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.