Before attempting an explanation, we need to point out that Jews do not pronounce or write the Divine names in Hebrew, and though this verse uses the name spelt Yod-Heh-Vav-Heh, we have used the substitute HaShem.
There are various views about writing English translations of Divine names; our practice is to write them in full.
There are two main Biblical names for God – Elokim (used 2570 times) and HaShem (6823 times). Elokim is from the root “to be powerful”; HaShem is from the root “to be”.
The rabbis say the first name represents justice and the second mercy. Hence Rashi’s comment on the first verse in Genesis, “‘In the beginning Elokim created’ – It does not say ‘HaShem created’, because at first He intended to create the world with the attribute of justice, but He saw the world could not endure. He gave priority to the attribute of mercy and allied it with that of justice, and it is this which is alluded to in the verse (Gen. 2:4), ‘On the day that HaShem Elokim made earth and heaven’.”
The notion is that justice and mercy are partners that work together. There are times for justice to override mercy, and times for mercy to temper justice.
A good test is to investigate the Akedah, the story in Genesis 22 of the Binding of Isaac. In that chapter each Divine name appears five times. Elokim comes four times at the beginning of the story to show Divine justice at work testing Abraham’s loyalty.
Next HaShem bursts upon the scene; mercy is taking over. Elokim appears once more to assure Abraham that he has answered the call of justice. From then onwards it is a story of mercy and only HaShem is used.
Our verse, however, contains another difficulty. How can God say the name HaShem was not known to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? The fact that the name is used in the patriarchal stories proves the point.
Rashi offers a shrewd interpretation: “It is not written lo hodati – (My name) I did not make known to them, but lo nodati – (by My name) was I not known to them, i.e. they did not recognise My attribute of keeping faith… for I made promises to them which I did not yet fulfil”.
Until the dramatic events of the Book of Exodus the Israelites did not yet realise the true meaning of what God had promised them.
Our experience so many centuries later bears upon this explanation. Not until we went through such agony could we appreciate the ecstasy of seeing the fulfilment of the lyrical prophetical passages about returning to the land of IsraeI and seeing the deserts bloom.
May we have the privilege of seeing the further prophecy fulfilled that all the nations will focus on Jerusalem, and out of Zion will go forth Torah to all mankind.