Did the Patriarchs Know Jehovah by Name?
by Eric Lyons, M.Min.
Can you imagine if a friend whom you have known for years told someone else that you did not know him? Or, what if this friend, whose family name your family has known for generations, and whose first name you personally have known for at least two decades, indicated that you were not aware of his name? Such would likely make you wonder whether this “friend” was a liar or a lunatic. Similarly, some Bible students (and skeptics) have questioned why the Bible says that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob did not know God by His name Jehovah when the book of Genesis indicates that they did.
After Moses first visited Pharaoh regarding the release of the Israelites from bondage, God assured Moses that the Israelites would be liberated. He then added: “I am Jehovah: and I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, as God Almighty; but by my name Jehovah I was not known to them” (Exodus 6:2-3, emp. added; NOTE: All Scripture citations in this article are taken from the American Standard Version). The difficulty that Bible students have with this statement is that the name “Jehovah” (Hebrew Yahweh; translated LORD in most modern versions) appears approximately 160 times in the book of Genesis. Furthermore, “Jehovah” is used between Genesis chapters 12-50 (which deal mainly with the families of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) more than 100 times.
After God provided a ram for Abraham to sacrifice (instead of his son, Isaac) on Mount Moriah, Genesis 22:14 says, “Abraham called the name of that place Jehovah-jireh. As it is said to this day, in the mount of Jehovah it shall be provided” (emp. added). Years later, Isaac asked his son Jacob (who was deceiving his father in hopes of receiving a blessing), “How is it that thou hast found it so quickly, my son? And he said, because Jehovah thy God sent me good speed” (Genesis 27:20, emp. added). How could God tell Moses that “by my name Jehovah I was not known to them” (Exodus 6:3), if Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were well aware of the name Jehovah, and even used it in their conversations? Is God a liar? Does the Bible contradict itself on this point? What reasonable answer can be given?
There is no denying the fact that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were aware of God’s name, Jehovah (Yahweh) [cf. Genesis 15:7; 22:14; 24:35,40,42,48,50,51,56; 26:22; 27:20; 49:18; etc.]. As John J. Davis wrote: “[I]n the book of Genesis...the name of Yahweh is introduced in a way which utterly precludes the supposition that it is used proleptically, or that it is anything but a correct account of the incident and the actual term employed” (Davis, 1963, 4:34). Based upon the number of times the word (Yahweh) appears before Exodus 6:3, and the various ways in which it was used, including being a part of compound names that have specific meanings (e.g., Jehovah-jireh, meaning “Jehovah will provide”), it is unwise to argue that the patriarchs in Genesis were unaware of the name Jehovah. So what is the answer to this alleged problem?
Although Bible critics and unbelievers may scoff at any attempt to explain this difficult passage, which they believe is irresolvable, the fact is, a logical explanation exists. The expressions “to know the name of Jehovah” or simply “to know Jehovah” frequently mean more than a mere awareness of His name and existence. Rather, “to know” (from the Hebrew word yada) often means to learn by experience. When Samuel was a boy, the Bible reveals that he “ministered before/unto Jehovah” (1 Samuel 2:18; 3:1), and “increased in favor both with Jehovah, and also with men” (2:26). Later, however, we learn that “Samuel did not yet know Jehovah, neither was the word of Jehovah yet revealed unto him” (1 Samuel 3:7, emp. added). In one sense, Samuel “knew” Jehovah early on, but beginning in 1 Samuel 3:7 his relationship with God changed. From this point forward he began receiving direct revelations from God (cf. 1 Samuel 3:11-14; 8:7-10,22; 9:15-17; 16:1-3; etc.). Comparing this new relationship with God to his previous relationship and knowledge of Him, the author of 1 Samuel could reasonably say that beforehand “Samuel did not yet know Jehovah” (3:7).
According to Gleason Archer, the phrase “to know that I am Jehovah” (or “to know the name of Jehovah”) appears in the Old Testament at least 26 times, and “in every instance it signifies to learn by actual experience that God is Yahweh...” (1982, pp. 66-67). In the book of Exodus alone, the expression “to know” (yada) appears five times in relation to Jehovah, and “[i]n every case it suggests an experiential knowledge of both the person and power of Yahweh. In every case the knowledge of Yahweh is connected with some deed or act of Yahweh which in some way reveals both His person and power” (Davis, 4:39). For example, in the very passage that has drawn so much criticism, God stated: “I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God; and ye shall know that I am Jehovah your God, who bringeth you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians” (Exodus 6:7, emp. added). Later, after God already had sent ten plagues upon the Egyptians (Exodus 7:14-12:30), parted the Red Sea (Exodus 14), and miraculously made bitter water sweet (Exodus 15:22-25), He said to Moses, “I have heard the murmurings of the children of Israel: speak unto them, saying, At even ye shall eat flesh, and in the morning ye shall be filled with bread: and ye shall know that I am Jehovah your God”(Exodus 16:11-12, emp. added). After several more weeks, God said to Moses on Mount Sinai: “And they shall know that I am Jehovah their God, that brought them forth out of the land of Egypt, that I might dwell among them: I am Jehovah their God” (Exodus 29:46, emp. added). Did the Israelites not know Who Jehovah was by this time? Without question, they did. “They had already learned of Him as deliverer; now they would know Him as their provider” (Davis, 4:39).
Notice also what Isaiah prophesied centuries after the time of Moses.
Now therefore, what do I here, saith Jehovah, seeing that my people is taken away for nought? They that rule over them do howl, saith Jehovah, and my name continually all the day is blasphemed. Therefore my people shall know my name: therefore (they shall know) in that day that I am he that doth speak; behold, it is I (Isaiah 52:5-6, emp. added).
More than 100 years later, following Judah’s entrance into Babylonian captivity, God foretold of their return to Judea and spoke to them through the prophet Jeremiah. He said: “Therefore, behold, I will cause them to know, this once will I cause them to know my hand and my might; and they shall know that my name is Jehovah” (Jeremiah 16:21, emp. added). Are we to gather from these statements that Israel and Judah were not aware of God’s name (Jehovah) before this time in their history? Certainly not. Obviously, something else is meant by the expression “to know (or not know) the name of Jehovah.” In truth, it is a Hebrew idiom that “generally signifies knowledge of some particular act or attribute of Yahweh as it is revealed in His dealing with men” (Davis, 4:40).
Even in modern times it is possible for someone to know a person’s name or office without really “knowing” the person (or understanding his/her office). Imagine a group of foreigners who had never heard of Michael “Air” Jordan before meeting him at a particular convention a few years after his retirement from the NBA. They might come to know his name in one sense, but it could also be said that by his name “Air Jordan,” they really did not know him. Only after going to a gym and watching him dunk a basketball by jumping (or “flying” in the air) from the free throw line, and seeing him in his original “Air Jordan” shoes, would the group begin to understand the name “Air Jordan.”
Admittedly, at first glance Exodus 6:3 may seem to contradict what the book of Genesis teaches about the patriarchs’ knowledge of Jehovah. However, when one realizes that the Hebrew idiom “to know” (and specifically “to know” a name) frequently means more than a mere awareness of a person, then the difficulty disappears. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob knew God as Creator and sovereign Ruler of the Universe. But it would not be until centuries later, when God fulfilled the promises made to these patriarchs by delivering the nation of Israel from Egyptian bondage, that the full import of the name Jehovah would become known.
Archer, Gleason L. (1982), An Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan).
Davis, John J. (1963), “The Patriarchs’ Knowledge of Jehovah: A Critical Monograph on Exodus 6:3,” Grace Theological Journal, 4:29-43, Winter.