08 November 2023

When Abraham didn’t yet know God’s name. (Or did he?)

Genesis 12.8, Exodus 6.2-3.

Here’s a bible difficulty which tends to stymie a number of biblical literalists. Not all of ’em; most of them realize there’s a really simple solution to it. But some of ’em are in serious denial.

Genesis 12.8 ESV
From there [Avram] moved to the hill country on the east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. And there he built an altar to the LORD and called upon the name of the LORD.
Exodus 6.2-3 ESV
2 God spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am the LORD. 3 I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by my name the LORD I did not make myself known to them.”

God, the Creator, is identified as the LORD in the very second chapter of the bible—

Genesis 2.4 ESV
These are the generations
of the heavens and the earth when they were created,
in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens.

Throughout that book, the author of Genesis calls God “the LORD” or “the LORD God,” because he’s identifying which god he means. It’s not just אֵ֣ל/El, the generic Canaanite word for “god”; it’s not the Hebrew plural form of that word, אֱלֹהִ֑ים/Elohíym, which usually means the God, although of course it can sometimes mean “gods,” plural. The author is indicating this is the specific God who identified himself as יְהוָ֥ה/YHWH to Moses ben Amram—the God who rescued Israel from Egypt, who’s also the God who called their ancestor Avram ben Terah out of Sumer and renamed him Abraham, who’s also the God who created the sky and land. He’s not just one of the chief gods of a pagan pantheon; he’s the God, the only god they worship, ’cause he’s the only one who actually actively does stuff. He’s the living God.

But in Exodus, this specific God tells Moses that Abraham, and all the Hebrews since, didn’t know him by that name YHWH, which we traditionally translate “the LORD.” They knew him as אֵ֣ל שַׁדָּ֑י/El Šaddáy. Properly it means “Sovereign God,” but for the longest time people didn’t wholly know what šaddáy means (and it didn’t help that the Septuagint regularly translated it ὁ θεός μου/o Theós mu, “my God,” or ὁ θεός σου/o Theós su, “your God”). Most figured it means “high” or “mountainous.” Since sovereignty implies almightiness, “almighty” is fine; we needn’t nitpick the traditional translation. Anywho, God says they knew him as El Šaddáy, not YHWH.

Despite all the many, many instances of YHWH in Genesis—128 times in my copy of the Biblia Hebraica. That’s a lot of times they identify God by a name he’s not yet revealed!

But biblical literalists insist, on the contrary, it was revealed. It’s in Genesis, after all. People called the LORD by name!

Genesis 4.26 ESV
To Seth also a son was born, and he called his name Enosh. At that time people began to call upon the name of the LORD.

Seth was the son of Adam, the very first human; so all the way back then it looks like people identified the name of their Creator as YHWH, the LORD, and were using that name to invoke him. So… we got a difficulty here. What’s the way out of it?

Yes of course literalists have an answer. It’s that the LORD doesn’t really mean to say his name was unknown to the people before Moses.

Popular literalist Christian mythology.

I grew up among biblical literalists, so I grew up with this harebrained theory. It begins with the idea that the very first language of humanity was Hebrew. That’s the language God spoke to create the cosmos; that’s the language God pre-programmed Adam and Eve to speak in Eden; that’s the language the serpent used to tempt them; that’s the language Genesis is recorded in, so whenever Adam, Cain, Noah, or Lamech says something, these are exact quotes. They literally said those specific words. ’Cause they spoke Hebrew.

So when we object that the name YHWH derives from a Hebrew word… they don’t really see this as a problem. Adam and Eve spoke Hebrew! Everybody did, up until the time of Babel, when God scrambled the languages, Ge 11.1-9 and the only folks who still spoke Hebrew thereafter, were of course the Hebrews—the people of Israel, Edom, Moab, Midian, and all the other nations descended from Terah ben Nahor, great-great-grandson of Eber ben Shelah, the guy the Hebrews are named for.

Anyway, these literalists claim all the people before Moses did know the One True God by his proper name YHWH—but by the time of Moses, after centuries of Egyptian slavery, they had forgotten it. They didn’t know God from any of the other gods in the ancient middle east; he was just one out of hundreds to them. Nevermind the fact Moses’s father-in-law, a Midianite, was a priest who recognized this One God as his God; Ex 18.1 they’ll claim God’s name was lost to the Midianites as well, which is why God had to tell Moses what it was again.

What God really meant when he said he was known as “God Almighty” to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, instead of “the LORD,” is that they did know this name YHWH… but chose not to use it. Just like we English-speaking Christians might know Jesus’s Hebrew name is יֵשׁוּעַ/Yeshúa, but we nonetheless call him by the English cognate of his name, Jesus. (Or, when we share Jesus with Spanish-speaking Christians, we’ll use the Spanish cognate of his name, Jesús.) We use the name we’re most used to, and apparently Abraham and his descendants were more used to “God Almighty” than “the LORD.” Nothing against the name YHWH/“the LORD,” same as there’s nothing against Yeshúa—or ܝܫܘܥ/Isho, the Aramaic name Jesus’s father actually gave him.

Other literalists say when God says Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob didn’t know him as the LORD, it actually means they didn’t really know his power as the LORD—how almighty he actually is, as opposed to how almighty he was before the ancient Egyptians as he sicced plagues upon them. The patriarchs hadn’t seen their God take action to this degree, but Moses and the Hebrews of his day were about to. So when God revealed himself to Jacob, using his name “the LORD,” a name Jacob later used too—

Genesis 28.12-16 ESV
12 And [Jacob] dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! 13 And behold, the LORD stood above it and said, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. 14 Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. 15 Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” 16 Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it.”

—that’s what was going on here; it wasn’t a matter of literally using the name, but of recognizing the level of power the Almighty wields.

It’s really weird that biblical literalists, of all people, would try to use the explanation, “Well it doesn’t literally mean that,” but hey, sometimes they do that. I don’t get it either.

Clearly I’ve sided with a different interpretation of this “difficulty” than they do, so I may as well get right to it.


Genesis has anachronisms in it—words and statements which obviously indicate the book was written at a much later time than the events in it. Fr’instance this one:

Genesis 36.31 ESV
These are the kings who reigned in the land of Edom, before any king reigned over the Israelites.

The first king of Israel was Saul ben Kish, who reigned in the late 1000s BC… and lived about a thousand years after Abraham. Now, Abimelech ben Gideon had tried to make himself king of Israel a few centuries earlier, and reigned three years, badly. Jg 9 Nobody considers him a legitimate king of Israel, but technically he did come first. I don’t know that the author of Genesis was even thinking of him. But the author did know kings reigned over Israel… because the book was written when kings reigned over Israel.

And when you write a historical narrative centuries later, you tend to use your present-day words for those long-ago things. Which aren’t always the same words those long-ago people would use. Fr’instance when Avram led an army of 318 men to rescue his nephew Lot, he traveled to Dan, Ge 14.14 a city which was named for Avram/Abraham’s grandson Dan. Who wasn’t born yet. At the time the city was called Leshem, Js 19.47 and wouldn’t be renamed Dan until the Danites captured it nearly four centuries later. But the author of Genesis knew it as Dan, so he called it Dan.

And the author of Genesis knew his God as “the LORD.” So he called him “the LORD.” And every once in a while, when someone in his narrative referred to the LORD, that guy would call him the LORD… even though the name YHWH had not yet been revealed to Moses. Or humanity.

It’s an anachronism. It doesn’t mean the author of Genesis got the story wrong; the book is about the LORD after all! But it’s written to people of the 11th century BC and later; not the people of the 17th and earlier. It’s gonna use words only nitpickers like you and I might consider “wrong.” I would only call them imprecise; not wrong. And when we recognize Genesis has anachronisms in it, it doesn’t need to be that precise. We’ll note, “Oh, that’s not a name they would’ve used back then.” But it’s still the right word for us—because we know YHWH is the name of God.

So it’s not really a difficulty. It only becomes one if you think anachronisms are errors.