The opening chapters of Shemot (Exodus) are full of dramatic events sweeping across a range of experience. Shemot opens with a rapid narration beginning with the birth of Moses, the story of his rescue from the Nile, and his move into the royal palace of Pharaoh, whose own daughter adopts the infant. Before the first parsha ends, Moses has become an adult, killed an Egyptian overseer, and fled to the wilderness in search of refuge.
It is at this moment, when Moses seems settled as a shepherd, that he has the encounter that changes his life: While pasturing the flocks of his father-in-law, he comes upon the bush that burns but is not consumed.
This is when Moses first learns the true name of God and is called upon to return to Egypt, where he is to announce the message of deliverance to the enslaved Israelites and demand of Pharaoh that he let God’s people go.
Both last week’s parsha and the one read this week focus on the importance of the name of God. In the encounter at the bush (Exodus 3:14), when Moses asks God for the Divine Name as a sign of authorization to present to the Israelites, the Torah depicts the reply as Eh’yeh asher Eh’yeh, usually translated as “I am that I am” but more precisely rendered as “I will be [present] as I will be [present].”
In this week’s parallel story, the text presents God’s reply to a similar inquiry as “I am ‘YHVH.’ I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as ‘El Shaddai,’ but by my name ‘YHVH’ I was not known to them.” (6:2-3)
This divergence in the traditions of the names of God has been a signal point for modern biblical scholarship, which in the 19th and early 20th centuries based the “documentary hypothesis” of multiple biblical writers in part on the preferred name used to depict the Deity. Thus some scholars assigned the name “J” (more accurately “Y”) to the writer/s who used “YHVH” (in English Bibles usually rendered “Lord”) and “E” to those writers who used the Hebrew “Elohim” (usually rendered “God”).
This divergence was equally apparent centuries earlier to the rabbis whose insights are preserved in Talmud and midrash. Of course, those teachers assumed as a starting point the Mosaic origins of the Torah and thus the idea of different “writers” would not have occurred to them. Instead, they often took the approach that the Torah used differing names of God to convey different dimensions of God’s attributes.
Contemporary biblical scholarship as well as many branches of contemporary Jewish theology have been less interested in taking apart the ancient texts to decode the documentary threads. Instead, there has been more interest in understanding what the nuances of naming suggest in terms of understanding the “One(ness)” of God as the message of Jewish monotheism.
The two names advanced by the authors of the early chapters of Exodus are difficult to decipher. Both “Eh’yeh asher Eh’yeh” and “YHVH” seem to be related to a Hebrew root word that means “to be, to exist” but in neither case is the derivation totally clear. We remain uncertain as to what these names for the Divine actually mean, even as we are pointed in a direction that suggests what they may mean.
This imprecision in names accurately reflects a generally consistent Jewish teaching that while we can hover around some general sense of what God’s nature is, and may even identify moments in which God seems to be evident, we can never fully know the essence of God or be assured of accuracy in assuming the presence of God.
Though uncertain of what the names mean, we can at least ponder potential meanings as to when and where they are disclosed. It seems significant that the inauguration of Moses’ ministry coincides with the revelation of a new name of God. That we are given two versions suggests there are multiple dimensions to the mission on which Moses is sent.
We might imagine that the two names for God imply two essential ideas: “YHVH” might be experienced as something like “Being” (existence itself) and “Eh’yeh asher Eh’yeh” as “Becoming” (future-focused, changing).
Monotheism suggests that it is a misunderstanding to think one needs to choose between a God who is Being and a God who is Becoming, or between a God who manifests compassion and a God who demands justice. Sometimes this presents significant spiritual difficulty: “I am the God who creates light and darkness, good and evil,” says Isaiah (45:7). But monotheism nonetheless forces us again and again when asked to choose between one dimension of God and another, to say: “God is both.”