Moses complains that the Lord has not kept his promise (Exodus 5:22-23); the Lord responds that now Moses will see what the Lord will do to Pharaoh, forcing him to drive God’s people out of Egypt (6:1)! If Moses is already doubting God’s promise, this renewed promise may not sound very encouraging. (Promises! Promises! And now the promise that the Egyptians wouldn’t even want them there anymore.)
But the Lord reaffirms his promise to bring his people out of Egypt not only in 6:1 but also in 6:6-8. In the intervening verses, God explains why Moses can trust this promise. The Lord had not tricked Moses and the people, promising something and then hiding, as it appeared to Moses (5:22-23). He was the God of their ancestors, who appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob just as he had appeared to Moses (6:3). He had covenanted with those ancestors to give Canaan to their descendants (6:4), so he could be trusted to fulfill that promise now (6:8). The Lord had already spoken much about being the God of the patriarchs (3:6, 15-16; 4:5). But although Exodus already tells us that God had remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (2:24), this is the first time that the text tells us that Moses heard that essential detail.
Moreover, the Lord was doing something even greater now than he did in the time of their ancestors. He had revealed himself to the patriarchs as El Shaddai, but only now was he revealing himself by his personal name YHWH (6:3). Theologians are right when they point out that God’s self-revelation in Scripture is progressive. Some might want to complain about new revelation with the coming of Jesus and what we call the New Testament, but new revelations happened periodically through the history of God revealing himself to his people.
More problematic is what precisely this passage means by the Lord not revealing himself by this name to the patriarchs. After all, the Lord does use this name for himself earlier; particularly noteworthy, compare Gen 15:7, where God says to Abram, “I am YHWH, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess it,” just as now God would bring them out of Egypt to possess the promised land (Exod 6:6-7). Likewise, compare Gen 28:13, where the Lord declares to Jacob, “I am YHWH, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac,” and again promises the land to his people. (Certainly the phrase, “I am YHWH,” does recur much more frequently after this point; see Exod 6:6, 7, 8, 29; 7:5, 17; 10:2; 12:12; 14:4, 18; 16:12; 20:2; 29:46; 31:13; and still more frequently in Leviticus, in 11:44-45 and regularly in 18—26.)
Scholars thus have long debated what Exodus 6 means by YHWH not using this name for himself with the patriarchs. From a narrative perspective (that is, understanding the narrative in its final form), at least two options in particular commend themselves. One is that the stories in Genesis where YHWH identifies himself by this name were updated in light of this new revelation; after all, almost no one argues that the stories were written down before Moses’s day. They use the language of the fuller revelation available to them, the way Christian preachers today might speak of Jesus in the Old Testament.
Another option is that in Moses’s day YHWH is now revealing what it means for him to be YHWH: as “I am” (ehyeh; Exod 3:14), YHWH is eternal, and so does, in his time, fulfill his promises made generations earlier.
Not only had YHWH made a promise to their ancestors, but now was the time that he was revisiting that covenant. He was acting not only because of his covenant with their ancestors, but because he had heard his people’s groaning (6:5). The Lord acts both because of his covenant faithfulness and because he is compassionate and gracious, moved by the needs of his people and their cries. Thus he is compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, and full of covenant love (chesed) and covenant faithfulness (emeth, 34:6).
The Lord had already told Moses that he had heard his people’s suffering (3:7), but in 6:5 he reiterates this point. Often (thankfully for us), God encourages us with reminders of his faithfulness, even before we get to see the fulfillment of all his promises. (Those of us who get discouraged can hear his reaffirmations as often as we choose, provided we have Bibles and hear its message in context.) The ultimate consummation of his promises await Jesus’s return, but we have enough testimony from the past, and often signs in the present, to keep us going.