#87. Does the god of the Hebrews reveal himself to Moses in Midian OR in Egypt? (Ex 3:1-15 vs Ex 6:2-3, 6:28-29; Ezek 20:5)


Did you know that the Bible recounts two different revelation scenes in the book of Exodus? That there are two different stories recounting the revelation of Yahweh, his person and his name, to Moses? Are you also aware that these two revelation scenes occur in two different geographical locations: in Midian and in Egypt? By now, you’re probably not surprised to hear that these two different accounts have been identified as parts of two different, and once separate, sources: in this case the Elohist (3:1-15) and the Priestly (6:2-8) sources.

The more famous of the two is obviously E’s version, the story of the burning bush. In this particular account Moses is already presented as the son-in-law to the Midianite priest Jethro and the setting for this theophany is also in Midian, at “the mountain of the god,” namely Horeb (3:1). It is here, we are told, that Yahweh’s messenger appears to Moses as a flame in a bush, “but the bush was not consumed” (3:2). Yahweh then commences to speak to Moses and initially identifies himself as “your father’s god, Abraham’s god, Isaac’s god, and Jacob’s god” (3:6); he continues to relate to Moses how he has seen the sufferings of his people, and how he has chosen Moses to liberate them from their plight (3:7-10).

At this point Moses asks for this god to identify himself more specifically. Moses inquires: what if the people ask “What is his name?” (3:13). The tradition then proceeds to give two responses—”I will be who I will be” (3:14)—and then second, the god’s actual name: “You will say to Israel’s sons: ‘Yahweh your father’s god, Abraham’s god, Isaac’s god, and Jacob’s god’ has sent you; this is my name for eternity” (3:15).

The linguistic relation between the god of Israel’s name, “Yahweh” (yahweh) and “I will be who I will be” (’ehyeh ’aser ’ehyeh) has received enormous attention by biblical scholars and commentators alike. One line of thought is that rather than seeing an etymological definition of the name Yahweh in the Hebrew ’ehyeh ’aser ’ehyeh, perhaps we are merely to hear a homonym-like pun.1

At any event, the revelation at the burning bush which transpires in Midian in the Elohist tradition contradicts its doublet found in the Priestly tradition at Ex 6:2-8. Two points initially need to be noted: Exodus 6:2-7:12, all from P, is best understood as a continuation from 2:23b-25, the last P material before chapter 6. Second and more importantly, the contextual setting for both these P passages remains Egypt (6:28). In other words, in P Moses never goes to Midian! That is, the later Priestly writer consciously changes where the revelation occurs and completely eliminates Moses’ Midian sojourn!

2:23bAnd Israel’s sons moaned from the work and screamed, and their plea ascended to the god from the work. 24And the god heard their groan, and god remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. 25And god saw Israel’s sons, and he made himself known to them.

6:2And god spoke to Moses and said, “I am Yahweh. 3I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shaddai, but my name Yahweh was not known to them. 4And I placed my covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their sojournings in which they sojourned; 5and I also have heard the groan of Israel’s sons because the Egyptians are making them work, and I have remembered my covenant.”

There are notable characteristics in this revelation tradition that identify it as written from a single source, and specifically the Priestly source. The emphasis of God “remembering his covenant” is a Priestly favorite. And the reference to El Shaddai is a telltale sign, which is characteristic of P material in Genesis (e.g., Gen 17:1, 28:3, 35:11, 48:3). It is in these P passages that our author mentions the covenantal promises of land and descendants so important to the Priestly writer, and most likely reflective of the hopes of an exilic community in their eventual return to the land of Judea. There is additionally P’s interest in genealogies and chronologies, which is evident throughout 6:2-7:13.

Another unique component of P’s theology is the conviction that the god of Israel did not make himself known to the patriarchs via the name Yahweh, but only as El Shaddai (see #11). “I am Yahweh. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shaddai, but my name Yahweh was not known to them” (Ex 6:3). Contradiction #11 best belongs here, but I introduced it earlier because this Priestly theological conviction is utterly negated and contradicted by the Yahwist narrative which has continuously presented the patriarchs as knowing and invoking Yahweh by name (e.g., Gen 12:8, 13:4, 15:7, 24:3, etc.). In fact, all of P’s covenantal passages in Genesis where it is El Shaddai who is present, or Yahweh as El Shaddai [Gen 17:1-14 (#28), 28:1-5 (#46), 35:9-12 (#62), 48:3-6 (#78)] terminate at Exodus 6, where Yahweh reveals his name and person for the first time, and to Moses. This is P’s narrative that furthermore once existed on a single scroll!

P’s story, however, is now diluted and negated by the editorial combination of both the Yahwist and Elohist sources. P’s revelation of the name Yahweh (Ex 6:2-13) now appears as a second revelation in the combined text, after E’s (Ex 3:14-15), which diminishes the uniqueness of this one-time, now two-time, event. Additionally, the redactor has placed P’s revelation scene after Moses’ first failure, also an E text (Ex 5), and thus it now functions in the new narrative as a reconfirming moment.

Furthermore, when combined with the J tradition, P is also radically contradicted. In the redacted text, J negates the climactic moment of P’s revelation by having already introduced the content of this revelation, i.e., the personal name Yahweh, to the patriarchs. In light of J, P’s revelation is a moot point. Its climactic moment is now gone; Yahweh was always known as Yahweh to the Patriarchs. I surmise the Priestly writer would have been quite unhappy with this.

Finally, the most significant discrepancy in these two revelation stories, and hardly perceptible to the hasty reader, is that the revelation at mount Horeb in the Elohist tradition happens in Midian, while P has the revelation of the name Yahweh take place while Moses is still in Egypt. In fact, Moses never goes to Midian in the Priestly tradition! And this is not all: P comes down rather harshly against the Moses-Midian connection, and by extension the implied Yahweh-Midian connection. In other P passages, as we will see, Moses’ connection with Midian is downplayed if not outright denied.

The Priestly authors must have been uncomfortable with Moses’ Midianite connections, and what that implied—i.e., that Yahwism came from Midian! So what did the Priestly writers do? They rewrote the tradition; they rewrote “history”: P completely omits Moses’ Midianite sojourn; ignores the tradition that Moses’ wife was Midianite; eliminates the Midianite priest of Yahweh, Jethro; changes the Moabite foes into Midianite foes in the story now preserved in Numbers 24:3-15; and mandates the wholesale slaughter of Midian in Numbers 25:16-18, 31.

It might be speculated that the Aaronid Priestly writer was attempting to purge Yahweh from any connections he may have had in the earlier sources to the Canaanite El or a Midianite deity or origin. What P’s El Shaddai passages effectively do is claim that the deity whom the earliest Israelites-Canaanites worshiped when they built altars for El was in fact Yahweh as El Shaddai! Likewise purging Yahweh from any sort of Midianite connection was also a way of presenting Yahweh as more Israelite in character and origin. I’ll end this with an excerpt from William Propp:

Because of Moses’ familial relationship with Jethro the priest of Midian [Yahweh’s priest!], because of Midian’s proximity to mount Sinai, because Yahweh is said to come from the south both in the Bible (Deut 33:2; Judg 5:4-5; Ps 68:8-9, 17-18) and in an inscription from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, “Yahweh of Teman,” and because the Egyptians encountered “Yahweh Shasu” [Egyptian texts from the reigns of Amenophis III, Ramesses II, Ramesses III mention seminomads called the “Shasu of yhw3” located in the vicinity of Midian]… a popular scholarly theory is that Israel learned to worship Yahweh from Midian.2

Although this view is favored, and even indorsed somewhat, by the earlier Elohist tradition and older traditions now found in Psalms and elsewhere in the Bible, the Priestly writer sought to expunge this tradition from the historical record! Little did he know however that the new “history” he wrote to replace these older traditions would one day be assembled together with these older traditions and even centuries later labeled as “the Book” by readers who knew nothing of the Priestly writer’s agendas, concerns, worldviews, and beliefs!

Something to seriously think about: is the Bible and what that label implies honest to these once separate and earlier texts and traditions each on their own terms? Could what the Bible means to a particular individual, community, or culture be completely different than, or even at odds with, what the Bible actually is, that is what the biblical texts themselves were long before they were co-opted as part of a “Bible”? What if this turns out to be the case? This is the conversation we as a culture ought to be having. (excerpted from What is the Bible?)


  1. William Propp, Exodus 1-18, 205. Cf. Cross’ causative understanding: “I am he who causes (to exist),” i.e., “I create what exists” (Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, 65).
  2. Exodus 19-40, 750.

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