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Exodus – Shemot (Part 1)

God’s name is not just a label by which we identify Him and differentiate Him from the gods of Egypt; it’s a name that declares who He is and what He does.
Read Time: 9 minutes

The book of Exodus continues where Genesis left off. Genesis closes with the death of Joseph, and Exodus begins with a new Pharaoh in Egypt who does not know him. There may be a gap of 65-350 years between the records, depending on which chronology you follow. It is not the intention of this article to settle the conflicting opinions on the length of time. Suffice it to say the Israelites were in Egypt for an extended period, much of it as slaves.


The central drama of the book of Exodus, as its name in our English Bibles suggests, concerns the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt. However, the title Exodus comes from the Septuagint (LXX). The Hebrew titles of the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) all originate with the first word in each book as seen in the following chart:

Even more ancient titles for these books exist. For instance, initially, Exodus was called Yesi’at Misrayim, which means “the going out from Egypt,” similar to the Greek title Exodus. However, the Jews, by giving each book a title based on first word, captured much of the essence of each book’s message.

The Jews captured much of the essence of each book’s message.

The Hebrew title of Genesis, Bresheit, means “beginning,” and of course Genesis is the book of beginnings. It’s the story of Creation, God beginning His purpose and developing it through the family of Abraham. Bresheit would seem to be a very apt title.

The book of Leviticus is about the calling, in large part, of the Levitical priests, so Vayicra, “called,” fits one of the book’s central themes. The same is true for Bamidbar, “wilderness”, since the book of Numbers is all about Israel’s experience in the wilderness. One of the key themes in Deuteronomy is hearing and doing the Word of God, so Devarim, “words,” is also very fitting.

So, what about Shemot, “names,” the Hebrew title for the book of Exodus? When you start reading Exodus, you might think it’s a bit of a stretch to say that “names” is a key theme. The first verse reads,

“These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his household,”1,

and then lists the sons of Jacob. What follows are the main stories of the book of Exodus—the Hebrews’ slavery, the plagues upon Egypt, Passover, and their escape from Egypt. Do the names of Jacob and his sons in the introduction of the book mean the theme of names will continue? We might want to stick with Yesi’at Misrayim (the going out from Egypt) or just plain old Exodus.


In naming the book as they did, they truly did capture its message.

However, the idea of “names” is, in fact, absolutely fundamental to the book of Shemot. The Hebrew word for “name”—shem (from which we get the title Shemot) only occurs about 40 times in Exodus, not significant in itself with 800 plus other instances of the word in the Old Testament. But when we look at how Exodus uses “shem,” we see its importance to the Jews. In naming the book as they did, they truly did capture its message.

The opening words of Exodus, “These are the names…” seem redundant because they are more or less the same as Genesis 46:8—“Now these are the names of the descendants of Israel, who came into Egypt, Jacob and his sons.” What follows is the same list of Jacob’s sons. Why bother to repeat what seems to be rather mundane information?

Remember that a long time has passed since the end of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus. Jacob and all his sons have since died, something Exodus 1:6 reminds us of—“Then Joseph died, and all his brothers and all that generation.”2 However, the death of Jacob and his sons doesn’t mean their names are forgotten. They’re repeated in the book’s introduction, probably hundreds of years after they died, and that has to mean something.

We know God hadn’t forgotten His people because when they cried out due to their slavery,

“God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.” (Exod 2:24).

Significantly, this verse doesn’t say “His covenant with the children of Israel.” Despite their being dead for centuries, God remembered the names of the patriarchs. That principle continues into chapter 3 where God, in the context of revealing His name to Moses, says,

“Go and gather the elders of Israel together and say to them, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, has appeared to me.” (Exod 3:16).

Jesus picked up on this principle when speaking to the Sadducees about the resurrection. Quoting Exodus 3, he told them,

“But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the bush, where he calls the LORD the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him.” (Luke 20:37-38).

Jesus’ point is not that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are still alive, but that God has not forgotten them, and His Son will raise them from the dead. The opening of the book of Exodus, in calling to mind the name of Jacob and his sons, teaches us God cares about His family. We can see that care, for instance, in chapter 3, where God tells Moses,

“I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings.” (Exod 3:7).


The author of Exodus mentions other people by name, and each time no words are wasted. For instance, in chapter 1, we have the story of the midwives. The passage records their bravery in the face of the authoritarianism of Pharaoh, and we’re told their names,

“Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah” (Exod 1:15).

The text singles out these two women so we may appreciate a little about the importance of names in Exodus, and indeed in the rest of Scripture. When we say, somebody has “a good name” we mean they have a good reputation. That is true for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Their names spring out from the page because we immediately associate them with ideas like faith and the promises. Even the meanings of the names often suggest something to do with their reputation or purpose. For instance, God changed Abram’s name to “Abraham” because he would be the father of a multitude— what his name means.

The names “Shiphrah” and “Puah” may not have any significance in themselves. However, they certainly do stand out as “beautiful” (Shiphrah) and “glittering” (Puah), shining brightly amid the darkness of Pharaoh’s cruelty. More importantly, their deeds are on record and connected with God’s mentioning their names. He finds acts of faith like theirs worthy of note and remembrance.

In chapter 2, we have two more names—Moses and Gershom, his son. In each instance, meaning is attached to their names. They are more than just labels. We’re told Pharaoh’s daughter “named him Moses, ‘Because,’ she said, ‘I drew him out of the water.’” (Exod 2:10), and later Moses’ wife (whose name is also mentioned),

“gave birth to a son, and he called his name Gershom, for he said, ‘I have been a sojourner in a foreign land.’” (v. 22).


It’s when we come to the next chapter that the importance of names in the book of Exodus takes off. It is the occasion where Moses, called to lead the Hebrews out of slavery, asks God if,

“‘they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?’” (Exod. 3:13).

Moses wasn’t looking for a label to attach to the God who was to save His people. He wanted to know who God is. The famous enigmatic response came back to Moses – “You want to know who I am?” – “I AM WHO I AM.” (v. 14).

God then expands on His name by saying,

“Say this to the people of Israel: ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.” (v. 15).

In other words, “I am the God attached to the names of your forefathers and everything connected with them.” The Hebrews are going to experience the name of God in their departure from Egypt. In the context of declaring “I AM WHO I AM,” or better, “I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE,” God had told Moses, “I will be with you” (v. 12).

Names have power, especially God’s name, and Moses speaking in God’s name brought about a tidal wave of change in Egypt.

God’s name is not just a label by which we identify Him and differentiate Him from the gods of Egypt; it’s a name that declares who He is and what he does.

Despite these reassurances, Moses found that speaking in God’s name brought conflict. In chapter 5, Moses complained,

“For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has done evil to this people, and you have not delivered your people at all.” (Exo 5:23).

Names have power, especially God’s name, and Moses speaking in God’s name brought about a tidal wave of change in Egypt.

This verse also introduces another vital concept concerning names—the principle of God manifestation. Moses, by speaking in God’s name, was His representative.

We are familiar with the idea when we consider the example of a salesperson who represents their company by saying something like, “Hi, this is XYZ Company calling.” If someone tells you instead, “This is John Smith calling,” no matter how great the product he is selling, it will lack impact. But if he says, “This is Nike,” and you’re into athletics, it will pique your interest. Nike’s name is famous and invokes specific attractive images in your mind.

God’s intention in the book of Exodus is to make His name memorable. Moses, by speaking in God’s name, is making Yahweh known to Pharaoh and the Egyptians.

God’s intention in the book of Exodus is to make His name memorable.

The very next event that happens in chapter 6 further highlights the power of God’s name. He tells Moses to deliver a message to the children of Israel and prefaces it with,

“I am the LORD. 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.” (Exod 6:2-3).

Except the patriarchs did know the name Yahweh and even used it at times, for instance, when Abraham said to the king of Sodom, “I have lifted my hand to the LORD.” (Gen 14:22). What this passage must be saying is that the impact of the name Yahweh wasn’t known before now. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob knew it was God’s name, but they hadn’t experienced its power. However, all of that was going to change. The children of Israel would soon feel the full significance of the name of God as He rescued them from slavery.

The word “shem” only occurs in one verse during the time of the plagues, but perhaps the most important one. It’s a verse quoted by Paul in Romans concerning the doctrine of election, where he brings up the topic of Pharaoh’s hard heart. God told Pharaoh,

“But for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.” (Exod. 9:16).

The whole point of the plagues was to make God’s name known. By now, we understand His name to be more than just a label attached to the Hebrew deity. The Egyptians experienced God as the outpouring of the plagues established His reputation.


During the chapters that follow the plagues section, important things keep getting names attached to them. The next six occurrences of the word “shem” are summarized in the following table:


It is no wonder, therefore, that when God’s name becomes part of the central focus. One of the commandments is all about the sanctity of His name—“You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain…” (Exod 20:7).

Then in the second commandment the further revelation of God’s name, which Moses learns several chapters later, is anticipated with the words,

“for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (vv. 5-6).

We later learn in Exodus 34 that these characteristics are what God wants to be known for, what He wants His reputation to be.

The chapter, which introduces Yahweh’s law to the people, begins and ends with the importance of God’s name. In Exodus 20:24, in the section about making altars, God says,

“In every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you.”

By now, we should not be surprised that the worship of Yahweh includes remembrance of His name. The children of Israel witnessed an impressive object lesson teaching them about the blessing associated with God’s name when He rescued them from Egypt, just as He said He would when telling them through Moses what His name stood for.

If one word summarizes the principle of worship, it’s the famous “Hallelujah,” which means “praise Yahweh.” But we learn in the book of Exodus that it’s more than calling to remembrance the name of Yahweh itself. It’s more to do with remembering God’s works and ways— His fame and what He stands for.

To be continued…

Richard Morgan,
Simi Hills, CA

  1. All references are from the English Standard Version (ESV).

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Last month we began looking at the importance of names in the book of Exodus, or its Hebrew title Shemot. We continue this month by surveying other passages that speak about the significance of names. If you haven't read Part 1 yet, click here: Shemot Part 1
The book of Exodus presents two perspectives: those of Yahweh and those of Pharaoh. One of the crucial exhortations for the children of Israel concerns which viewpoint they would adopt. Would they take after Pharaoh or seek after God?
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