#11. When was the name Yahweh first invoked: in the earliest generations of man OR not till Moses at Sinai? (Gen 4:26, 12:8, 13:4, 15:7, etc. vs Ex 6:2-3)


This is a contradiction that you won’t find listed on your average, nor above average, contradictions in the Bible website; in fact, I doubt you’ll find it anywhere but here! It, like many of the ones to come, is only perceivable to those who have carefully studied the theologies of the various biblical authors. In fact, this is one in my long-list of favorites, because we start to see what the biblical scribes were up to as they crafted their narratives and how their competing theological views, beliefs, and ideologies were woven into their narratives, and even expressed through the mouthpiece of their god! Having said that, this contradiction is quite mild compared to others of this genre that we will look at.

We left off noting how the Priestly writer used genealogies to provide a narrative and interpretive structure to the earlier Yahwist material. Yet the Priestly writer was doing more than this. He was also involved in the whole theological reorientation of the Yahwist source. We have already seen how the Priestly creation account expressed priestly ideas of holiness, blessedness, ritual observance such as the Sabbath, and a festival calendar pinned to the minor luminaries (#1). Here an even subtler tactic is used, which we as readers are not aware of until Exodus 6:2-8, where the Priestly writer asserts his theological claim—namely that Yahweh was not known by name until he revealed himself, and his name, to Moses in Egypt. But as we shall see this completely negates what the Yahwist has been claiming all along!

A preliminary note: We do not use LORD here. Rather we stick as literally as possible to the Hebrew text, which has Yahweh (or YHWH) in everyplace that your English translation has LORD. Why? See 1st footnote in Yahwist. El Shaddai is often rendered as “God Almighty.” A large number of Hebraists and philologists contend that the Hebrew should be understood as referring to the proper name El, not the generic word “god.” The epithet Shaddai; it’s meaning is still debated: “of the mountain” seems the most plausible. We’ll keep it as El Shaddai. And this is certainly what the Priestly writer’s Hebrew intended.

The Yahwist narrative claims that the name Yahweh was first invoked in the primaeval age and repeatedly throughout the patriarchal age. Thus Genesis 4:26, which immediately follows J’s toledoth states: “It was then that man began to invoke the name Yahweh.” The Yahwist makes his view unambiguously clear: the name Yahweh was invoked in this early generation.

Yet even clearer illustrations are found in the patriarchal narratives penned by J. For example, as Abraham enters into Canaan he establishes several altars to Yahweh, one such altar is at the oak of Moreh. “And he built an altar to Yahweh and invoked the name Yahweh” (Gen 12:8). Thus, according to this author, Abraham knew the god Yahweh by name. The same attestation is also found at Genesis 13:4 and 26:25—both from J. Furthermore, our J source has Yahweh reveal himself as Yahweh to the patriarchs on several occasions. For example, in Genesis 15:7 the Yahwist has Yahweh explicitly say to Abraham: “I am Yahweh, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldees to give you this land, to posses it.” And concerning Yahweh’s revelation to Jacob at Bethel (Gen 28:13), the Yahwist states: “And here was Yahweh standing over him [Jacob], and he said: ‘I am Yahweh, your father Abraham’s god and Isaac’s god.’” The Yahwist, in other words, has no theological problem presenting the patriarchs as knowing the god of Israel by his name Yahweh.

This, however, is completely negated by the later Priestly writer, who is quite explicit and adamant about asserting a radically different theological claim. In Exodus 6:2-3, the Priestly writer has the god exclaim to Moses: “I am Yahweh, and I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shaddai, and I was not known to them by my name Yahweh!” This is completely contradictory to what the Yahwist has professed all along.

P’s conviction is further attested in Genesis 17:1: “And Yahweh appeared to Abram and said to him: ‘I am El Shaddai; walk before me and be unblemished.” In fact, P has a string of “promise texts” throughout Genesis that also present El Shaddai transfering the covenant promise to Abraham’s sons—to Isaac (Gen 28:3), to Jacob (Gen 35:10), and to Joseph’s sons (Gen 48:3). These P El Shaddai promise texts, which also have the key P phrase “be fruitful and multiply” in them—a phrase only found in P—terminate in the Exodus 6:2-8 passage. It is the Priestly writer’s theological conviction, in other words, that Yahweh appeared to the patriarchs as El Shaddai, and only revealed himself as Yahweh and was only known as Yahweh to Moses and thenceforth.

Thus, contrary to the claims of J, P claims that Yahweh did not make himself known by his name until the age of Moses, and he places that assertion, just like the Yahwist did, on Yahweh’s lips!

At this point, the reader (some of my readers) may be a bit alarmed. For Yahweh declares that he himself did reveal himself and his name from the earliest generation of mankind onward AND Yahweh asserts that he did not reveal himself nor his name until Moses at Sinai. How are we to understand this? As the contradictory words of Yahweh? Or as the expressions of two once separate textual traditions, each of whose author placed their own theological convictions on the lips of Yahweh? Neither is reporting historical data; rather, each writer is professing their beliefs and views, which then inform the hows and whys of their “historical” narratives. When these two texts, narratives, were assembled and brought together by a later editorial endeavor, this and many other contradictions were created.

We should additionally note that the issue here is not just a contradiction between two verses, but between whole theologies! P’s theological program of a progression in the revelation of the name Yahweh is completely dwarfed when the Yahwist source, with its assertion that Yahweh was known to the earliest generations of mankind, is amended to P. In other words, the editorial combination of J and P dilutes P’s theological emphasis and narrative climax by already having the name Yahweh revealed in the combined PJ narrative! The text as it now stands negates the Priestly writer’s whole theological enterprise! If the Priestly writer sought to rewrite Israelite history in an attempt to subvert or make obsolete the earlier existing J narrative, then it is ironic that in the end it is the Yahwist text that has subverted the Priestly writer’s theological emphasis and claims.

19 thoughts on “#11. When was the name Yahweh first invoked: in the earliest generations of man OR not till Moses at Sinai? (Gen 4:26, 12:8, 13:4, 15:7, etc. vs Ex 6:2-3)

  1. So, as for theological messaging: “Hey Moses I was El but I prefer Yahweh now, btw no one’s heard that one yet (lol) you’re the first.”

    Surely it was the work of a Priestly community

  2. We can agree on our own culture’s having misperceived notions about the text, among other things. In fact, I think what’s behind that problem is epidemic and quite inevitable, and forms an essential impediment to any scholarly community (“of the book”) currently in existence. Try as we might we do not HAVE any objective frame of reference with which to study biblical material, because the world that produced it is gone; we can’t get back there, we can’t “go native”. We- anyone who’s a scholar- needs to own up to that. The days of pretend-objectivity are gone.

    >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>”At this point, the reader (some of my readers) may be a bit alarmed. For Yahweh declares that he himself did reveal himself and his name from the earliest generation of mankind onward AND Yahweh asserts that he did not reveal himself nor his name until Moses at Sinai. How are we to understand this? As the contradictory words of Yahweh? Or as the expressions of two once separate textual traditions, each of whose author placed their own theological convictions on the lips of Yahweh?”/////////////////////////////////

    Do you think the point there really is just about “knowing” a “name”? You know, in that same, conventional way WE (who else is there, right?) “know” a “name” after we’ve heard it one time?

    Not to sound salty, but how shallow do analyses get! It’s instances like these, that make me skeptical: skeptical that you’re reading this stuff any more correctly than anyone else who hails from the Civilization of the Great West.

  3. Steven,

    An Evangelical author has written an article proposing an alternative view. Gordon E Whitney has written a paper on this, proposing a different understanding of the Hebrew word ‘lo’ that, to my knowledge, treats ‘lo’ as a negation idiom and not a literal negation. https://beta.worldcat.org/archivegrid/collection/data/21092623 ( I can’t seem to access this paper directly online). Have you read this paper and, if yes, do you have any thoughts on it?

  4. Whats up doc…wow I love this website…its like brain candy.. Anyway…question…gen4:26 why is it that its translated as invoke rather than call upon? One can be interpreted as having some sort of manipulative ritualistic connotation (invoke) and the other a rather submissive one without power(call upon) I know that’s not pertinent to the topic at hand, but I am just very curious…also absolutely interesting that Yahweh is in fact used here, and like you state that exodus 6:3 SPECIFICALLY states he was not known to them by the name YHWH. I’m also looking for sources I can get a hold of that can explain this in greater depth and analyzing the Hebrew texts as well. Do you have any favorites?

  5. “Ehyeh has sent you”

    One of the principle gods of Sumer was EA, son of Anu and brother of Enlil.

    As anyone knows who has perused the “theology” of Sumer, they had a creation myth, a flood myth, a tower of “Babel” myth, which are the obvious (IMO) sources for what because the Bible stories. Most of the aspects of these Sumerian deities were conflated into Yahweh. The writer uses “Ehyeh” almost as an ironic clue to what is going on with all this synthesis.

    “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh” can be translated. “I am EA”, followed up with “Ehyeh has sent you”, that is, “EA has sent you.” (The spelling EA is just as plausible as Ehyeh.)

    Don’t tell me the writer didn’t have a sense of humor.

    Just food for thought.

  6. Thanks for the quick esponse, Dr DeMattei.

    Believe me, I ignored or pooh-poohed others myself for many years, if they would try to point out discrepancies in the Bible. It seemed to me for many years that if you began to doubt that this part of the bible might be off, then how could you trust the bible where it talks about Jesus’ life? Well what do you know, this question is coming up to the surface for me now, too. I have a lot of reading and learning to do, and where it leads me, I will find out when I get there!

    It doesn’t surprise me that the Bible has been used in Church history to repress groups of people, and that translations are biased. That is only to be expected, and I’ve seen it myself through owning various translations. The surprise for me at this juncture is that the very authors of the documents that bible is compiled from were politicking and vying for position, using their writings to influence people and pump up their own importance EVEN AS THEY WROTE GOD’S WORD! wow. I mean, the bias is built right in, translations into the vernacular aside.

    It comes right down to this: Is my faith in God, or the bible? I have a friend who knows about the errors and flaws, and still values the Bible highly and considers it God’s word. I don’t know if I’ll end up in that place, or some other.
    I do believe that a story can be fiction and still bear truth to the listener. Perhaps that is what the bible is. A story, containing amazing truths.

    Thanks again for the dialogue.

    JOHN: thanks for the link. I’ll click around!

  7. Heidi,
    Exodus 6:2-3 is the bridge which claims that the deity El, chief god of the West Semitic pantheon–who was worshiped by the patriarchs–was the same deity as Yahweh. The New Jerusalem Bible, which uses “Yahweh” rather than “the LORD” and retains the proper name “El” rather than “translating” it as “God,” makes this clear:

    Exodus 6:2-3 (New Jerusalem Bible)
    2 God spoke to Moses and said to him, ‘I am Yahweh. 3 To Abraham, Isaac and Jacob I appeared as El Shaddai, but I did not make my name Yahweh known to them.

    Genesis 33:18-20 (New Jerusalem Bible)
    18 Jacob arrived safely at the town of Shechem in Canaanite territory, on his return from Paddan-Aram. He encamped opposite the town 19 and for one hundred pieces of silver he bought from the sons of Hamor father of Shechem the piece of land on which he had pitched his tent. 20 There he erected an altar which he called “El, God of Israel”.

    Genesis 46:2-3a (New Jerusalem Bible)
    2 God spoke to Israel in a vision at night, “Jacob, Jacob,” he said. “Here I am,” he replied. 3 “I am El, God of your father,” he said.

    John Day’s “Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan” and Mark S. Smith’s books go into greater detail about the relationship between Yahweh and El. Follow this ink to read from Day’s book: http://tinyurl.com/m9jnr7y

  8. this is fascinating. I’ve always been a margin marker and passage underliner…this website has brought about many new notes and underlinings in my sweet old Bible. My first discrepancy, that I found before I found your website, was when Moses, Aaron, and 70 elders of Israel sat on the mountainside looking at God and eating and drinking and He didn’t strike them dead. And here I’ve been taught for 30 years that if you look at God, you die. I think that actually is how I found this site: web search on “can man look at god and live, or can’t he?”

    Anyway, thanks for this resource. I am certainly learning a lot and enjoying it every step of the way. I’m glad to learn that you have colleagues who remain believers, for though I am having my world turned upside down as regards what the Bible is (and is not), i know deep within myself that I believe in God and I always will.

    How this search will end…this journey of discovering the Bible (after 30 years of reading and “studying” it) I cannot say. Already the bible has taken a step far from the center that it has held in my life. Such a shift, let me tell you.

    thanks again. I’m reading a couple of entries per day, now in February 2013. And of course, anything new you post comes to my inbox.

    blessings, Heidi

    1. Heidi,

      Welcome, and thanks for the kind words. This contradiction here is one of my favorites because it really displays nicely the different theological agendas of the Bible’s different and many authors. The Exodus 24 one where the group you mention above sees Yahweh versus other texts that present a contradictory theology is posted as #63.

      I must confess at times I am humbled by some of my readers, such as yourself. As you may surmise, my website and this project in general attracts many atheists and ex-Christians; there are also the occasional fundamentalists who in general are unable to connect with the Bible’s many divergent texts with their often conflicting views and theologies because they are prejudiced by later interpretive frameworks and theological constructs that actually inhibit them from engaging with these texts on their own terms and each as their authors originally intended. These types don’t stay around long, unfortunately. They’re not really looking to learn, or the truth about the Bible, but rather looking to confirm their own beliefs, and when the biblical texts clash with those beliefs it’s of course me and not these ancient texts written 2,000-3,000 years ago under vastly different circumstances and worldviews that is the problem—so they must tell themselves to sleep better at night.

      And then there are the Christians such as yourself, curious about really understanding this collection of ancient literature that came to be labeled “the Book” and grappling with the more difficult issues of how this body of literature, and what they’re learning about it, relates to their beliefs, faith, worldview, values, etc. I am often moved by this, believe it or not. There are often no simple answers and it’s a unique situation that I personally have never had to deal with. As you may have perceived, I stick with the biblical texts themselves, and try my best to objectively present the views and beliefs of the authors, regardless of my beliefs, or non-beliefs as the case my be, and those of later readers of these texts. As a biblical scholar that seems to be what defines my goals. So I never run my mouth about more theological issues relating to belief in God, faith, etc. My main goal is to attempt to correct, and explain where necessary, our as a culture’s, mis-perceptions and erroneous views about this ancient literature, not to pontificate about God, faith, etc. I keep my personal persuasions out of the equation… well, most of the time. As another liberally oriented Christian, or perhaps a better expression is open and thoughtful Christian reader observed here, against one of my fundamentalist readers, is that displaying the Bible’s contradictions—that is naturally the competing theologies and ideologies in a corpus of 70+ texts written by 60+ authors over a span of a millennium—says nothing about belief, or non-belief, in God. In other words, we as a culture don’t need an inerrant “divine text” (all later erroneous theological constructs by the way) to believe in a god, or God. And that’s really the direction that I hope my work leads us, as a Christian nation, toward: on the one hand being honest to these ancient texts and being able to see them for what they are, and conversely are not AND engaging as a conscious human species in the more difficult questions about existence, belief, narratives that define our realities as I often like to express it, morals, etc. It is here, I believe, the human species grows both intellectually and spiritually—and it sometimes seems that we haven’t really done that for millennia!

      Anyway, I just thought I’d share that with you, and thank you.

  9. I did read about this contradiction at a scholarly Jewish website in Russian… And they talked about J, E, P, D sources in great length. Just now tried to find the website but can’t anymore… Will try again.

  10. Thanks for that. Your comment on Ex 3:14 seems to relate to the first part of the verse. The second part is “Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you.” What is the Hebrew source for this?

    1. Is this a test? lol. It’s the same as the previous — ‘ehyeh has sent you, that is ‘I am’ or better ‘I will be.’ It’s a homonym: ‘ehyeh and yahweh. If you’re really serious about the scholarship, the best commentary is by far, hands down, the Anchor Bible series.

      1. Definitely not a test! It’s just that the main difference between your project & the SAB is the ‘depth’ to which you go and the contextualisation you bring to the text. Hence the ‘I Am’ which appears to be a very straightforward name in the KJV turns out to be a homonym which can be almost impossible to interpret even in contemporary texts (where we have all the context ready to hand). If, as you say, Ex 3:14 has been ‘notoriously difficult’ to interpret, I would not be surprised to hear it was some sort of in-joke if only we could interview the original author(s)!

        The Anchor Bible Series is taking it a little too far for me

        1. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to do this website. Biblical scholars, especially those who deal with source-critical and historical-critical methods (i.e., studying the sources of the Biblical text and their historical contexts), deal with textual contradictions on a daily bases. The current popular debate over biblical contradictions waged by both atheists and theists is… pardon my criticism, a joke, a rhetorical shell that never gets to the issues of the text. The atmosphere looked like a good place for a biblical scholar to step in and clarify things a bit.

          I appreciate your active engagement with me here.

  11. Dear Dr DiMattei,
    I have been using the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible to follow your references to The Bible. It uses the King James Version which, as you point out, uses LORD as the translation of Yahweh (except in certain circumstances such as Ex 6:3 where it uses Jehovah). Would you recommend an alternative English source, or is the good old KJV the best one to stick with?
    Also, SAB notes that god’s name is also referred to as ‘Jealous’ in Ex 34:14 and ‘I Am’ in Ex 3:14. What are the sources of these namings?
    Thanks for your great work! I hope you are successful in penetrating at least some of the public conciousness.

    1. Great questions. You can stick with the KJV, just read Yahweh in everyplace you see LORD smallcaps. The Hebrew original will most likely have Yahweh. It seems that the KJ translators translated the divine name in Ex 6:3, since the context practically calls for it.

      Jehovah is actually a mispronunciation of YHWH. What the Massorets who vocalized the Hebrew text did was to give the tetragrammaton (YHWH) the vowels which belonged to the Hebrew word for lord (adonai) – to facilitate the reading of adonai instead of Yahweh. When those vowels are squeezed into YHWH you get Jehovah.

      The Ex 34:14 (which will serve as one of our contradictions when we get there) reference is good. The context is that Yahweh is a jealous god (do not worship other gods) so much so that his name is Jealous.

      The Hebrew phrase in Ex 3:14 – ’ehyeh ’aser ’ehyeh – has been notoriously difficult. My Hebrew is certainly not good enough to weigh in on this, but most Hebraist seem to veer away from understanding it in the present “I am who I am” (which was the Greek LXX translation and why its most popular). Other proposals have been “I will be who I will be” or the best is seeing this as a causative: “I am he who (causes to) exists.” In the Hebrew it is a homonym. If you pronounce it out loud you’ll see. Yahweh sounds like ’ehyeh ’aser ’ehyeh — hayah and its various forms is the verb ‘to be’ ‘exist.’

      I’d be interested to know how what I’m doing compares with the SAB project. Well I imagine they’re two completely different projects.

  12. Dr. DiMattei,

    Thank you so much for putting this out there. I find it all fasinating and a bit overwhelming to tell the truth. Your presentation is reasonable and easy to follow, and so are your conclusions. I just don’t understadn why haven’t we heard anything about this before? How come other scholars aren’t talking about this contradictions? And what if these are the words of different texts/individuals as you say?

    1. Mark,
      Thanks for the thoughtful questions. In fact, much of this material is known and discussed by Old Testament scholars. I have merely synthesized it and presented in this “fun” and thought-provoking manner. In the scholarly community, we talk of contradictions AND the Bible’s various textual traditions simultaneously. I’d say that 99% of the contradictions we’ll encounter here are actually places where two once separate textual traditions came together.

      I too am baffled that not much of this, nor any of it, is known to the general public – I am trying to change that. One of the reasons for starting this blog and writing in general was to present this material to the public. As far as where this all leads, well that’s a question I certainly would like to pursue, and a question I think the public at large needs to pursue. I think the perceived danger by many fundamentalist types of groups is that if the Bible is not the word of God, then their faith is destroyed. That may or may not happen. However, many of my colleagues are believers in some capacity and know full heartedly that the Bible is a compilation of competing theologies written by elite scribes and priests, who wrote to legitimate their views. In other words, their faith is not defined by the text, or as the case may be, misperceived notions about the text….

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