Common Names and Secret Names

By Gary A. Rendsburg

Published January 16, 2004, issue of January 16, 2004.

One of the most enigmatic passages in the entire Torah appears in this week’s portion, Shemot. I refer to Exodus 3:13-14:

And Moses said to God, “Behold I come to the children of Israel, and I will say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you’; and they will say to me, ‘What is his name?’ What shall I say to them?” And God said to Moses, “Ehyeh-asher-Ehyeh”; and he said, “Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, ‘Ehyeh has sent me to you.’”

In this exchange atop “the mountain of God,” Horeb/Sinai, Moses seeks to learn the name of God, and God responds with a name that appears nowhere else in the Bible, “Ehyeh-asher-Ehyeh.” Numerous questions arise: Why does Moses not know the name of God? True, he was raised in an Egyptian environment, but he also was aware of his Hebrew origins and therefore would have known the two most common terms for the God of Israel: the generic word Elohim, “God,” and the specific name YHWH, traditionally rendered as “LORD.” Furthermore, it is clear that God himself understood that Moses was not seeking such a plain answer as either Elohim or YHWH, but rather sought a more arcane piece of information. This can be inferred from the fact that God responds not with either of the common names, but rather with the unique expression “Ehyeh-asher-Ehyeh,” to be rendered as either “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be.”Every commentator on the book of Exodus, from the Middle Ages to the present, felt compelled to comment on this passage. Notwithstanding the plethora of proposals, I believe that there is room for one more.

Much of the narrative of Israel in Egypt, recorded at the end of the book of Genesis and the beginning of the book of Exodus, can be understood only against the backdrop of ancient Egyptian culture, religion and mythology. Fortunately, after two centuries of archaeological fieldwork in Egypt, we possess a vast amount of information on ancient Egypt. Our text from Exodus 3:13-14 can be explained only after we describe a particular mythological text from Egypt.

The text in question is called by scholars “The Legend of Isis and the Name of Ra,” the main source of which is a papyrus in the Turin Museum dated to the 19th Dynasty. This dating is important, because the 19th Dynasty is exactly the period (1307-1196 B.C.E.) during which most scholars would place the Israelites in Egypt. In this myth, Isis, the goddess of wisdom, seeks to learn the name of Ra, the sun god — not his regular name of course, which is known to all, but his unknown secret name. Ra, however, refuses to disclose his name, stating, “My father and my mother told me my name. I have hidden it in my body since birth so as to prevent the power of a male or female magician from coming into existence against me.” That is to say, Ra fears that his secret name will fall into the hands of a powerful magician who then could utilize it in some voodoo-like fashion to gain control over him — such were the beliefs about magic in ancient Egypt and elsewhere. But Isis would not be stopped in her quest. She prepared a venomous snake that bit Ra, causing the sun god to suffer from great fever and burning: “The poison burned with a burning, it was more powerful than flame or fire.” Isis promises to provide the antidote to the venom if Ra would disclose to her his secret name. With no option at this point, Ra does so. The crucial passage reads, “The great god announced his name to Isis, the Great One of Magic,” after which Isis fulfills her promise and Ra is cured.

Note how the reader learns only that Ra revealed his name to Isis, but that the reader never learns the name itself. It is simply too dangerous for the author to disclose the name publicly, lest malevolent forces gain control over Ra.

In light of this Egyptian text, we now can understand what the biblical text is all about. The God of Israel also has a secret name but, unlike his Egyptian counterpart, there is no danger in disclosing that name upon a simple request for the information. Given the Egyptian cultural setting of our story, the author imputes to God a mysterious name and presents Moses as seeking to learn the name. But in contrast to the long give-and-take between Isis and Ra, only a portion of which I have quoted and summarized above, the exchange between Moses and God is simple and direct. Moses asks, and God responds.

Moreover, and here is the most crucial point, it is not only Moses who learns the secret name of God, but every reader of the Torah does so as well. Space does not permit me to discuss further the exact nature of the phrase Ehyeh-asher-Ehyeh; all that is important for the present purpose is to understand that this name of God occurs only here in the Bible, and therefore stands as his special name, whether we consider it arcane, mysterious or esoteric.

Now the reason behind this dichotomy is clear. The ancient polytheists believed, as the Isis and Ra myth demonstrates plainly, that even the most powerful of deities could be controlled and weakened by human magicians. Not so in ancient Israel, however, where magic played no role whatsoever in the official religion propounded by the biblical authors. The Torah in several places prohibits all sorts of magical praxes, and an illuminating passage may be found in Numbers 23:23: “For there is no divination in Jacob, and no magic in Israel.”

Exodus 3:13-14, accordingly, is a polemic against the religions of Israel’s neighbors, most prominently Egypt, where the worlds of magic and religion overlapped considerably. YHWH, no less than Ra, also has a secret name, but there is no danger in God’s disclosing the name to Moses, and indeed for the author of Exodus to disclose the name to everyone.

Gary A. Rendsburg is the Paul and Berthe Hendrix Memorial Professor of Jewish Studies at Cornell University.



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