Anyway, so, I’m gonna start this devar torah on parshas Lech Lecha with two pesukim from an entirely different parsha. Bear with me. Shemot 6:2-3
(ב) וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹהִים אֶל־מֹשֶׁה וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אֲנִי יְקֹוָק:
(ג) וָאֵרָא אֶל־אַבְרָהָם אֶל־יִצְחָק וְאֶל־יַעֲקֹב בְּאֵל שַׁדָּי וּשְׁמִי יְקֹוָק לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם
“Then God said to Moses, “I am YHWH. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They called me El-Shaddai. They did not know my name, YHWH.”
I told you it was relevant. Now, taken at face value, this verse is very problematic, because a cursory glance at Sefer Bereishis will show you that YHWH is a name that appears very often. Even if we eliminate all mentions of YHWH that are not in the character’s mouths, assuming that the pesukim are aimed at a Sinaitic audience, the name YHWH is spoken by both God and the Avot.
On this basis, biblical critics will claim that this passuk in Shemot is part of the “P document”, whose narrative really did not include YHWH up until this point, and the stories in Bereishit that have YHWH are part of a different document. This, of course, assumes that the “Redactor” was an idiot, who could not comprehend the fact that people might find the blatant internal contradiction problematic. So, if we are to assume a “competent Redactor”, who may be forgiven for small errors but not for relatively major ones such as this, we must assume that this contradiction somehow made sense to him, in which case the need for a Redactor of different documents disappears, or that he had to include both sources unedited because he bound by previous tradition, which essentially admits there was never really a redactor. At any rate, someone at some point had to have looked at this and said, “that makes sense”. So let’s make sense of it.
Let’s take a look again at the pasuk in question. God says he appeared (וָאֵרָא) to the Avot as El-Shaddai, as opposed to the fact that he did not make his name YHWH known to them. ( וּשְׁמִי יְקֹוָק לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם). We should first note that this is not the same as saying they did not know that the name YHWH existed. Rather, God did not make it known to them. What does that mean? The text seems to be implying is that it is somehow contrasted with appearing as El-Shaddai, in that the Avot related to God by way of him appearing to them as El-Shaddai, but did not relate to him by being knowledgeable of the name YHWH.Taken within the context of God talking to Moshe, that relationship is about to change, presumably by way of the events of the Exodus.
That being said, the question appears to be much deeper than simply one of a textual contradiction. What we’re asking after is the nature of the Avot’s Judaism. Unless one takes the tactic of Chazal and assumes that the Avot followed all the tenets of Rabbinic Judaism, which is difficult to take as peshat (www.youtube.com/watch?v=N8MG9YtaZXg), it’s relatively clear that the Judaism of the Avot differed from that of even Torah She’bichtav. Avraham serving milk and meat to his guests and Yaakov marrying two sisters are two of the more obvious examples, but more subtly, the Avot make no attempt to wipe out Avodah Zarah and they offer sacrifices whenever and wherever they want without any mediation from a priesthood. Something changes in the nature of Judaism from the Avot to Har Sinai, and that shift seems to be reflected in this passuk.
Backing up this notion, we see a vast array of names before Matan Torah that incorporate the root “el”….Yishmael and Yisrael being most prominent, but there are others. But the first name that we see that incorporates YHWH is Yehoshua, and even then, its added in by Moshe after Matan Torah (except for Yehuda, which this article I got this particular idea from says makes more sense as an abbreviation of “Yehdael”, except it doesn’t say that in the passuk, so Tzarich iyyun, I’ve wrote enough of this already, there’s probably a nice devar torah as to why Yehuda is an exception). Furthermore, the word “el” is significant in the Ancient Near East context, as, said as a proper noun, it is the name of the head of the Caananite Pantheon, even though it probably more generally meant “god” as a common noun. As opposed to YHWH, which was a God name that has no parallel in the ancient Near East, and even prompts Pharaoh to famously wonder who this YHWH he’s never heard of is. To the avot, YHWH was a chiddush. El was not.
So what I’d like to propose, and you can buy it or not buy it, but it’s at least a good attempt, is that YHWH represents God’s name and true essence as revealed through revelation, and Elohim and its variants represent God as the Avot tried to understand him within the context of the world they lived in. They used God’s name YHWH in conversation amongst themselves (e.g, Bereishit 16:5), even when addressing God (15:2), and they build altars and call upon him in that name (12:7-8). God makes promises about the future using his name YHWH.
But when it comes time to relating to their surrounding context, talking to their neighbors and doing public religious acts, they always find themselves needing to translate their concept of God into different terms, that of Elohim. Yishmael is named with an “el”, even though the etymology given is from YHWH(16:11). Yaakov wakes up and realizes that YHWH is in the place that he slept, but still names it Bet El. Yosef rejects the advances of Potifar’s wife by saying he would be sinning to Elohim by acceding to her wiles. But more than that, the Avot and their families seemed to be constantly trying to explain to themselves what the nature of this radical new deity was. Hagar calls YHWH who appeared to her an אֵל רֳאִי, a “God of seeing”, a definition that is likely inadequate. When Avraham must explain his oath to God after the war of Sedom, he puts in “el” terms, הֲרִמֹתִי יָדִי אֶל-יְהוָה אֵל עֶלְיוֹן, קֹנֵה שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ, “I lifted my hands to the god YHWH, who owns heaven and earth”, (14:22) ie, like a polytheist God who has a set dominion, except his dominion is everything.
Those “translations” aren’t the only time the Elohim idea is used. Perek 17, which details Avraham and Sarah’s name change and Avraham’s circumcision, pretty much exclusively uses Elohim and variants, and the Akeidah is heavily Elohim-based. How do we account for that? I’d propose that when demanding action of the Avot that had to be done in the present tense, the Avot had to make do with the best notion of God they could muster, and not sit around waiting for a more perfect understanding. They had to use the best understanding they had of God to provide the basis for the actions they were commanded to do.
Thus, we return to our initial issue, a reasonable interpretation in hand. I appeared to the Avot as El-Shaddai, an approximation of monotheism based in their pagan context. As such, the religion that they practiced was different, perhaps slightly more pagan-flavored. But now, through the Exodus and the Revelation at Sinai, you will know my true essence, the full extent of monotheistic belief, the full impact on ethics and law and society that the Avot could not have imagined.
So now for the takeaway lesson part, because let’s be honest, a devar torah that just gives a peshat is a bad dvar torah. I think, especially in the absence of a truly Torah-based society, that each generation has its own context, its own “elohim”’s, so to speak, be it Hellenism, Aristotelianism, Humanism, Modernism, Nationalism, Romanticism, etc etc, each era has its own obstacles towards a true understanding of God’s true essence. And while any theology will have its issues, and there is a great danger of distancing one’s self further from the truth in attempts to reconcile religious belief with the context of the day, that does not necessarily invalidate the endeavor. Religion must be made practical and understandable and able to be done by people who consider themselves moral and intelligent human beings, and attempts must be made to make it so. Our understanding may very well be imperfect, but inaction cannot be the alternative.