How can that be possible? All through Genesis, God speaks to the patriarchs using the Tetragrammaton; the Ineffable Name; the Name written with the four quiet, almost mute letters Y, H, V and H but spelled Adonai, the Master. How can He tell Moses now that he never revealed this name to the patriarchs?
A name mentioned in the Bible connotes an inner quality -- a special strength or character trait, as can be seen when Adam is asked to name all living creatures. It's similar to today's marketers running complex programs to find the best name for new medicines or other products.
A name can also indicate one's status or relationship with family and friends, as is the case with Ishmael. When he is driven away by Sarah, in one short paragraph the Torah calls him by four different names: the maidservant's son, Abraham's son, the lad and the child.
So when God speaks about the names He uses, it pertains to a representative quality. The meaning here, therefore, is not that the patriarchs were not familiar with the name, but rather that the special characteristic of the name Adonai had not yet been witnessed or understood by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
The name YHVH is derived from the Hebrew root HYH or HVH -- to be -- and contains all tenses of the verb, past, present and future. This name symbolizes the eternity of God, the God of history. The name El Shaddai was enough for the patriarchs, which is exactly its meaning: He who is all sufficient.
When the patriarchs were chosen, they were promised that their immediate descendants would grow to be a populous, prosperous nation; but nothing more than that. There is a covenant between God and the patriarchs, but it is quite unilateral -- I shall be your God, without the familiar reciprocation "and you shall be my nation." For the patriarchs it was difficult enough to break ranks with and depart from the surrounding pagan world to trail blaze a new monotheistic path. They were not ready yet to be handed the greater mission that extends to the End of Days, to that ideal future where all humanity lives in peace and harmony.
As Nachmanides aptly puts it, the patriarchs were the Book of Individuals, but it was with the passionate, dedicated freedom fighter Moses that we begin the Book of the Nation, Exodus. It is the nation transformed from a group of desolate, spirit-broken individuals, into a Kingdom of Priests, in the sense of teachers and guides who know the name of God that will accompany the Israelites throughout history.
The Israelites had to internalize the concept of history. They had to learn and understand the past in order to live the best-possible present and bring the whole world into a better future. The Jewish People never forget. We remember the Holocaust, which just happened; the expulsion from Spain, 517 years ago; and the destruction of the Temple, 1,937 years ago. Yet we are not stuck in the past; we don't dwell there and let the terrors of the past haunt us and stifle our quest for truth and justice.
We also remember the Giving of the Law and the Golden Age in Spain and all the wonderful achievements of our brethren throughout the ages -- achievements made possible thanks to that historical perspective introduced by God to Moses in the name Adonai, and reiterated toward the end of the Torah (Deuteronomy 32:7): "Remember the days of old, consider the years of ages past."
Or, in the words of renowned historian Paul Johnson in "The History of the Jews":
"They knew they were a special people who had not simply evolved from an unrecorded past, but had been brought into existence by a specific series of Divine acts. They saw it as their collective business to determine, record, comment and reflect upon these acts. No other people has ever shown, particularly at that remote time, so strong a compulsion to explore their origin. The Jews developed the power to write terse and dramatic historical narrative half a millennium before the Greeks, and because they constantly added to their historical records, they developed a deep sense of historical perspective that the Greeks never possessed. Greek texts, from Homer onwards, were guides to virtue, decorum and modes of thought; but the Hebrew texts had a marked tendency to become plans for action."
Haim Ovadia is rabbi of Kahal Joseph Congregation, a Sephardic congregation in West Los Angeles. He can be reached at email@example.com.