Genesis 4:26 says that in the days of Adam’s grandson Enosh, men “began to call upon the name of the LORD” (Hebrew: YHWH). Yet centuries later God reveals himself to Moses as YHWH and states that he was not known by that name to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. A gracEmail subscriber asks whether Moses inserted the name YHWH in writing Genesis after the fact or whether his ancient ancestors also used that name of God.
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For the Hebrew people and their Mesopotamian neighbors, a name was more than a label. It often described or defined the essence of the person named. Israel’s neighbors also commonly believed that knowing a god’s name gave them some power over that god. When God encounters Moses at the burning bush on Mount Horeb or Sinai, he identifies himself as the God whom Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had known as El Shaddai (God Almighty). God thus assures Moses that he is no new deity but the very one who had dealt with the patriarchal ancestors — the God who is about to fulfil his promise made to Abraham centuries before to deliver his people from Egyptian bondage (Ex. 6:2-8; see Gen. 15:13-16).
God also tells Moses that henceforth he will be known to the Israelites by his covenant name of YHWH (represented in English Bibles as Yahweh, Jehovah or the LORD). This name literally means “He Who Is” or “He Who Makes.” God is whatever he needs to be on behalf of his covenant people, whether deliverer, provider, defender and so forth. Israel cannot manipulate or control this God. His covenant or relational “name” constantly reminds them that he is in control — not only of their destiny but of history itself.
In the later writing of Genesis, God’s covenant name of YHWH was inserted, further reminding the Israelites that the God of Creation (Gen. 2:4) and the Flood (Gen. 6:8), the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, is the very same God who worked through Moses to deliver his people from Egyptian bondage and to bring them into covenant relationship with himself. Interestingly, the name of Adam’s grandson Enosh, in whose time men began to call on the name of YHWH, literally means “mortal.” The realization of our own mortality and total dependence on God still stimulates us to worship YHWH — “He Who Is and Who Makes,” who ultimately is all that we need in life and in death and in the world beyond.