What is in a name? This is an apropos question since this week’s parsha begins with lots of names. In fact it is called Names or Shemot in Hebrew. It begins v’aleh shemot b’nei yisrael (Exodus 1:1), “these are the names of the sons of Israel.” The narrative then goes on to name each of Israel’s sons by name. It tells how many children and grandchildren, seventy in all, moved down to Egypt and how they prospered and multiplied. The narrative serves as the divine voice, displaying not only a great knowledge of Israel’s prodigy, but an actual concern for them.
This is a direct contrast with the Pharaoh of Egypt. Verse 8 begins, vayakedem melech chadash al mitzraim asher lo yada et yoseph, “a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” Of course the new Pharaoh would have had knowledge of Joseph and his service to the kingdom, saving it from the ravages of famine and making it the most powerful nation in its ancient world. He would have been raised with this information, as it would have been part of the history and lore of ancient Egypt. So what the meaning of this verse?
The Hebrew word to know in this verse is yada, and this is its first appearance in the book of Shemot or Exodus s it is commonly referred to. The verb yada and its derivative forms are key terms in the Exodus narrative, occurring over twenty times in the first fourteen chapters. “To know” is the usual rendering, but it hardly does justice to richness of its range of meanings. The bible rarely conceives of knowledge as being solely of the intellect or mental activity. Rather it is experiential and embedded in the emotions, so it encompasses qualities such as intimacy, concern, relatedness, and mutuality. Conversely, not to know is synonymous with dissociation, indifference, alienation, and estrangement. It suggests a callous disregard for another’s worth and humanity.
Pharaoh’s “not knowing of Joseph” is a direct contrast to God’s “knowing of the son’s of Israel.’ To Pharaoh they had no worth or significance, to the God of Israel they’re name and they’re destinies were intertwined. This sets the stage for the entire book of Shemot (Exodus). For the next twelve chapters the king of Egypt and the God of Israel will be embroiled in a winner takes all contest, and the prize is Israel. To God, Israel is a treasure, a beloved child, a new humanity conceived in his image. To Pharaoh though, Israel is a material possession, a work force, a symbol of his power subvert and dominate. In as much as his predecessor “knowing Joseph” brought about the salvation of Egypt, his “not knowing Joseph” would break the back of the kingdom’s military might and would kill the first born of its issue.
By the end of the sixth plague the courtiers of Pharaoh; the “joint chiefs” of ancient Egypt have already admitted defeat. “How long shall this one be a snare to us? Let the men go and worship the Hashem their God. Are you not yet aware the Egypt is lost? (10:7-8)” But Pharaoh was not aware, because “not knowing Israel” and their God had become his obsession. His advisors had called the God of Israel by his name (YHVH), the name by which he had entered into a covenant with Israel for the sake of their fathers, Abraham Isaac and Jacob. But Pharaoh could not recognize the unique relationship between God and his people. By “not knowing” Joseph, and by “not knowing” Israel, the king of Egypt had not known’ or acknowledged the Creator of the universe. When Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh on behalf of Hashem (lit. The Name) to ask that he release the children of Israel, Pharaoh responded, “Who is Hashem that I should heed Him and let Israel go? I do not know Hashem, nor will I let Israel go (5:2).”
The God of Israel was calling Israel into a special relationship with Him. After the Exodus Israel is brought to Sinai to worship (l’avodah lit. to serve) him. By so doing Israel has left the service of a king representative of the corrupt principalities of this world to serve its true Creator who is a benevolent king. The last twenty chapters involve the instructions and then the process of building and furnishing the Mishkan, the place where the presence God would dwell intimately within the tents of Israel (40:34). There Israel would come to “know their God” as He had desired “to know” them.
The special relationship that Israel had with its God would cast the character by which others from the nations would be able to come “to know” Him. By being associated to Israel, through Israel’s greatest son Yeshua. Many from the nations have come into relationship with the God of Israel. Unfortunately as the years past, many became arrogant and did “not know” the son’s of Israel. This has had horrific consequences for Israel, for the church and for the world. Abraham Joshua Heschel once asked the sobering question, “Can the Church really claim the God of Israel without remembering the people of Israel.” This is a question I believe can only be answered in the negative.
As we continue over the next several months to read and study the book of Shemot, lets remember that this is a book about names, and about a particular name, the one that the God of Israel placed upon he people of Israel. It’s a good name, lets endeavor to live up to it and “to know” the one for whom we are named.