Friday, 9 August 2013

Names of God - Exodus 3-6:1-8

I now move on two the second book in the Pentateuch: Exodus. Instead of narrating the whole story to you - of which I am sure many people already know - I will instead try to highlight key areas of interest. 

I wish to quickly start with a small comparison of Moses' flight from Pharaoh to the Egyptian story of Sinuhe, in which a high official to the now deceased Pharaoh, flees to the land of the Asiatics for safety (supposedly worried about being blamed for the mysterious death?); Sinuhe is welcomed by the people and lives a successful life there, before returning to Egypt. Many of the Biblical stories bare similarities to other myths, mostly Mesopotamian ones, and so it is possible that this was inspired from the Egyptian tale.

Now in this post I am focusing on the names of God given in this particular section. This starts with the dialogue between Moses and God in the Burning Bush. Moses asks God what his name is so that the Israelites will know that he has truly been sent by their God and so God responds:

3:14: '"I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: "I AM has sent me to you."' God also said to Moses, "Say to the Israelites, 'The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob - has sent me to you,' This is my name for ever, the name by which I am to be remembered from generation to generation."'

The first line of course is curious. The Hebrew for 'Lord' sounds like the Hebrew for 'I Am' and so may be the origin of this. It seems to be an affirmation of his existence, so maybe he is one who exists? At this stage in the Bible God still appears to be a tribal God of the Israelite people, and less so a universal God of all peoples, as shown here.

This name seems to change later on where God explains that he has revealed himself under different names to Moses' ancestors:

6:2-3: '"I am the Lord [Yahweh]. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty [El Shaddai], but by my name the Lord [Yahweh] I did not make myself known to them."'

(Parenthesis added)

Here we see that God has shown himself to his followers in different names - different names for the same God. Interestingly, in the Genesis creation myth he is referred to as Elohim, the plural form of El; El was the chief God of the Canaanite pantheon and his name is carried on in the epithet El Shaddai, as revealed to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God has revealed himself to these pre-monotheistic people with the name of the chief polytheistic god of the Canaanite religion! Before this point many people and places contained the word 'El' within them - IsraEL and BethEL for example; now names and places contain 'Yah' instead, progressing away from the association with the pagan god, to a new name of God, Yahweh, for the new tribe of people that Moses is about to form. 

Previously God was seen as a powerful chief god with henotheistic reverence, elevated above other gods; now he is given a new name in an attempt to individualise himself and only have association with the Israelite people. After this he'll keep his new name but broaden and become a universal god and not just a tribal one.

God = El (singular), Elohim (plural), Eloah (feminine)
God Almighty = El Shaddai
The Lord = Yahweh/Jehovah

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