Last week’s Parasha concluded with the death of both Jacob and his son, Joseph. The reading of the first book of Moses, Genesis (Beresheet), also concluded.
This week’s Torah portion is the first reading in the second book of Moses, Exodus, which is called Shemot in Hebrew, meaning names.
Although the 50 chapters of Genesis spans a period of about 2,000 years, in 40 chapters Shemot essentially follows the life of Moses from his birth to the glory of the Lord filling the Tabernacle that Moses constructed in the wilderness.
Sefer Shemot (Book of Exodus) begins with a genealogical introduction to the House of Yaacov (Jacob) and his 12 sons.
God blesses this small clan of 70 souls, increasing them exponentially so that their population explosion causes a new king of Egypt, who didn’t know Joseph, to become apprehensive fearing that they might assert their might or leave Egypt altogether.
In reaction to his own fears, Pharaoh resorts to persecution, enslavement, oppression, and forced labor to suppress the Israelites; however, the more they are afflicted, the more they multiply.
Pharaoh, therefore, orders a genocide—the drowning of all newborn Israeli males.
This, of course, does not go unnoticed by God.
He raises up Moses to deliver the Israelites from Egypt. During the course of that deliverance, God drowns the Egyptian males of Pharaoh’s army in the Sea of Reeds after the Israelites pass over to their freedom in safety.
This highlights the principal of reciprocity in God’s word that whatever we sow we reap:
“The day of the LORD is near for all nations. As you have done, it will be done to you; your deeds will return upon your own head.” (Obadiah 1:15)
The Importance of Names
“God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: I AM has sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3:14)
The name of this Parasha, Shemot, is derived from the first words of the first verse of Exodus: “these are the names.”
The next four verses, of course, name Jacob and his sons.
Jacob’s name, Yaacov, comes from the root ekev, which means the heel, since he was born grasping the heel of his brother Esau.
This name can also mean supplanter or deceiver.
Jacob’s name reflects his character. He spent his time grasping after the blessing and birthright of his brother, even taking them through trickery and deception.
He then spent years reaping the seeds of deception that he had sown. His father-in-law, Laban, deceived him by giving him Leah as his wife instead of Rachel. Laban also deceived him several times with his wages.
His name was only changed to Israel—the primary meaning of which is “one who struggled with God”—after he wrestled all night with an angel of God. Jacob struggled with God and prevailed.
When the components of this name are separated, Jacob’s unique position seems to be revealed, since the name is a combination yashar (straight/honest) and El(God). “Straight to God” is a name shows that Jacob is at peace with himself and with God.
The first few verses are not the only place in this Parasha that touches on names.
In the second chapter, there are special circumstances governing the naming of both Moses and his son Gershom.
Because Pharaoh has ordered the murder of all the male Israelite newborns, his mother hides him for three months and then entrusts his life to the Lord. She places him in a tarred basket and sets him adrift on the Nile, where Pharaoh’s daughter finds him floating.
Because she draws him out of the water, she calls him Moses, which means pulled out. (Exodus 2:10)
Years later, after fleeing Egypt because he killed an Egyptian who was beating an Israelite, Moses has a son during his “exile.”
He names him Gershom, which means foreigner there, “for he said, ‘I have been a foreigner in a foreign land.” (Exodus 2:22)
Why such an emphasis upon genealogy and names in the Bible? It is because in a Hebraic context, names are highly significant and usually say something about the person’s character or destiny.
In this Parasha, for instance, God provides two (or perhaps three) of His names to Moses when he asks God for His name in order to validate his mission with the Israelites as God’s appointed deliverer.
In those days, the people would have understood from the name what kind of God He was—in other words, His character.
Here are the names that God provided:
- Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, which means I am/ will be what I am/ will be;
- Ehyeh, which means I Am or I Will Be; and the related unutterable name
- Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey (YHVH), which is derived from the Hebrew verb hayah (to be).
The pronunciation of this unutterable name, YHVH, was only spoken by the High Priest during Yom Kippur. When the people heard this name, they prostrated themselves in sincere reverence and holy fear.
Because this name has no vowel markings, there is some debate as to how it is pronounced. Some say Jehovah. Some say Yahweh.
Out of respect, the Jewish People say HaShem (The Name) when speaking of Him, and during the reading of the Torah or the Siddur (prayer book) when YHVH is encountered in the text, the word Adonai is spoken, which means Lord or Master.
Many Bibles substitute LORD in caps for YHVH (or YHWH) to protect and honor this ineffable name of God.
YHVH reveals that He is the Source of all being and that anything in existence derives its existence from Him.
He is the Foundation of existence and so language insufficiently describes Him, which is one reason why He has so many names.
These four letters, YHVH, are used to form the phrase Hayah Hoveh Yi’Yeh, which means He was; He is; and He will be.
His name reveals that He is timeless and the omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, sovereign and all-powerful Creator of Heaven and Earth.
“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.” (Revelation 1:8)
When God reveals His name to Moses, Moses still has reservations about how effective he will be in delivering God’s message to Pharaoh and the Israelites.
Moses knows that he is not a smooth talking salesman who can sell wool to a shepherd whose sheep fill a thousand hills.
But his reservations indicate something more than his inabilities. They seem to indicate a deeply rooted insecurity, even after God provided him with the ability to perform miracles, as well as use the power of His name.