“God spoke to Moshe, he said to him: I am YHWH. I was seen by Avraham, by Yitzchak , and by Yaakov as El Shaddai, but (by) my name YHWH I was not known (lo nodati) to them.” (Exodus 6:2-3)
Throughout the ages, commentators have noted the incongruity of God’s assertion that the patriarchs did not experience God’s presence as YHWH. Similarly, the word “nodati” is an anomaly. Can grammatical irregularities teach us about the human relationship with God?
The text asserts that God was not known to the patriarchs. Yet we know that God does indeed speak to Abraham and Jacob, and certainly is present at the most traumatic moment of Isaac’s life. When Abraham despairs that he will not have children, God appears to him and promises progeny, saying: “I am YHWH who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land, to inherit it” (Gen. 15:7). Using the same introduction, “I am YHWH”, God appears to Jacob after he spends the night dreaming of angels ascending and descending a ladder (Gen. 28:13). In his bookUnderstanding Exodus, Prof. Moshe Greenberg coined the term ‘authority formula’ for the phrase “I am YHWH”. The phrase, he argues, is not an actual introduction, but a formal prologue such as those which assert the authority of the ancient Near Eastern monarch. For the patriarchs God is known as El Shaddai, implying a personal relationship with no demands or obligations within the relationship. Not so for Moses, who is called upon to be the leader of God’s people.
Summarizing the traditional commentators, Nechama Leibowitz resolves the puzzle in a different way. It is not that that the patriarchs did not know God as YHWH. Rather, they knew only a particular aspect of God’s presence. It was only in later history that God could reveal Godself more fully to the prophet Moses.
A midrash remarks upon the use of the phrase “lo nodati lahem” to interpret Moses’ unique relationship with God. The text is in the passive form: “I was not known to them”. The relationship between God and the patriarchs is specific to each individual, each man accepting God’s promises. The midrash teaches that the patriarchs do not confront God, while Moses does. In Exodus 6:8-9, Moses speaks God’s words to the Children of Israel: “I will bring you into the land (over) which I lifted my hand (in an oath) to give to Avraham, to Yitzchak and to Yaakov: I will give it to you as a possession. I, YHWH.” But the people do not listen to Moses, “out of shortness of spirit and out of hard servitude”. Moses, dejected, protests that he is unequipped to persuade Pharaoh to let the Israelites go.
God’s relationships with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were formed in the hills of the Land of Israel, and were personal and intimate. In that environment there was no competition from outside idolatrous cultures, and God does not appear to be jealous of other gods. When Abraham, Isaac and Jacob call on El Shaddai, they are invoking a relationship of a personal protector and patron. Moses’ relationship with God is formed in the turbulent and sophisticated culture of Pharaoh’s court. Moses is steeped in this culture, but turns away when he recognises its brutality and injustice. When God manifests Godself to Moses as YHWH, the nature of the relationship between human beings and the divine changes dramatically. God is no longer personal protector and patron of an individual. God is now known as YHWH, with Moses serving as God’s prophet to the Israelites.
Rabbi Daniella Kolodny is the Director of Rabbinical Development at Masorti Judaism.