What's in a Name?
Parashat Va’era, Exodus 6:2-9:35
Jared Eaton, Congregation Simchat Yisrael, West Haven, CT
In this week’s parasha, Va’era, Moses returns to God, discouraged after a disastrous start to his campaign to deliver the Jewish people from slavery.
Moses actually has the temerity to rebuke God for failing to impress Pharaoh. He tells God that not only has he brought evil on his people, but he has completely failed to deliver on his promises at all!
In response, God says to Moses:
“I am Adonai. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob, as El Shaddai. Yet by my Name, Adonai, did I not make myself known to them.” (Exodus 6:2–3)
This response is puzzling for a couple of reasons. First, it seems to be a non-sequitur. This response doesn’t seem in any way to address Moses’ concerns, so why does God bring it up at all? Second, this statement seems to be patently false.
The patriarchs certainly knew God as El Shaddai, “God Almighty.” God introduces himself to Abraham with that name before commanding him in the covenant of circumcision. Isaac blesses Jacob before his long journey in the name of El Shaddai.
But then God says that the patriarchs didn’t know him by the name Adonai. How could that possibly be true?
The Tetragrammaton, the four-letter name of God, YHWH, traditionally substituted by “Adonai” or “HaShem,” appears over 160 times in the book of Genesis alone. On multiple occasions, all three patriarchs use the name Adonai when speaking to or about God. And God even introduces himself to both Abraham and Jacob as Adonai. How then, can he tell Moses that they didn’t know him by that name?
Rashi has an explanation that may shed some light on the matter. He paraphrases God’s words to Moses:
“I was not recognized by them with my attribute of keeping faith, by dint of which my name is called YHWH, which means that I am faithful to verify my words, for I made promises to them, but I did not fulfill them while they were alive.”
What Rashi is referring to is the context in which God uses his different names. A midrash from Exodus Rabbah tells us that each of the names of God describes a different aspect of his nature. Elohim describes his attribute of Justice. Tzva’ot is his characteristic of warring against the wicked. El Shaddai describes his forgiving nature, and finally, Adonai is his faithfulness.
In this dark moment in Moses’ life, when he doubts the ability of God to fulfill his promises and deliver his people, God teaches him something very profound and encouraging.
God tells him that while Abraham, Isaac and Jacob may have known the name Adonai, they never got to see the fullness of everything that name signifies. God introduces himself as Adonai to Abraham and Jacob, and then immediately makes a promise to each one.
To Abraham he says:
“I am Adonai who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans, in order to give you this land to inherit it.” (Genesis 15:7)
And to Jacob:
“I am Adonai, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie, I will give it to you and to your seed.” (Genesis 28:13)
God tells them that his name is Adonai, and that he is a keeper of promises. But the patriarchs never got to see the promises God made fulfilled in their lifetimes. They never understood the true meaning of the name Adonai. But Moses will.
God is going to show Moses things that Abraham never saw. Moses is going to see the fulfillment of the name Adonai in ways that Isaac never imagined. God made promises to Jacob, He is going to keep them with Moses.
Moses was blessed to know the name of Adonai and the fulfillment of his promises. How much more so are we who know the name of Yeshua and the promises that he fulfilled?
To paraphrase Hebrews 11: Moses was commended for his faith, but even he did not receive the fullness of what was promised, because God had provided something even better for us in Messiah Yeshua.
Yeshua bears many names in the scriptures: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. He is the Lamb of God and the Light of the World. He is the First and Last, the Beginning and the End, the Root and the Offspring of David, the Bright and Morning Star.
Each name describes something different and wonderful about our Messiah. May all of Israel be as blessed as Moses was, and come to understand the true meaning of the name Yeshua!