 6, 3), in which God says that the patriarchs did not know God by the name YHVH, is a derivative of the term Elohim.

 

The distinction between the name YHVH and the term Elohim is a fundamental distinction of the Bible and a key to understanding the Bible and Jewish tradition. The distinction between YHVH and Elohim is reflected in a number of important Biblical sources, in Talmudic sources and in traditional Jewish prayer books and prayers. But, as far as I am aware, the first to speak of the distinction explicitly and to explain it from a philosophic point of view, is Rabbi Yehuda Halevi in the Kuzari (the great philosopher who lived in the 12th century) – and, incidentally, at the beginning of the fourth part of the Kuzari he says something remarkable that precedes modern academic scholarship. He suggests that the term Elohim is not original on our part as Jews, and the term comes from the pagan world – and Rabbi Yehuda Halevi points out that the term is plural as it referred to forces or powers of nature.

 

The great revolution of the Hebrew Bible is reflected in the name YHVH, which signifies that God is a moral God of revelation and redemption as distinct from Elohim, a God of creation and power. In the Biblical conception, Elohim is the transcendent God of nature and power – “In the beginning God (Elohim) created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1, 1). YHVH, by contrast, is the God of revelation and redemption who demands morality, as reflected in the revelation to Moses at the burning bush – “Thus shall you say to the children of Israel, the Lord (YHVH) 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 for ever…I have surely visited you, and seen that which is done to you in Egypt” (Exodus 3, 15-16). YHVH, in the verse here, is depicted as having seen the oppression and persecution that the people Israel have suffered in Egypt, and the mentioning that YHVH is the name of God in the verse signifies God’s moral opposition to such oppression and persecution. The great revolution and fundamental theological conception of the Hebrew Bible is that “the Lord (YHVH) is God (Elohim)”, which means that the God who is powerful in creating the universe (Elohim) is a moral God (YHVH).

 

Judgment and compassion are two pillar values of the Bible (and the Jewish tradition) – based upon the differing conceptions implied in the terms for God, YHVH and Elohim. Elohim, as the transcendent God of creation and Judge of all the earth, is associated with judgment, while YHVH, as the God who is revealed in the world as a God of redemption, is associated with love and compassion.

 

The Hebrew term judgment (דין), that is used in connection with Elohim, is sometimes understood as justice, but is better translated as judgment or law – as it is a function of God’s power (implied in the terms judgment and law) rather than God’s morality (implied in the term justice). The image of Elohim, as Creator and Ruler of the world, is that of a king or judge who issues judgments. A king or judge in issuing judgments establishes justice. But, justice is imposed by the king or judge as a function of his or her power and authority. One may disagree with a ruling of a king or judge, and consider it to be immoral. The verdict, though, must be accepted (in respecting the power and authority of the king or judge), unless there is an option of appeal to a higher political or judicial authority. In the case of God, no such option exists. Thus, the term judgment, as characteristic of Elohim, the God of power (as opposed to YHVH, the source of morality) should be understood in a legal rather than moral sense, as a function of God’s power and authority.

 

The image of YHVH is that of a parent whose compassion and love for his or her child is unconditional. A king or judge may be willing to be lenient and understanding in imposing a sentence in a trial. However, such leniency and compassion is conditional, depending upon circumstances of the case, and signs of remorse and change on the part of the accused. A parent’s love for his or her child is unconditional, regardless of the behavior of the child. Incidentally, the Hebrew word for compassion (רחמים) contains within it the word womb (רחם). The image then of YHVH is that of a parent who loves his or her children unconditionally like the mother’s love for the child of her own womb. YHVH, the parent, redeems God’s children, the people Israel, from slavery not because they are deserving of such redemption (as according to the Bible and Jewish tradition our ancestors, the children of Israel, were idolaters), but due to God’s unconditional love and compassion for God’s children.

 

In Hebrew, letters have a numerical value, and words have a numerical value, called gematria, based upon the sum total of the letters of the word. The gematria, numerical value, of Elohim is 86, and the numerical value of the Hebrew word for nature (הטבע) that God has created is 86. There is also gematria in support of the idea that the essence of the name YHVH is morality. Nachmanides, the great commentator of the 13th century, points out that the verse, “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19, 18), is not grammatical. The literal translation as actually written would be “And you shall love to your neighbor as yourself”. Thus, the verse does not literally or actually require that we love our neighbor but that we give love to our neighbor in a moral sense. The command applies to any relationship (and not just intimate relationships), even if we do not know our neighbor at all (and do not love our neighbor in a personal sense). It requires simply that we treat our neighbor as we ourselves would want to be treated. The Hebrew word for love (אהבה) has a numerical value of 13; and thus, on the basis of the verse “love to your neighbor as yourself”, when there is love (13) in a moral sense between two people (13 x 2), then the continuation of the verse is fulfilled, “I am the Lord (YHVH)” – as the numerical value of YHVH is 26. That is, YHVH, the God of revelation and redemption, is revealed in the world, and redemption is experienced, when there is love in a moral sense between human beings.

 

In the surrounding pagan cultures in the ancient, Biblical world, the gods were conceived of as forces or powers of nature that were powerful, but not inherently or necessarily moral – and thus act within nature, and influence human affairs, not as an expression of moral will but as an expression of their power. The gods in the pagan conception can be influenced or appeased by offering sacrifices, or by performing some other ritual practice – and, ritual practice is conceived as the very essence of religion.

 

The great revolution of the Bible is that for the first time in human history God is conceived of as a God who acts within history, as an expression of moral will in order to redeem (as a God of revelation and redemption), and demands morality as an inherent part of God’s nature – and this revolutionary conception of God in turn transforms the essence of religion from ritual practice (as in the pagan conception) to morality. Thus, for the first time in human history, there is a necessary connection between religion and morality, in which the very essence of religion is conceived to be moral character and moral action, as reflected in the verse (Deuteronomy 6, 18) – “You shall do that which is righteous and good in the eyes of the Lord (YHVH)”.

 

I want to suggest then that when the Bible attributes the revelation of the name of God, YHVH, to Moses, the intention is to tell us that the great religious revolution of the Bible (in which the essence of the nature of God and the essence of religion is morality) is, according to the Biblical account, a revolution of Moses. Thus, when the Bible tells us that the patriarchs did not know God by the name of God, YHVH, this is meant, in my eyes, to be a historical matter from the point of view of the Biblical account – as the name of God, YHVH, representing the great revolution of the Bible is a revolution, according to the Biblical account, of Moses. When the Bible tells us, though, that YHVH is the God of the patriarchs (Exodus 3, 15), and also when the patriarchs refer to YHVH as in the verse regarding Abraham (Genesis 14, 22), this is teaching, in my view, that from the point of view of the Biblical account not that patriarchs actually knew God by the name YHVH but that YHVH was their God in the sense that the patriarchs were people of moral character devoted to living a moral life as YHVH demands.

Jeffrey Radon

Author of orthopraxjudaism.com

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