What do you do when you are faced with a Bible difficulty—something that seems like a discrepancy? Do you ignore it or wrestle with it?
The Patriarchs and God’s Name: A Problem
Have you noticed the problem in Exodus 6:3? God says to Moses, “I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by my name the LORD I did not make myself known to them” (ESV). Although that statement appears to be unproblematic by itself, when we compare it with the narrative in Genesis, we seem to have a problem.
In Genesis, God did say to Abraham, “I am the LORD who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess” (Gen. 15:7, ESV). And if that weren’t enough, God said, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac” (Gen. 28:13, ESV). Not only do we have two clear instances which seem to contradict God’s statement in Exodus 6:3, but God’s name, the LORD, is used throughout Genesis.
Reconciling God’s Hidden Name with God’s Revealed Name
So what can God’s statement mean in Exodus 6:3? We cannot deny that God declared himself to be the LORD or Yahweh to Abraham and Jacob. And we cannot deny that Exodus 6:3 seems to say that the patriarchs didn’t know God’s name, the LORD.
But here’s why we shouldn’t rush to the conclusion of error. First, the name the LORD appears throughout the Genesis narrative. Second, the author of Exodus (traditionally Moses) appears to have known the Genesis narrative because Exodus makes recurring connections with the book of Genesis. Third, according to tradition, Moses was the author of both Genesis and Exodus.
Perhaps the best solution to this problem is to focus on the phrase “make myself known to them.” While the name Yahweh was used in prayer as early as Gen. 4:26, the meaning of that name was not adequately grasped until God rescued his people from slavery. The exodus gave new meaning to the personal name of God: Yahweh is Israel’s covenant-keeping and redeeming God. God had not made himself known as Yahweh in that way to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
[This is a complicated problem. For much more detail read the footnotes for Exodus 6:3 in the NET Bible.]