Moses before the Burning Bush, after Raphael; a photograph of one of the four paintings on the ceiling of the Stanza di Eliodoro in the Vatican

What’s In a Name?

Exodus 6:3 and the Failure of Univocalist Inerrancy

Abjan van Meerten



According to fundamentalist hermeneutics, the Bible is inerrant — in other words, objectively true — in everything that it asserts — theologically, historically, etc. For if it is mistaken about one thing, why wouldn’t it be mistaken about the rest? (a slippery slope argument). This entails that the biblical authors cannot contradict each other, in which case one side would necessarily be mistaken; the Bible must be read as if it were univocal, and thus one should seek to harmonize the biblical authors and let ‘Scripture interpret Scripture’.

However, when doing exegesis, fundamentalists also admit that the authorial intent should be guiding, and not whatever we want to read into a text. In other words, it is necessary to do the grammatical, literary, and historical work to uncover the intended meaning of the human authors to their historical recipients. For example, what is the genre and structure of the book?, what are its main themes?, what is the rhetorical function of this verse?, etc.

Furthermore, when it comes to the genre of narrative, ‘historical’ books, such as Genesis or the Gospels, the ‘plain’, ‘literal’ sense should be the interpretive default. In addition, when a book says, or is said to be, written by one particular figure — especially if Jesus says it — that should always be seen as historically accurate (due to the inerrancy of Scripture).

Now, these different fundamentalist hermeneutical principles are potentially in tension with each other. For if we encounter a text that, read in light of its authorial intent, is in tension with another text, read in light of its authorial intent — what do we do then? Do we ‘sacrifice’ one of them for the sake of harmonizing them and thus maintaining the univocality of Scripture?

That is a tension I want to explore in this article on the basis of one such apparent case. The key question will be: did the patriarchs know that God’s name was ‘YHWH’ or just ‘El Shaddai’? This is what God has to say about that to Moses:

Exodus 6:2b–3: “I am YHWH. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as ‘El Shaddai’, but by my name ‘YHWH’ I did not make myself known / was not known to them” (NRSVue, modified).

For inerrantists, this verse is troubling because they have already encountered the name ‘YHWH’ as used by God quite a few times before Exodus 6:3. It is plausible that the biblical author, who himself already knew that El Shaddai would later reveal himself as YHWH, would at times use the name YHWH for God before that moment in his narrative, anachronistically. However, it would be historically inaccurate — i.e. errant — if he put the name ‘YHWH’ into the mouth of characters, especially God himself, before that moment in history.

1. ‘YHWH’ in Genesis

And this is in fact what we find in Genesis. Not only is ‘YHWH’ used as the personal name of a narrative character, God — which could plausibly be explained as innocent anachronism — but also in the following ways:

1.1. Divine Direct Speech

Most significant for our purposes are texts in Genesis where God himself is said to use his name ‘YHWH’ in direct speech to the patriarchs or those close to them, thus directly contradicting his own supposed words in Exodus 6:3. This would not just constitute a historical inaccuracy in the human authors’ divinely-inspired words, but in God’s own direct speech as recorded by the human author. Either God used the name or not — according to God in Exodus, he did not, but according to God in Genesis, he did:

  • God said to Abraham, “I am YHWH who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” Abraham replies, “O Lord YHWH…” (15:7–8a).
  • The angel of YHWH, closely related to God himself, used the name when talking to Hagar: “Now you have conceived and shall bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael, for YHWH has given heed to your affliction” (16:11).
  • When “YHWH appeared to [Abraham]” (18:1) — same verb as in Exo 6:3 — he said to him, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too wonderful for YHWH?” (vv. 13–14a).
  • Two messengers of God said to Lot, a close relative of Abraham: “…we are about to destroy this place, because the outcry against its people has become great before YHWH, and YHWH has sent us to destroy it” (19:13), and Lot is then said to use the name in verse 14.
  • The angel of YHWH, speaking for God, said to Abraham, in the presence of Isaac: “By myself I have sworn, says YHWH… (22:16).
  • Significantly, God identified himself to Jacob in his famous dream as follows: “I am YHWH, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac” (28:13) — quite destroying evidence.

1.2. Human Direct Speech

Then there are lots of corroboratory verses (more than thirty) in which the patriarchs or closely related people are said to have used the name ‘YHWH’, [1] most importantly maybe 22:14:

  • Abraham called the place where he had gone to offer Isaac ‘YHWH-will-provide’, with the author adding: “as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of YHWH it shall be provided.’”

The naming of this place, functioning as the etiology of a proverb contemporary to the author/redactor, necessitates the original usage of the name ‘YHWH’.

1.3. Expressions

Then there are certain recurring expressions in Genesis, such as ‘calling upon the name of YHWH’ (4:26; 12:8; 13:4; 21:33; 26:25) and ‘standing before YHWH’ (18:22; 19:27), with especially the first one seemingly implying the currency of the name.

1.4. Descriptions

Finally, there are constructions of the sort ‘YHWH, the God of …’. Besides 28:13 cited above, see:

  • 24:3: “YHWH, the God of heaven and earth”.
  • 24:7: “YHWH, the God of heaven”.
  • 24:12, 27, 42, 48: “YHWH, the God of my [Eliezer’s] master Abraham”.
  • 27:20: “YHWH your [Isaac’s] God”.
  • Cf. 28:21: “…then YHWH shall be my [Jacob’s] God”, and 32:9: “God of my father Abraham and God of my [Jacob’s] father Isaac, YHWH who said to me, …”

These again imply the personal identification of God as YHWH.

All of this evidence cannot be explained away as simple authorial slips of the tongue or anachronisms; in fact, if we would presume that the whole Pentateuch was written by one person (Moses), as inerrantists invariably do, we would have to conclude that he was incoherent! To put it more sharply, in light of Exodus 6:3, the above evidence amounts to historical inaccuracies and therefore falsehoods, notably when God refers to himself as ‘YHWH’ in direct speech and when Abraham names the place where he was to sacrifice Isaac ‘YHWH-will-provide’. In other words, if Exodus 6:3 is true, one can no longer speak of Genesis being historically inerrant — and the other way around. And, due to a slippery slope argument, if one text is historically inaccurate, they can all be, and God’s Word — indeed, God himself — can no longer be trusted as perfectly truthful and trustworthy in all that it/he asserts.

2. Is It Possible to Reread Exodus 6:3?

Thus, what inerrants will do is try to reread Exodus 6:3. It is important to realize that this happens mainly because of theological reasons, not exegetical reasons. To remove any possible exegetical ambiguities that inerrantists might want to exploit, we will go through the grammar and syntax of the verse.

2.1. The Grammar and Syntax

Following the Hebrew word order, the verse literally reads: “And I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shaddai, but my name YHWH I was not known / did not make myself known to them.”

2.1.1. “And I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shaddai…”
In regard to the first clause, two things should be noted. First of all, the preposition before ‘El Shaddai’, בְּ bĕ, in combination with verbs like ‘appearing’, is properly translated as “as, in the capacity of”. [2] Secondly, the verb ‘appeared’ is elsewhere used in reference to theophanies with the patriarchs, [3] which fits the context perfectly.

2.1.2. “…but my name YHWH I was not known / did not make myself known to them.”
Very plausibly, the phrase ‘my name YHWH’ is placed at the beginning of the second clause to strengthen the contrast with the now directly juxtaposed phrase ‘as El Shaddai’.

Moreover, as indicated in the translation, the niphal form of ‘know’ could be translated either passively (I was known) or reflexively (I made myself known). In this context, both seem possible, although the reflexive might make for a better parallel with the verb ‘appear’ in the first half of the verse.

Now, there is something up with the subject of the verb. G.I. Davies lays out two options for how the verse could be plausibly read: [4]

  • Option 1: ‘My name YHWH’ and ‘I’ could constitute a double subject, with the former qualifying the latter. This results in the following translation: “I, that is my name YHWH, was not known / did not make myself known to them.” [5]
  • Option 2: Alternatively, the noun phrase ‘my name YHWH’ could function as an accusative of limitation (with which the normal accusative marker אֵת ‘ēṯ is rare). This gives the following rendering: “with respect to my name YHWH I was not known / did not make myself known to them.” [6]

Ultimately, these two options have the same import. I slightly prefer the latter option, because then the two parts of the verse complement each other nicely (see table 1), leading to a clear contrasting logic: because God appeared to them as El Shaddai, he was not known to them with respect to his name YHWH. Thus, the conjunction waw should be rendered adversatively, i.e. as ‘but’.

Table 1: Exodus 6:3, in a slightly modified order

2.2 Rereadings

In his commentary, [7] Desmond Alexander has argued that we should break up the second part of the verse into two, because the negative particle lō’ normally starts a sentence, in this case — according to him — a rhetorical question. This would result in the following reading:

  • “And I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shaddai, and my name is YHWH. Was I not known / did I not make myself known to them?”

However, this statement simply makes no sense; how does “my name is YHWH” relate positively or additively to the first part (“and”)? And how does this provide the implied answer for the subsequent rhetorical question?

Importantly, what Desmond Alexander’s reading lacks above all is literary coherence within Exodus, as we will see in section 2.3. below. In the context of Exodus, it is anything but obvious that God had already revealed himself as ‘YHWH’ to the patriarchs.

Excursus 1: Grammatical Arguments of Desmond Alexander Refuted
Desmond Alexander mounts three further arguments for his reading, which I will briefly discuss here:

1. “The traditional translation of this verse requires that the prep. attached to ’ēl šaddāy, ‘God Almighty’, performs double duty, governing also the expression šĕmî yhwh, ‘my name YHWH’.”
However, when the second phrase is seen as an accusative of limitation (‘AoL’), this objection no longer holds.

2. “The expression šĕmî yhwh cannot be the direct object of the verb yāda‘ because the ni. form that occurs here is reflexive in meaning; nôda’tî means ‘I made myself known’.”
This is false, because the niphal can be both reflexive and
, more commonly, passive (see above). Moreover, in my AoL reading, šĕmî yhwh is not the direct object anyway.

3. “It is unusual for a subordinate phrase to come before the negative lō’, which is normally the first word in a Hebr. sentence.”
However, this is not strictly true; what can be said about
lō’ is that it is commonly placed before a verb, but it is not uncommon for a noun to precede lō’ and the verb. [8] Moreover, as I have already explained, placing ‘in regard to my name YHWH’ before lō’ and the verb has a plausible rhetorical function, namely to strengthen the contrast with the now immediately juxtaposed phrase ‘as El Shaddai’.

Finally, there are two smaller considerations against Alexander’s reading:

4. The Masoretic punctuation divides the verse into two main parts, putting the atnach behind ‘El Shaddai’. If the second part started only after ‘YHWH’, we would expect the atnach there.
5. If the last phrase indeed was a rhetorical question, it would be somewhat unusual that the negative particle does not have the question mark (
ha) prefixed to it.

Having these things in mind, a more plausible (though still implausible) variant on Desmond Alexander’s reading would be:

  • “And I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shaddai, but my name [is] YHWH. [In other words,] I did not make myself known / was not known to them.”

But this is surely not what Desmond Alexander was aiming for! Arguably the patriarchs did know God, but only not in a certain respect, namely his name — which brings us back to the two options above.

Excursus 2: The Septuagint
The Septuagint — the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible used by the New Testament authors — renders the verse as follows:

- Option 3: “I appeared to Abraam and Isaak and Iakob, being their God, and my name, Lord, I did not make known to them.” (NETS)

Gk: καὶ ὤφθην πρὸς Αβρααμ καὶ Ισαακ καὶ Ιακωβ θεὸς ὢναὐτῶν καὶ τὸ ὄνομά μου κύριος οὐκ ἐδήλωσα αὐτοῖς. (LXX)

This is also how Liane Feldman takes it, discussed in the closing section. It is closer to options 1 and 2 above, giving a quite literal rendering. However, it is unclear how the Hebrew niphal could be translated actively in the sense of ‘I did not make known’; for that we would expect a hiphil instead of a niphal.

In sum, all the exegetically plausible readings contain, in one way or the other, the historical claim about the usage of the divine name, i.e. the claim that God did not use the name ‘YHWH’ with the patriarchs. As we have established before, this is a problem for inerrantists, not because the meaning of the verse is unclear, but because it would undermine their hermeneutical principle of univocality or non-contradiction. The Bible would no longer ‘speak with one voice’, and thus it would no longer be wholly inerrant.

Besides Desmond Alexander’s strategy discussed above, inerrantists have other ways of trying to tackle this problem. The main strategy consists of arguing that the term ‘name’ here is used in some metaphorical sense and that ‘El Shaddai’ and ‘YHWH’ stand for two different experiences of God. According to popular explanations, the first stands for God as mighty but distant, very distantly based on the meaning of ‘El Shaddai’ (often translated as ‘God Almighty’), and the second for God as intimate and personal because of its covenantal associations. However, there are two big problems with this attempted reinterpretation.

2.2. ‘El Shaddai’ in Genesis

Firstly, the popular distinction between the two names as standing for ‘distant’ versus ‘personal/covenantal’ is not based on exegetical evidence but on rather vague generalisations about the names. When we turn to the actual usage of the name ‘El Shaddai’ in the book of Genesis, it is easily falsified:

  • 17:1b–2, God speaking to Abraham: “I am El Shaddai; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you and will make you exceedingly numerous.”
  • 28:3–4, Isaac speaking to Jacob: “May El Shaddai bless you and make you fruitful and numerous, that you may become a company of peoples. May he give to you the blessing of Abraham, to you and to your offspring with you, so that you may take possession of the land where you now live as an alien, land that God gave to Abraham.”
  • 35:10–12, God speaking to Jacob: “Your name is Jacob; no longer shall you be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.” So he was called Israel. God said to him, “I am El Shaddai; be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall spring from you. The land that I gave to Abraham and Isaac I will give to you, and I will give the land to your offspring after you.”
  • 43:14, Israel speaking to his sons: “may El Shaddai grant you mercy before the man, so that he may send back your other brother and Benjamin.”
  • 48:3–4, Jacob speaking to Joseph, and referring back to chapter 35: “El Shaddai appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan, and he blessed me and said to me, ‘I am going to make you fruitful and increase your numbers; I will make of you a company of peoples and will give this land to your offspring after you for a perpetual holding.’”

Now, except for 43:14, these texts overlap significantly: they all contain divine covenantal promises. In other words, ‘El Shaddai’ had covenantal relations with the patriarchs! He personally appeared to them, spoke with them, entered into a covenant with them, and made covenantal promises to them. Thus, it is simply groundless to argue that ‘YHWH’ stands for a more covenantal or personal experience of God than ‘El Shaddai’.

A more accurate suggestion would be that ‘El Shaddai’ is associated with the promissory phase of the covenant, whereas ‘YHWH’ is linked to the consummatory phase of those promises, and this is in fact what other inerrantist commentators have said. One could say that the patriarchs were not familiar with God’s saving power on such a grand scale as manifested in Moses’ time. This could be corroborated by the rest of Exodus 6, which continues to talk about God’s upcoming salvation of Israel, something the patriarchs had not experienced. So, certain distinctive associations with the two names are possible, which would add a metaphorical dimension to them. However, a severe problem remains.

2.3. The Term ‘Name’ in the Literary Context of Exodus 6:3

Even if the two names contained these associations, there is no exegetical basis for saying that the author uses the term ‘name’ in this verse in a purely metaphorical sense, thus removing the historical claim about the usage of the literal names (what inerrantists need). It is true that the term ‘name’, in context, can also mean ‘reputation’. However, besides the fact that ‘reputation’ does not make sense in this verse (“by my reputation ‘YHWH’ I was not known to them”), a reputation is always connected to a literal (personal) name, and naturally so. This is confirmed by the usage of the term ‘name’ throughout Exodus:

  • Exo 3:13–15: “But Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘YHWH, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you: This is my name forever, and this my designation for all generations.’”
    The literal (i.e. personal) name, used in parallel with ‘designation’. [9]
  • 5:22–23: “Then Moses turned to the Lord and said, ‘O my Lord, why have you mistreated this people? Why did you ever send me? Since I first came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has mistreated this people, and you have done nothing at all to deliver your people.”
    To speak ‘in your name’ here means ‘to speak in the name of YHWH’, thus representing him to Pharaoh (i.e. as an ambassador); it is naturally connected both to the reputation and to the literal name of YHWH.
  • 9:16: “But this is why I have let you [Pharaoh] live: to show you my power, so that my name may be declared through all the earth.”
    The literal name, here closely related to reputation.
  • 15:3: “YHWH is a warrior; YHWH is his name.” The literal name.
  • 20:7: “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of YHWH your God, for YHWH will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.”
    The literal name.
  • 20:24: “You need make for me only an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your offerings of well-being, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you.”
    The literal name.
  • 23:13: “Be attentive to all that I have said to you. Do not invoke the name of other gods; do not let them be heard on your lips.”
    The literal name.
  • 23:20–21: “I am going to send an angel in front of you, to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. Be attentive to him and listen to his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is in him.”
    The angel is virtually identified with YHWH and ‘name’ thus seems to be used metaphorically for ‘presence’ or ‘dwelling place’; cf. the Deuteronomistic expression ‘to place my [God’s] name [somewhere]’. [10]
  • 33:19: “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you the name, ‘YHWH,’ and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.”
    The literal name.
  • 34:5–6: “YHWH descended in the cloud and stood with him there and proclaimed the name, ‘YHWH.’ YHWH passed before him and proclaimed, ‘YHWH, YHWH, a God merciful and gracious…’”
    The literal name.
  • 34:14: “you shall worship no other god, because YHWH, whose name is ‘Jealous,’ is a jealous God.”
    The literal name, though here in the sense of a descriptive name (i.e. an epithet) rather than a personal name.

There is a veritable thematic strand here. In what are arguably among the most famous scenes of Exodus, God reveals his literal name to Moses in the burning bush, God prohibits people from using his literal name in vain on Mount Sinai, and God proclaims his own literal name before Moses in the cleft of the rock. Returning to Exodus 3, Moses did not ask: “What is the metaphorical meaning of your personal name, O YHWH?” He asked: “What even is your literal personal name?”, clearly not knowing that the answer was ‘YHWH’ (nor did God in his answer presuppose that Moses already knew; Moses was not rebuked as stupid for asking!).

2.4. Necessary Leaps for Inerrantist Rereaders

Even if we would admit, on no exegetical grounds internal to Exodus, a purely metaphorical meaning of the term ‘name’, such as ‘attribute’, ‘character’, or ‘essence’ (as sometimes proposed by inerrantists), the verse itself would hardly make sense:

I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as a promising God (‘El Shaddai’) but with respect to my attribute/character/essence (‘name’) a saving God (‘Yahweh’) did not make myself known / was not known to them.”

Besides making no sense, the verse also, importantly, does not yet say what the rereaders need it to say, because ‘attribute’, ‘character’, or ‘essence’ do not capture the distinction between promissory and consummatory noted above; rather, those are modes of action — something that the term ‘name’ cannot, in itself, convey. What the rereaders need the verse to say is this:

“I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as a promising God (‘El Shaddai’), but with respect to my mode of action (‘name’) a saving God (‘YHWH’) I did not make myself known / was not known to them.”

In other words, rereaders would need to give the two names a purely metaphorical meaning (‘a promising God’ and ‘a saving God’), as well as read a new meaning into the term ‘name’ itself (something like ‘mode of action’), and all of that in order to remove the historical claim of the verse concerning God’s usage of the literal names. These are clearly a few exegetical leaps too many, especially seeing the usage of the term ‘name’ in Exodus and the literary theme it constitutes. The verse just makes much more sense if the author meant to say that God changed up the names he used.

However, it is possible, and perhaps even likely, [11] that the two names had metaphorical associations within the narrative of Genesis-Exodus; but it is impossible, in light of the literary context, that the author used them (as well as the term ‘name’) here in an exclusively metaphorical way (cf. table 2). In other words, the switch in names could plausibly signify a corresponding switch in God’s mode of action (see table 2), but the verse cannot constitute the latter claim alone, which is exegetically impossible.

Table 2

To use a slippery slope argument myself, once we leave the literal sense behind here —that is, for no exegetical reason inherent in the text— we can leave it behind anywhere, as long as we can come up with a theological reason (and I can come up with lots of them). Authorial intent would no longer be of exegetical importance, nor would literary context, and seemingly ‘plain’ texts could be nothing less than misleading. The only thing that could save the oblivious ‘simple’ reader from misinterpretation would be the expertise of the univocalist theologian who can tell you which verse to read in context and which one out of context.

3. A Smooth Non-Inerrantist Explanation

But if we do accept the meaning of Exodus 6:3 in context, how can we make sense of it in relation to Genesis? As noted above, God used the name ‘El Shaddai’ when he gave the promises in Genesis, and the name ‘YHWH’ when he fulfilled them in Exodus. (And indeed, after Exo 6:3, ‘El Shaddai’ occurs only two (!) more times in the Pentateuch, namely in Balaam’s third oracle [Num 24:4, 16].) However, importantly, this promise-fulfilment hypothesis only works if God in fact only used his name ‘El Shaddai’ before Exodus 6:3, which in turn is only possible when we take a Documentarian approach. [12] In particular, we have to make a distinction between P- and non-P-texts — in other words, between two sources with different authors which have been later redacted into its current form.

As Liane M. Feldman writes, “One of the major plot points of the biblical priestly narrative [P] is the revelation of the divine name to Moses and then to the Israelites as a whole prior to their departure from Egypt. Earlier in the story, the divine character is consistently referred to as ‘Elohim’ in the Hebrew, which translates to ‘God’ in English. Once God reveals his name to Moses and the Israelites, that name — Yahweh — is used for the remainder of the story.” [13] In fact, in P, ‘Yahweh’ occurs just once before Exodus 6:3 — in Genesis 17:1 — and juxtaposing these two texts highlights precisely what the author is doing with the names (see table 3):

Table 3, using Liane Feldman’s translation

Through his use of the names, the author creates ‘dramatic irony’: the reader knows something which Abram doesn’t know, namely that God’s name is YHWH. Moreover, the reader will now anticipate the revelation of God’s true name later on in the narrative.

So, within P, Exodus 6:3 makes perfect sense, but when P was later combined with non-P documents (in this case, J and E), the storyline of P regarding the names was no longer apparent to the reader, because P and non-P simply disagree on this point; they are contradictory! According to P, God did not use the name ‘YHWH’ before he revealed it to Moses; according to non-P, he did.

This means that, while we have maintained authorial intent and literary context as necessary interpretive constraints, we have left behind the univocality and therefore the historical inerrancy of Scripture (including the frequent claim that all of the Pentateuch was mainly written by a singular person, Moses). Either P or non-P is false at this point: God used the name ‘YHWH’ with the patriarchs or not.

Finally, when God has revealed his name within P, it does not yet have a reputation attached to it, and this is what God establishes through certain saving actions (i.e., the exodus). In this way, both his people and the Egyptians will come to associate the name ‘Yahweh’ with these actions, which thus develops a reputation:

  • 6:7: “You shall know that I am YHWH your God, who has freed you from the burdens of the Egyptians.”
  • 7:5: “The Egyptians shall know that I am YHWH when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out from among them.”
  • 7:17: “Thus says YHWH, ‘By this you shall know that I am YHWH.’ See, with the staff that is in my [Moses’] hand I will strike the water that is in the Nile, and it shall be turned to blood. The fish in the river shall die, the river itself shall stink, and the Egyptians shall be unable to drink water from the Nile.”
  • 10:1–2: “Then YHWH said to Moses, ‘Go to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his officials, in order that I may show these signs of mine among them and that you may tell your children and grandchildren how I have made fools of the Egyptians and what signs I have done among them — so that you may know that I am YHWH.’”
  • 14:4: “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them, so that I will gain glory for myself over Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians shall know that I am YHWH.” And 14:18: “Then the Egyptians shall know that I am YHWH, when I have gained glory for myself over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his chariot drivers.”
  • Cf. 16:12; 29:46, and 31:13.

Thus, in P, God revealed his name ‘Yahweh’ through Moses to Israel and the Pharaoh and then acted in powerful ways to build up a certain reputation both among his people and among the Egyptians.


As we have seen above, when two or more verses contradict each other — or, in this case, one source contradicts another — advocates of univocality will try to make them agree, which often comes down to subordinating one text to the other, exegetical impossibilities notwithstanding. Along the way, the clarity of that text as well as its authorial intent and meaning in context are sacrificed for the sake of the other. A non-inerrantist approach, on the other hand, maintains authorial intent, literary context, and (in this case) relative clarity, but leaves behind the theological constructs of inerrancy and univocality.


[1] See 14:22; 16:2, 5; 22:14; 24:3,7, 12, 27, 31, 35, 40, 42, 44, 48, 50, 51, 56; 26:22, 28, 29; 27:7, 20, 27; 28:16, 21; 29:32, 33; 30:24, 27, 30; 31:49; 32:9, and 49:18.

[2] Genesius’ Hebrew Grammar, 119i:

Cf. P. Joüon and T. Muraoka, A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew: Third Reprint of the Second Edition, with Corrections (Gregorian & Biblical Press, Rome: 2011), §133c:

[3] Gen 12:7; 17:1; 18:1; 26:2, 24; 35:1, 7, 9; 48:3.

[4] G.I. Davies, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Exodus 1–18, Volume 1, Chapters 1–10 (Bloomsbury 2020), 415–16.

[5] Genesius’ Hebrew Grammar, 144l3:

However, I am not sure whether Exo 6:3 qualifies as poetic language, being direct (conversational) speech.

[6] This reading is noted by arguably the most up-to-date Hebrew grammar, Joüon and Muraoka, A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew, §126g:

[7] T. Desmond Alexander, Exodus, Apollos Old Testament Commentary (Apollos 2017).

[8] Joüon and Muraoka, A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew, §126o:

[9] For the translation of זֵכֶר zēḵer as ‘designation’, see Davies, Commentary, 272: “Heb. זֵכֶר .זכרי generally means ‘memory, remembrance’, with the special sense sometimes of ‘renown, fame’ (Isa. 26.8; Hos. 14.8 and probably Ps. 135.13). The only really close parallel to the sense required here, which must be ‘designation’, as that by which someone is remembered, is Hos. 12.6, where זכר appears in a formula in which שׁם is often used (e.g. Amos 5.8).”

[10] See Deut 12:5, 11, 21; 14:23, 24; 16:2, 6, 11, etc.

[11] Cf. Austin Surls, Making Sense of the Divine Name in Exodus: From Etymology to Literary Onomastics (Eisenbrauns 2017), in ch. 4, “The Divine Name Recognized: Exodus 6:2–8,” who draws the wrong conclusion: “the double subject construction of Exod 6:3 and the RF [Recognition Formula] suggest that the patriarchs’ knowledge of the divine name ‘Yhwh’ vis-à-vis Moses’s generation was qualitatively different. God did not become known to the patriarchs with respect to his name Yhwh because he neither anticipated the revelation of the name (as did the explicit naming wordplay in Exod 3:14–15) nor made wide-ranging ascriptions to it (as did the RFs in Exodus) in the Genesis narrative” (113–14, emphasis added to pinpoint the exegetical leaps viz-a-viz the actual text of Exo 6:3). However, he does helpfully trace the theme of God’s name helpfully throughout Exodus, which I briefly outlined in section 2.2.

[12] See Joel S. Baden, The Composition of the Pentateuch: Renewing the Documentary Hypothesis (Yale 2012), for the best recent account, and the work of Feldman cited below, which builds on Baden’s work.

[13] Liane M. Feldman, The Consuming Fire: The Complete Priestly Source, From Creation to the Promised Land (University of California 2023; edition with Hebrew text expected in 2024), xxv. See also 13: “This approach differs from earlier versions of the hypothesis in that it does not give much weight to specific linguistic features or word choices. It is not determinative if one stury uses ‘Elohim,’ for example, and another ‘Yahweh.’ It may be the case that different stories use different names for God, but this information emerges only secondarily after a plot-based analysis has been carried out first.”



Abjan van Meerten

Thoughts on the liberating theology of Paul and the universal love of God