Parasha Shemot (Names): A New Name

Parashah Name  – 13 Shemot, שְׁמוֹת

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.

In response, God confirms His ability to transform Moses into all that he needs to complete the task:

“The LORD said to him, ‘Who gave human beings their mouths?  Who makes them deaf or mute?  Who gives them sight or makes them blind?  Is it not I, the LORD?”  (Exodus 4:11)

Moses is still not convinced and insists that God send someone else.  (Exodus 4:13) 

God in His mercy provides Moses’ brother Aaron as his spokesperson, while protecting and maintaining the call of Moses.  (Exodus 4:14–17)

We can understand from God’s sovereignty over all creation and His patience with Moses that God is not only merciful and patient, but He is the ultimate judge of a person’s attitudes and behavior.

God saw the internal landscape of Moses.

This was the same man who earlier on had looked left and right to see if perhaps someone else could help an Israelite being beaten by an Egyptian.

With no one else in the picture, he stepped in to deliver his fellow Israelite, although we may read into the text furtiveness in his gesture, as well as moral error.

And although we too might feel ill-equipped, inadequate or inferior like Moses, we must remember that God, who has called us by name, is fully aware of our weaknesses and strengths, and failures large and small.

He sees our potential, and He will help us achieve well beyond our limitations, giving us everything we need to cooperate with His plans for our lives.

Haftarah Shemot (Prophetic Reading)

“I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever.”  (Isaiah 56:5)

This week’s corresponding Prophetic portion (Haftarah) study sheds some light on how we may bring our lives into alignment with the will of God so that we may bear abundant fruit and increasingly bring our Heavenly Father the glory due His name.

Like the Israelites in Egypt who multiplied and prospered despite their affliction and persecutions, and were led to the Promised Land by Moses, the Prophet Isaiah promises that the nation of Israel will also come back from her exile in triumph.

“In days to come shall Jacob [Yaacov] take root, Israel [Yisrael] shall blossom and bud; and the face of the world shall be filled with fruit.”  (Isaiah 27:6)

Notice that both names of Jacob are used here:  Jacob, the name he was born with, and Israel, the name God gave him.

It is Jacob that takes root, but Israel that actually blossoms, bearing fruit for the benefit of the entire world.

“I can do all this through Him who gives me strength.”  (Philippians 4:13)

Jacob in Scripture, perhaps, symbolizes the spiritual state of a person before their encounter with God and subsequent deep transformation.

Jacob shows us the frustration of grasping for the blessings and yet finding that the results always seem to fall short.

Israel, as we read earlier, represents a person at peace with himself and with God.  Israel’s destiny is secure and his place in the Land settled.

As Jacob, we may begin to put down roots but, as Israel, we are going to bear so much fruit that it will overflow to the world—even God’s salvation to the ends of the earth!

The question is, “How does a person leave behind a lifetime of unfulfilled potential—of wrong choices and dead ends—of “Jacobness”—and become an Israel?

That transformation, perhaps, begins with the hope of redemption. 

The Hope of Redemption

In Parasha Shemot, God calls Moses to deliver Israel from Egypt.

Haftarah Shemot shares this theme of redemption, highlighting the exile of the Jewish People due to sin, and God’s regathering of His people to the Holy Land:

“You will be gathered, one by one, people of Israel.  On that day a great shofar will sound.  Those lost in the land of Ashur will come, also those scattered through the land of Egypt; and they will worship the LORD on the holy mountain in Jerusalem.”  (Isaiah 27:12–13)

In our generation, God has fulfilled much of His word regarding Israel: the exiles of Judah are returning home and rebuilding the ruined cities.  (Ezekiel 36:8–10)

Elderly people sit on benches with their canes and children play in the streets of Jerusalem—just as God promised they one day would!  (Zechariah 8:4–5)

The land of Israel lay dormant, dry and barren—apparently lifeless—for thousands of years before it began to show signs of new life.

After 2,000 years of no national homeland, the Jewish people still waited for the fulfillment of God’s promises to restore Israel.

And they hoped, as it is written in the Israeli National Anthem, Hatikvah:

“For two thousand years, we have not lost hope, to be a free nation in our land, Zion and Jerusalem.” 

As the Jewish People waited for prophecy to be fulfilled, they suffered tyranny and torture.

They wept and despaired, as it is written in Psalm 137:  “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea we wept when we remembered Zion.  We hung our harps upon the willows in the midst of it …  How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” 

And yet, the hope refused to die:  “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill!  If I do not remember you, let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth—if I do not exalt Jerusalem above my chief joy.”

And one day, they began to live the Promise.

They are now back in their own Land, rebuilding the ruined cities, seeing the desert bloom like a rose, seeing places long dead come back to life with such beauty it looks like the Garden of Eden!

They are growing gardens and eating their fruit, raising children to run and play in the streets of Jerusalem for the glory of God!  Israeli orchards are exporting their fruit all over the world!  Hallelu-yah!  (Praise God!) 

Restoration, regeneration and resurrection is possible:  God has a good plan for our life, plans to give us a hope and a future.  (Jeremiah 29:11)

The Prophet, Isaiah, in speaking prophetically over Israel, dares each one of us to dream and believe.

God is in the process of transforming us from Jacob to Israel—from someone who grasps and struggles for the blessing, to someone who just receives it—from someone who produces little to no fruit, to someone who is rooted and grounded in Him and bearing abundant fruit. 

Israel’s ultimate mission is to be a light unto the nations.  (Isaiah 49:6)

Our personal transformation from Jacob to Israel is intended to fulfill our mandate to be a light in this World—to proclaim in Yeshua’s name healing to the brokenhearted and freedom to the captives.

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