God spoke to Moses, and He said to him: I am the Lord (YHVH). I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as God Almighty (El Shaddai), but with My name “the Lord,” (YHVH) I did not make myself known to them. – Exodus 6 : 2-3
The opening verses of this week’s Torah portion call our attention to God’s names. Let’s sum up the points that God made to Moses here:
- I am YHVH
- I appeared to the patriarchs as El Shaddai
- I did not reveal myself to them as YHVH.
This passage is difficult to understand. After all, we see throughout the book of Genesis that God used the name YHVH in His interactions with the patriarchs. So what did God mean by this cryptic statement to Moses?
To answer this question, we must first understand the true meaning of the Hebrew name YHVH – almost universally translated as “the Lord.”
What does YHVH actually mean?
God’s name, YHVH, also known as the tetragrammaton, appears over 6000 times in the Bible. Throughout most English translations of the Bible this name is translated as “the Lord.” But, in fact, “the Lord” is not a translation of the tetragrammaton at all as YHVH has no meaning in Hebrew outside of being God’s name.
So what does YHVH actually mean?
The name YHVH, like every name of God, is a Hebrew word. It is a very holy and lofty Hebrew word, but it is a word, nonetheless. Like every Hebrew word, YHVH has a root. The root of YHVH is the verb to be or to exist. The form or conjugation of this root that is the name YHVH is an impossible mix of past, present, and future tenses. We can see where God’s name YHVH comes from if we consider three words:
#1 YEHYEH Will be
#2 HOVEH Is / Present
#3 HAYAH Was
I will try to keep this simple. Look at these words. They have some features in common. They have some differences. Each one has an exception that the other two do not have.
- #1 begins with YE #2 & #3 begin with H
- #2 contains OV in the middle #1 & #3 do not.
- #3 ends with AH #1 & #2 end with EH
Look at those three exceptions together. Look familiar? YE OV AH Let’s put it all together. The name of God YHVH is made up of three syllables.
|The first syllable||YE is the unique beginning of YEHYEH||“will be.”|
|The middle syllable||OV is the unique middle of HOVEH||“present”|
|iThe last syllable||AH is the unique end of HAYAH||“was”|
So, YHVH, as a Hebrew word, is a blend of the words for future, present, and past. Pretty good name for God, right?
Different parts of the four letters of YHVH contain grammatical elements of these three different tenses. The Y at the beginning indicates future tense. The oV in the middle indicates present. The aH sound at the end is for the past tense. Future, present, past. Does this seem out of order? Wouldn’t it make more sense if the order was past, present, and future?
Everything in existence first exists in the future. Then it becomes part of the present. It then slips into the past. Before I sat down to write this, my writing was a part of the future. Right now, as I am writing it is in the present. After I am done it will be part of the past. The same is true for every created being and every moment in time. So, in terms of how reality comes into being, future, present, past is the order of existence.
In fact, if you look back at the name YHVH as I just explained it you will see something amazing. A person reading this name would begin by starting the word for “will be”. He would then continue in the next syllable by saying the word “present”. He would finish the word by saying the final syllable of the word “was.” His expression of God’s name begins in the future, passes through the present, and ends up in the past!
There is one more detail we need to understand to know what this lofty name of God means. While the word for “will be” is YEHYEH, as we stated above, the pronunciation of the “E” in the first syllable of this word is “ee” as in “sleep” or “feet.” But in God’s name, the “E” in the first syllable is pronounced as “eh,” like “wet” or “bed.” In Hebrew these two sounds are different vowels. So what’s the difference?
Without getting too complicated – unless I already have – we’ll note that this difference in vowel at the beginning of a verb conjugation implies a causative tense. In other words, the true meaning of the name of God YHVH is, “Cause of all existence in the future, present, and past.” Pretty good name for God, right?
This name does not actually translate to “the Lord,” which is how it almost universally translated in all Bibles. So, if it doesn’t mean “the Lord” why is it translated that way?
You see, Jewish law and tradition prohibit the explicit utterance of this holy name as it is written. This should make sense now. After all, the meaning of the name is a concept that human beings can not hold in their consciousness. Past, present, and future all blended together – as they are in God – may be something that we believe as a matter of faith, but the human experience within time prevents us from fully grasping this concept. Therefore, in deference to the fact that this name describes God in a way that is beyond our comprehension, we are prohibited from saying this name. After all, to express something that I do not actually know or understand is tantamount to falsehood. If I express something, I am giving the impression that it is something that I know. And this name of God is unknowable.
So, as I explained, thousands of years ago we came up with a euphemism that is the standard replacement when we see the name YHVH. That euphemism is ADONAI. The translation into English of ADONAI is “my Lord” which popularly became, “The Lord.”
Let’s now return to our original question. What did God mean when He said that he did not make Himself known to the patriarchs in Genesis as YHVH?
As we just explained YHVH describes God as the cause of all existence. Because He is the cause of all existence, He is the Master of all existence. While the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob knew this to be true, they never experienced this side of God. More to the point, God never revealed Himself as Master of all existence in his dealings with the patriarchs. His mastery of existence was not on public display. Allow me to explain.
The name El Shaddai, refers to the trait of God that He provides whatever is needed for His creations. And as we explained, God certainly looked after the needs of the patriarchs. We see Him making and fulfilling promises to them, like the promise to Abraham that Sarah would bear a child. We even see God protecting and guiding the success of the patriarchs, as He protected Jacob in the house of Laban and Joseph on his journey to Egypt.
But what we don’t see in Genesis is any overt public displays of God’s mastery over creation. There are no public miracles in the book of Genesis.
In the words of our verses here in Exodus 4,
I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as God Almighty (El Shaddai), but with My name “the Lord,” (YHVH) I did not make myself known to them.
God goes on to tell Moses that this is about to change. From here on, God will perform great public acts of dominance over the created order, the Ten Plagues, the splitting of the Red Sea, and more miracles that will clearly demonstrate to all that He is YHVH, the Cause and Master over all creation.
Rabbi Pesach Wolicki serves as Executive Director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation. He is cohost of the Shoulder to Shoulder podcast and the author of the book Cup of Salvation from which this article was taken, with slight modifications.