Exodus: A Book of Names

For reasons that are a bit out of scope for the post I am writing today, those of us who observe the calendar as we believe the Torah actually proscribes are having our celebrations one month earlier than the Yahudim (Jews) will.  As a result, I am right now in Yerushalayim (Jerusalem), having just finished observing Chag HaMatzah (The Festival of Unleavened Bread).  We began our celebration of this Chag (Festival) celebration with the Pesach (Passover) meal, which is traditionally called a Seder.  I and a few like-minded believers came together in Yerushalayim at a rooftop balcony apartment that I usually rent for my pilgrimages here, and we observed the Seder by having a meal of lamb, matzah (unleavened bread), maror (bitter herbs), and wine, while going through a Haggadah, which is something of a mutual participatory rehearsal in which we relive and remind each other of the events that this day commemorates.

As per usual, a big part of our Haggadah goes through the scroll of the Torah that most Christians call "Exodus".  That title actually comes from the ancient translation of the Hebrew scriptures into Greek, a work known as the Septuagint.  The names of that translation do not directly correlate with the original Hebrew titles of those scrolls.  The Greek names were likely picked to give some context to Greek speakers who at the time were reading the Torah and the rest of the Tanakh (Old Testament) in a more academic sense, given that the relevance of the original Hebrew names are not so obvious to non-Hebrew speakers.  The traditional naming convention applied to the original Hebrew scrolls of the Torah derived the title of each scroll from either the literal first word or one of the first prominent words of the text. The first and third scrolls are named for the first word, while the second, fourth, and fifth scrolls are named for one of the first prominent words.  Even the traditional Jewish sections of each scroll of the Torah, read by Yahudim (Jews) on each Shabbat (Sabbath) in sequence throughout the year, are generally named in this same way with some variance.  On the surface, this probably seems like a meaningless convention; taking this view would be understandable, but I believe this naming process produces titles which match the content of the text in a more significant way than the Greek titles do.  In fact, it is my opinion that a major and pervasive theme for each of the Torah scrolls seems is well represented by the titles which result from this naming convention.

The first word in "Genesis" is "Beresheet", and that is the actual Hebrew name of the scroll.  This word means "In the beginning" and indicates a storyline consisting of a set of beginnings which we encounter throughout the scroll -- of the shamayim (heavens) and the earth, of mankind, of sin, of murder, of language diversity and human migration, of the covenant between Elohim and His people, and of their sojourn.  Likewise, the next scroll which is commonly called "Leviticus" is actually called "Wayyikra" or "Vayyikra" in Hebrew, and means "And He called", referring to the respective callings that Elohim gave to Mosheh, His people, the Levites, and His Cohenim.  It lists out the details of how to remain within the stipulations of the covenant that all of Yisrael was called to, and in a greater sense, how to fulfill the special calling that each individual group was given.  The scroll we call "Numbers", which is called this due to the census that is taken early on of the Yisraelites by Mosheh, is actually in Hebrew called "Bemidbar", which means "In the Desert" or rather, "In the Wilderness".  And like it's name, it details the sin which caused Elohim to relegate Yisrael to a 40 year period of wandering in the namesake wilderness, and lays out their wanderings which followed, along with other events which occurred in the process, including their eventual allowance by Elohim to take the land He was giving them at the end of the 40 year period, and the attempts of surrounding nations to thwart this.  Finally, the book we call "Deuteronomy", which comes from Greek meaning "Double Law" or "Repeated Law", is in Hebrew called "Debarim", or "Words".  It is the first prominent word in the scroll, which begins in Hebrew with "Elleh Debarim", which in English can mean "These Are the Words".  This title indicates the final words that Mosheh relayed to his people, and to their new leader Yahushua (Joshua), before he ascended the mountain as instructed by Elohim to view the land and pass away.

Like its companion scrolls in the Torah, the scroll we usually call "Exodus" actually has a more fitting name, the name we took from its first prominent word, "Shemot" or "Names".  That's right, the scroll that most of the English-speaking world calls "Exodus" in some form would actually be better called "Names".  Of course, on the surface, "Exodus" seems to be more fitting, because one of the things this scroll is about is the dramatic departure, or "exodus", of B'nei Yisrael (the Children of Israel) from Mitstrayim (Egypt) through the activity of the powerful Hand of the Elohim of their fathers.  But it's also about the covenant that this Elohim made with them while in the wilderness, yet we don't call it "Covenant".  And it's about their sin with the golden calf, yet we don't call it "Idolatry".  And it's about their renewal of the covenant and the subsequent relating of instructions on how to live and govern within the new society that the people are forming, yet we call it neither "Renewal" nor "Laws".  In a sense, to call it "Exodus" is only part of the story because on the surface it is about about all those things I mentioned.  For me personally though, I am attracted to the more subtle focus, and as we will come to see in the next few paragraphs, that focus is actually on names.  My goal is not to uncover every significant aspect of the names, but rather to examine just how names play a prominent role in the text, and to expound upon some interesting things that you might not have noticed before.

"And These Are the Names..."

The very first verses of this scroll set its tone:
"And these are the names of B'nei Yisrael, who came to Mitsrayim with Ya'akov, each one with his household." (Shemot / Exodus 1:1)
The account then goes on to list the tribes of Yisrael, and mentions the total number of people that came with Ya'akov (Jacob).  His sons are all mentioned by name, but their wives and children are not mentioned in this account as they were in chapter 46 of Beresheet (Genesis).  The first name we hear beyond those of Ya'akov and his sons are those of the Hebrew midwives who spare the male children of Yisrael from a death order.  The name we hear directly after them is that of the human hero of the story, a man by the name of Mosheh.  We're given the details of his humble and quite perilous beginnings, and his subsequent adoption by the royal household through the daughter of Pharaoh, his eventual disaffection with his adopted home and its treatment of the people of his birth, and his escape from Mitsrayim through the wilderness, leading to his eventual long-term settlement in exile in the land of Midyan.  So the interesting thing about these early parts of the story is that outside of Ya'akov, his sons, the two Hebrew midwives, and Mosheh, very few of the Yisraelite names are actually mentioned this early in the scroll.

It is only after Elohim appears to Mosheh in the burning bush that we hear of Mosheh's brother Aharon. We heard of Mosheh's mother, father, and sister before, but we didn't actually hear their names, Amram, Yochebed and Miryam, until later in the narrative. In fact, the names and genealogies of the Yisraelites extending beyond the twelve sons of Ya'akov do not get related to us until Mosheh has first visited Pharaoh and been dejected by both him and his own people.  After this, the information begins to flow more freely.  As time goes on in the scroll, names and genealogies of the people of Yisrael become even more important and more prominent.  As the various people and clans are picked for specific jobs, their names and parentage are prominently mentioned.

In short, Elohim is placing importance on their names as He brings the covenant He made with their fathers to remembrance, fathers He also mentions by name: Abraham, Yitshaq (Isaac), and Ya'akov.  In a sense, as He brings the names of B'nei Yisrael to mind in a very intimate way.  The gradual revelation of names demonstrates that Elohim is breathing life and significance into the culture of this new nation, hence a culture long acquainted with death and a harsh collective slavery becomes a culture acquainted with life and freedom.  It appears that part of the process of giving the Yisraelites their freedom is advancing their names, elevating those names beyond the realm of slave lists and into their own prominence as members of a free people.

And These Are the Unnamed...

As we saw, the names of the Yisraelites become more prominent throughout the scroll.  However, another group remains completely obscure throughout the entirety of the scroll.  That group is the Mitstrites (Egyptians).  The people of Mitsrayim (Egypt) are named for their ancestor, i.e. Mitsrayim himself, whose geneology is listed in Beresheet:
"The sons of Ham were Kush, Mitsrayim, Put and Kena‘an... Mitsrayim fathered the Ludim, the ‘Anamim, the L’havim, the Naftuchim, the Patrusim, the Kasluchim (from whom came the P’lishtim) and the Kaftorim." (Beresheet / Genesis 10:6, 13-14)
So we can see that their ancestor's name appears to identify the country, but outside of that name, no other names are actually mentioned for the entire nation of what we call Egypt today.  Many titles of various people are mentioned from that nation: Pharoah, the magicians, the taskmasters, "the servant girl who sits behind the handmill", etc., but none of these individuals are actually named.  Even Yoseph's wife and father-in-law, respectively Asenath and Potiphera, who were mentioned more prominently in Beresheet (Genesis), are not actually mentioned in Shemot.

This absence might be glossed over by the casual reader, but given how the names of the individual Yisraelites and their geneologies becomes so important as Sefer Shemot progresses, the absence of the names of individual Mitstrites (Egyptians) is too ironic to go unnoticed to someone seeking the deeper significance of the text, especially for a text that bears the title this one does.

And note that this does not occur in the case of Mitsrayim only, but also other enemies of Yisrael.  For instance, after B'nei Yisrael have left Mitsrayim and have crossed the parted Yum Suf (Red Sea) into the wilderness of Sinai, they are eventually attacked by the armies of Amalek.  This is a group name, perhaps from an ancestor or perhaps from an area they inhabited as a people; however, none of these individual Amalekites who joined in or directed the attack against the people of Yisrael as they traveled through the wilderness are named in the account.  In fact, Elohim's judgement against Amalek was so fierce, that He stated that He would obliterate Amalek's name from under the earth:
"And YHWH said to Mosheh, 'Write this for a remembrance in the scroll and recite it in the hearing of Yahushua (Joshua), that I shall completely blot out the name of Amalek from under the shamayim.'" (Shemot / Exodus 17:14)
When it comes to Yisrael's interactions with individuals from foreign nations in the account in Sefer Shemot, the only ones named are those friendly folks from Midyan, the ones that originally took Mosheh into their household, and into whose family Mosheh married: his father-in-law Yithro (Jethro), his other name "Reu'el" (meaning "friend of El"), and his wife Tsipporah.  It really does seem as if Elohim is de-emphasizing the enemies of Yisrael by disregarding their names as He simultaneously gives prominence to Yisrael and its allies by regarding their names, and this de-emphasis of Yisrael's enemies is most obvious in the case of Mistrayim.

Even the elohim (gods) of Mitsrayim are not excluded from this namewise anonymity in the account.  Elohim specifically states that the signs, plagues, and wonders he performs in Mitsrayim, which serve to free his people from slavery, are specifically acts that judge the elohim (gods) of Mitsrayim, especially the plague which kills the firstborn.
"And I shall pass through the land of Mitsrayim on that night, and shall smite all the first-born in the land of Mitsraym, both man and beast.  And I shall execute judgement on all the elohim of Mitsrayim.  I am YHWH." (Shemot / Exodus 12:12)
Yet despite this singling out of the false elohim of Mitsrayim through the power of the miracles the One True Elohim performs, none of those false elohim are mentioned by name.  We can interpolate which plagues targeted which of Mitsrayim's elohim based on the nature of the plague, but we don't hear any of them mentioned by name to provide that extra degree of certainty.  Mitsrayim seems to have been purposefully shrouded in anonymity, and again, that's extremely ironic in a sefer (scroll or book) that has "Shemot" (or "Names") as its title.  That irony, I believe, is intended to emphasize how much Elohim regards Yisrael in this account over Mitsrayim in the text.

"This Is My Name Forever..."

Most English-speaking Christians have a tradition to call Elohim by the title "Lord".  Their non-Anglophile counterparts have terms with similar meanings substituted.  The Spanish-speakers use "SeƱor", the French use "L'Eternel", and the Germans use "Herr", for instance.  Their translations have also used these terms, and have tried to emphasize the importance of them by capitalizing them in some cases.  This is why many English Bibles have "LORD" in all capitals when referring to Elohim, and German Bibles have "HERR".

It surprises some to realize that none of these words are actually present in the original Hebrew, at least in this context.  What these words are doing is substituting a name, specifically the most common and most important name of Elohim in all the Scriptures, a name that appears in the text of the Tanakh (Old Testament) nearly 7000 times to identify the Elohim of Yisarel.  That name is in Hebrew characters as follows:

These Hebrew characters would correspond in terms of sound to the English (or rather, Latin) letters "YHWH".  Because the Yahudim also lost the pronounciation of this name, due to their later belief that any uttering of the name can be blasphemous and their resulting substitution of the name with terms like "HaShem" (meaning "The Name" in Hebrew), or Adonai (meaning "Master" in Hebrew), the real historic pronunciation of this name has been lost.  Various sources and versions of the pronunciation of the name are "Yahweh", "Yehowah", "Yahuwah", and the list goes on.

However, more important than how this name is pronounced is what it means.  We get a hint of its meaning when YHWH first reveals His name to Mosheh at the burning bush:
"And Elohim said to Mosheh, 'Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh.' And He said, 'Thus you shall say to the children of Yisrael, "I AM has sent me to you."' And Elohim said further to Mosheh, 'Thus you are to say to the children of Yisrael, "YHWH Elohim of your fathers, the Elohim of Abraham, the Elohim of Yitshaq, and the Elohim of Ya'aqob, has sent me to you. This is My name forever, and this is My remembrance to all generations."'" (Shemot / Exodus 3:14-15)
So Elohim describes Himself in three ways.  The first, he states "Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh", which translates into three possible phrases, and possibly means all three at once:  "I Was Who I Was", "I Am Who I Am", and "I Will Be Who I Will Be".  These are all first-person statements, but then He identifies Himself by the name we listed above, which is essentially a third person variant of a similar phrase.  The name YHWH can mean "He Is", or "He Causes To Be".  I usually write this name with the Latin letters in all capitals, without vowels, to indicate the name without imposing on it my own preferred pronounciation.  So in other words, I usually write this as "YHWH", and I will continue to do this for the rest of the post.  After this, He identifies Himself in the context of history by showing Himself to be the Elohim of Mosheh's ancestors: Abraham, Yitshaq (Isaac), and Yaakov (Jacob).  It's clear that He wants both Mosheh and B'nei Yisrael to know Him by His name.  He emphasizes it, and commands Mosheh to reveal it to the people of Yisrael.

But it isn't just Yisrael that He is revealing Himself to by name in this situation.  Nor is it just to Mitsrayim (Egypt) that He is revealing Himself by name.  He intends to broadcast and advertise His name throughout the entire Earth, and He is using both Yisrael (by establishing them) and Mitsrayim (by going to war with them) to accomplish this very purpose, as He goes on to tell Pharaoh emphatically through the mouths of Moshe and Aharon:
"For at this time I am sending all My plagues unto your heart, and on your servants and on your people, so that you know that there is no one like Me in all the earth. Now if I had stretched out My hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, then you would have been cut off from the earth. And for this reason I have raised you up, in order to show you My power, and in order to declare My name in all the earth." (Shemot / Exodus 9:14-16)
Given this, you would expect that the name of Elohim would be emphasized by those who claim to serve Him, yet as I mentioned before, the trend among both Christians and Jews is to ignore the importance of the name, both in its use, and in the reverence we pay to It.  Christians do this by refusing to use it at all, and in practice pretending it doesn't exist.  Jews do it by treating the name as so untouchable, that they cannot use it under any circumstances in a modern context.  In both cases, they essentially nullify the Name.  Yet this is precisely the opposite of what Elohim intended.

After the Exodus was completed, YHWH went on to reaffirm the importance of His name and Its use when He appeared to B'nei Yisrael on Mount Sinai and uttered what we now know as the Ten Commandments from His own Mouth.  In the third of these Mitzvot (Commandments), He thunders in a loud voice exactly how He wants His name to be regarded and treated in what we now call the Third Mitzvah (or the Third Commandment).  Unfortunately,  both Christians and Jews have attempted to alter the meaning of this very simple Commandment.  Jews do this by interpreting it to refer only to a prohibition against swearing false oaths in His name.  That is an incomplete view of the requirement, because though avoiding swearing falsely by His name is part of it, it only scratches the surface of what YHWH wants us to do in regards to that name.  Christians do this by making it sound as if using the substitutes themselves, such as "Lord" in a "vain" way is the issue, which they indicate by translating the verse as "You will not use the name of the LORD Your God in vain...".  The problem with both of these is that they miss the deeper point of its use.  YHWH wants His name to be used reverentially, not ignored and not dropped from use out of fear.  The term that Christians usually translate as "vain" is a Hebrew term that is pronounced like "shav".  This means more properly "naught" or even "nothingness".  So a better translation of this Mitzvah (Commandment) would be as follows:
"You do not bring the name of YHWH your Elohim to nothingness, for YHWH does not leave the one unpunished who brings His name to nothingness." (Exodus / Shemot 20:7)
Surely it should be obvious to most here that removing the name from our vocabulary using either the Christian or Jewish justifications is unacceptable to Elohim.  The proper use of His name is so important to Him, that He commanded it by His Own Voice directly to the people of Yisrael.  So Sefer Shemot, the "Scroll of Names", is an important vehicle through which Elohim allows us to know Him by name.  And we would be foolish indeed to ignore that opportunity and that obligation.

A Scroll of Names Within the Scroll of Names

There is one more point to make about Sefer Shemot that really does establish it as a "Book of Names", and that is the mention of a dynamic book of names that YHWH Elohim keeps for Himself.  We hear about this book as Mosheh attempts to mediate atonement for a great sin which Yisrael committed at the very start of their existence as the covenant people.

As Mosheh was finalizing the covenant between Elohim and Yisrael, and receiving the stone tablets that contained the Ten Commandments written into the stone by the finger of Elohim Himself, B'nei Yisrael sinned against YHWH by creating and worshiping a golden calf.  This was a grievous sin, an act of defiant idolatry.   In terms of the covenant an act on par with a new wife committing adultery on her wedding night.  So egregious was this sin, that Elohim considered destroying all of Yisrael and starting new with Mosheh and his descendents.  Mosheh however, pleaded for mercy and offered to have his name wiped out from this book instead of the names of B'nei Yisrael.
"And Mosheh returned to YHWH and said, 'Oh, these people have sinned a great sin, and have made for themselves a mighty one of gold!  And now, if You would, lift their sin, but if not, please blot me out of Your scroll which You have written.'" (Shemot / Exodus 32:32)
What we are reading here is that YHWH keeps a scroll, a scroll of remembrance, in which He accounts for the names of those He regards, and again, it seems no coincidence to me that we first hear of this "scroll of names" in Sefer Shemot, the "Scroll of Names".  We go on to read YHWH's response to Mosheh's offer:
"And YHWH said to Mosheh, 'Whoever has sinned against Me, I blot him out of My scroll.'" (Shemot / Exodus 32:33)
YHWH rejects Mosheh's offer, and states that He will remove the names of those who sinned against Him from the scroll.  So we see that this scroll is a scroll which contains the names of those that YHWH regards, the righteous.  It is a scroll of those who choose life by choosing to obey YHWH, and the consequence of rebellion against YHWH through sin is to have your name removed from that scroll.

For readers of the Ketuvim Netzarim (New Testament), there is another scroll of scripture that is described as just such a ledger of names, though in this case, it is called the "Scroll of Life":
"And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before the throne, and scrolls were opened.  And another Scroll was opened, which is Life.   And the dead were judged from what was written in the scrolls, according to their works... And if anyone was not found written in the Scroll of Life, he was thrown into the lake of fire." (Hit Galut / Revelation 20:12, 15)
From the description of this second scroll, it seems rather obvious that it is not distinct from the first scroll, but rather that the two scrolls are one and the same.  So another function of Sefer Shemot, i.e. the Book of Exodus, is to allow us to see an early view of YHWH's judgement process, and to understand how we can ensure that our names are kept in His qodesh scroll of life.  Or, conversely, to see the consequence of rebelling against him by willingly participating in sinful acts, a consequence that fell upon those Yisraelites that worshipped the calf, and a consequence that will fall upon all those who one day find themselves unlisted at the time of the judgement.

In this way, the second Torah scroll shows us a path to life and redemption, one in which our names can be written in YHWH's scroll of life.  It demonstrates through its recount of the history of the Yisraelites in the wilderness that by entering into this covenant with YHWH and being obedient to His Mitzvot (Commandments), our names can be recorded before Him forever, and by rebelling against Him, they can be removed from that same scroll.

Not Only About the Exodus 

Sefer Shemot is the Torah Scroll we have historically called "Exodus" in English, but which we now know would better be translated "Names".  What that scroll tells is not strictly the story of an Exodus, but the story of an Elohim: an Elohim who wants to be known by His Own name, an Elohim who broadcasts that name throughout the Earth through incredible signs and wonders, and an Elohim who knows all of His own people individually by their own names.  Sefer Shemot shows us how we can also be part of that multitude; it assists us in making our own "exodus" from the nameless world of sin and death into the registry of life by giving us the details of the Covenant, a Covenant that YHWH makes with each of us by name.  It shows us how we can know and regard the name of our Elohim, and how we can ensure that He knows and regards ours.

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