One day while shepherding the flock of his father-in-law Jethro (Reuel) the “priest of Midian,” Moses found himself at the “mountain of God” or Horeb (Choreb [LXX]). Seemingly, Horeb is called the “mountain of God” because of the divine revelation that Moses received there. Josephus, however, wrote that men believed that God resided there and that shepherds did not dare to ascend the mountain. (Antiquities, II, xii, 1) It appears that Horeb was also called Mount Sinai (See Exodus 3:12; 19:1, 2, 10-12.) In other contexts, Horeb designated the mountainous area in which Mount Sinai was located. (3:1)
In the area, Moses noted that a bush was in flames, but the fire did not consume it. Therefore, he turned aside to determine why the bush was not burned up. From the midst of the bush, Moses then heard the voice of YHWH’s angel. That angel was the direct representative of YHWH and spoke in his name. Therefore, the account represents YHWH as speaking to Moses and telling him not to come near and to remove his footwear because the place where he stood was holy ground. The ground was holy, apparently because God had revealed himself there to Moses. Speaking in God’s name, the angel said: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Numerous translations render the singular “father” as “ancestors.” (CEV, NJB, TEV) It is preferable to retain the singular “father,” as this is also the rendering in the Septuagint. The reference to “father” could be understood to apply to Amram, the father of Moses. His forefathers (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) worshiped the only true God and so did his father Amram. Accordingly, there existed a relationship in the ancestral family with God, which included trust in him as the one who would make it possible for their descendants eventually to possess the land of Canaan. Seemingly, in recognition of his lowliness and flawed human condition, Moses, out of “fear” or reverential regard, concealed his face so as not to look upon God or upon the angel in his capacity as God’s direct representative. (3:2-6)
Through his angel, God revealed that he was fully aware of the suffering of his people and that he had heard their outcry for help and relief. He had “come down” or turned his attention to them for the purpose of bringing them out of Egypt and settling them in a land “flowing with milk and honey.” There would be an abundance of milk from female goats and cows and much honey from wild bees and also in the form of syrup obtained from fruit. At the time, the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites (Gergesites [LXX]), Hivites, and Jebusites were inhabiting the land. God commissioned Moses to go to Pharaoh and to lead his fellow Hebrews (“sons of Israel”) out of Egypt. (3:7-10)
Moses did not consider himself qualified for the task and raised the question, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and lead the sons of Israel out of Egypt?” Speaking for God, the angel assured Moses with the words, “I will be with you, and this will be the sign for you that I have sent you: When you have led the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God upon this mountain” (Horeb or Mount Sinai). (3:11, 12)
Moses believed that, upon hearing that God had sent him, the “sons of Israel” (apparently the representatives of the people) would ask him, “What is his name?” He wondered what reply he should give. The answer in the Hebrew text is, ’ehyéh ’ashér ’ehyéh, (I will be who I will be), and the rendering of these words in the Septuagint is, egó eimi ho ón (I am the one who is). Both the Hebrew words and the Septuagint rendering associate the answer with the thought of “being.” Moses was to say to the “sons” or people of Israel, ’Ehyéh (I will be [ho ón (the one who is), LXX] “has sent me to you.” The Hebrew expression ’ehyéh ’ashér ’ehyéh, may be understood to indicate that God would be exactly who he has revealed himself to be. He is the ultimate Source of everything that exists and that will come to be in fulfillment of his word and purpose. Never will he deviate from what he has declared or revealed he would prove himself to be. The rendering of the Septuagint egó eimi ho ón may in a more specific way identify God as the Eternal One, the One who is and who always will be. (3:13, 14)
Moses’ question about God’s name may relate to his wondering whether God would reveal himself under a new name that would reflect his purpose respecting his people. The words of the representative angel then specifically focused on the name that appears to incorporate the Hebrew root hayáh (to be.) “Thus say to the sons of Israel, YHWH, God of your fathers, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is my name for all time to come, and this is my memorial from generation to generation” (or throughout all generations). The distinctive name represented by the four Hebrew consonants (yod, he, waw, and he) was the name by which God wanted to be remembered for all future time. It was to be his “memorial.” He is identified as the same God who had revealed himself to the forefathers of the people of Israel, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (3:15; see the Notes section.)
YHWH’s angel instructed Moses to assemble the elders of Israel and tell them that YHWH the God of their fathers or ancestors (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) had appeared to him and that he had observed their mistreatment in Egypt. Moses was to assure them that YHWH would deliver them from the affliction they had experienced in Egypt and lead them to the land that the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, (Gergesites [LXX]), Hivites, and Jebusites were then inhabiting. It was a land “flowing with milk and honey.” (3:16, 17; see 3:8 for additional comments.)
The angel told Moses that the elders would listen to him or believe his words. Accompanied by the elders, Moses was to go to Pharaoh, saying to him that “YHWH the God of the Hebrews” had encountered them and that they desired permission for a three days’ journey into the wilderness to sacrifice to YHWH their God. The petition for a few days to leave Egypt was reasonable, and it served to test Pharaoh. If the request then had been for a permanent departure of all the people with their livestock, Pharaoh’s refusal might have been understandable. YHWH knew, however, that Pharaoh would not grant the reasonable request and that he would not let the people leave unless he was forced to do so upon experiencing a “mighty hand” or power directed against him. (3:18, 19)
Through his angel, YHWH declared that he would strike Egypt with his wonders or with deeds that would give rise to astonishment and fear. Thereafter Pharaoh would let the people depart. At that time, YHWH would “give favor” to his people before the “eyes of the Egyptians” so that they would not leave the land empty-handed. There would be no doubt in the minds of the Egyptians that the Israelites were YHWH’s people and under his care and protection, resulting in their coming to have great respect for and a measure of fear of them. As a consequence, the Egyptians would be prepared to grant their requests. The Israelite women were to ask their Egyptians neighbors or any woman residing in a neighbor’s house for articles of silver and gold and clothing. With the obtained items, the Israelite women were to dress and adorn their sons and daughters. The enslaved Israelites had worked for nothing in Egypt, and the Egyptians had greatly profited from their labor. Rightfully, then, the Israelites could exact payment and thereby despoil the Egyptians. (3:20-22)
Throughout the centuries, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob used the name YHWH freely. The abbreviated form of the name (Yah) is part of many personal names, and the name itself was used in naming places (YHWH-jireh, YHWH-nissi). In the book of Psalms, one often finds the expression “hallelujah,” which means “praise Yah [Jah]” or “praise YHWH.” Military correspondence from the time of the Babylonian conquest of the kingdom of Judah and written on pottery fragments that were found at Tell ed-Duweir in 1935 contain the name YHWH. Long before that time, non-Israelite peoples were familiar with this name. For example, in the ninth century BCE, the Moabite Stone (or Mesha Stele) was set up by King Mesha. It refers to the God of the Israelites as YHWH. In connection with his victories over Israel, Mesha boasted, “I took [vessels] of YHWH.”
In the sixth century BCE, a temple for the worship of YHWH existed in the land of Egypt, and sacrifices were offered on the altar there. A papyrus letter (written in Aramaic) from the fifth century BCE says that, when Cambyses came to Egypt, he found this temple in Elephantine. Cambyses, the son of Cyrus the Great who conquered Babylon with the military forces under his command, died in 522 BCE. This means that, before the temple was rebuilt in Jerusalem, a functioning temple existed in Egypt. According to the letter, the temple in Elephantine was destroyed at the instigation of Vidranga. His son Nefayan led Egyptians with other forces to Elephantine and leveled the temple to the ground. The letter from the fifth century BCE was addressed to “Bagoas [Bagohi], governor of Judah,” and petitioned him for support in having the temple rebuilt. Bagoas was the Persian governor, and the letter to him referred to God as YHW (the Aramaic letter represented the divine name with three letters, not four). Nevertheless, it shows that non-Israelites would have understood who was being designated by the name YHWH.
At the time Judea came under the control of Antiochus IV Epiphanes in the second century BCE, a campaign against the Jews prohibited them from using the divine name (YHWH). According to the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah, 18b), the Grecian government had forbidden the Israelites to mention God’s name. (Also see 1 Maccabees 1:10-61 about what the Jews experienced.) When, however, the “Hasmoneans became strong and defeated them” (the forces of Antiochus IV Epiphanes), they ordained that the people should include the name of God even in legal documents. The sages objected, claiming that once a debt was repaid, the debtor would throw the document away and God’s name would be dishonored.
It appears that, after the view of the “sages” came to be the dominant one, the use of the name YHWH became progressively more restrictive. This is also suggested in the way the name YHWH was written in Hebrew manuscripts. The Great Isaiah Scroll (dated between 150 and 100 BCE) contains the name YHWH in the same script as the rest of the text. In the best preserved scroll of the book of Psalms (11Q5, dated between 30 and 50 CE), the name YHWH is written in paleo-Hebrew script. It may well be that this different treatment of the divine name alerted the reader not to pronounce it. An even clearer indication of this are ancient manuscript fragments that represent the divine name by four dots (1QS, 4Q175, 4Q176). In what is called the “Community Rule” (1QS), the penalty for uttering the divine name for any reason whatsoever was expulsion, and the individual was not allowed to return to the “Council of the Community.” Josephus, probably expressing the view of the Pharisees, wrote, “God declared to [Moses] the holy name, which had never been discovered to men before; concerning which it is not lawful for me to say any more.” (Antiquities, II, xii, 4)
In ancient Greek translations of the Hebrew Scriptures such as the fragmentary Minor Prophets Scroll (8HevXIIgr), the name YHWH appears in paleo-Hebrew script. Without knowing the ancient Hebrew script nor how the name should be pronounced, the presence of the divine name would have been meaningless to a Greek reader. It would have been comparable to the experience of someone today who only knows English and then finds Hebrew letters in an English text. Another factor that poses a problem when Hebrew letters are inserted into a Greek text is that Hebrew is read from right to left, whereas Greek is read from left to right. Some copyists of the Hebrew name YHWH made it resemble the Hebrew in Greek capital letters (Π Ι Π Ι), which led to the mispronunciation of the divine name as Pipi. A fragment of a Greek translation of the book of Leviticus [4Q129, thought to date from the first century BCE] transliterates the divine name as IAO, which would suggest the pronunciation Yahoh. This Greek transliteration may have been widely known, for it is found in the writings of the historian Diodorus Siculus (c. 80 BCE to c. 20 BCE). Diodorus Siculus mentioned “Moses [Moyses] and the God who is invoked as Iao.” (Book I, 94) Possibly IAO was the manner in which the oldest Greek manuscripts of the Hebrew Scriptures represented the divine name. In later centuries, this transliteration of the name YHWH seems to have disappeared, and the Jews, in general, did not pronounce the name. As a memorial name, only the four letters have been preserved, but the ancient pronunciation has been lost, apparently on account of developments that started in the second century BCE.