|God, Names of |
Names are more than labels. In Old Testament times a name expressed identification, but also identity. Significant meaning often attached to a name. Names had an explanatory function (cf. Abigail's explanation about her husband, "He is just like his name his name is Fool" [1 Sam 25:25]). Name changes were important, since a message attached to the name. Abram (great father) became Abraham (father of a multitude) (Gen 17:5; 32:28). In some sense a name was the expression of an inmost reality.
Scripture makes much of the name for deity because in the name lies a theology. "I am the Lord, that is my name!" (Isa 42:8; cf. Exod 15:3). The name of God is a surrogate for God himself (Psalm 54:1; Prov 18:10; Jer 23:27). To give attention to the name (i.e., to God himself) is to put oneself in the place of blessing (Mal 3:16).
God (Elohim [אֱלֹהִים], Eloah [אֱלֹוהַּ], El [אֵל , אֵל]). The subject of the Bible's first sentence is God (Gen 1:1). Elohim [אֱלֹהִים], El [אֵל , אֵל], and Eloah [אֱלֹוהַּ] are from related roots.El [אֵל , אֵל] (God) is a generic Semitic designation for deity. Judged by Canaanite usage at Ras Shamra/Ugarit, the term signified a god of the highest rank who was something of a father god figure. The term means a god in the widest sense. Etymologically el appears to mean "power" as in "I have the power (el) to harm you" (Gen 31:29; cf. Neh 5:5). Job and Psalms have most of the 238 occurrences of El [אֵל , אֵל]. El [אֵל , אֵל] is associated with other qualities such as integrity (not lying) (Num 23:19; Deut 32:4), jealousy (Deut 5:9), and compassion (Neh 9:31; Psalm 86:15), but the root idea of "might" remains.
The word Eloah [אֱלֹוהַּ] (60 times), occurring most often in Job, etymologically underscores the idea of "power." The term is also generic for "god, " and while it refers most often to the true God, it can refer in instances to any god.
Elohim [אֱלֹהִים] (God), a plural of Eloah [אֱלֹוהַּ], occurs more than 2, 250 times, sometimes with an addition such as "God of Abraham/Israel, " but mostly it is free standing. Next to Lord (Yahweh), Elohim [אֱלֹהִים] is the major designation for God. Elohim [אֱלֹהִים] is generic, (as are El [אֵל , אֵל] and Eloah [אֱלֹוהַּ]) and refers to "deity" but comes virtually to be a name for the true God. All three are represented in the Septuagint as theos ("God"), which is also the New Testament term for God. Elohim [אֱלֹהִים] sums up what is intended by "god" or the divine.
The plural form (although used with verbs in the singular form) is likely a plural of majesty or perhaps of intensity, either of deity or of power to signify "highly or intensely powerful." The plural form is accommodating of the doctrine of the Trinity. From the Bible's first sentence the superlative nature of God's power is evident as God (Elohim [אֱלֹהִים]) speaks a world into existence (Gen 1:3,6,9). His actions also bespeak his power, enabling barren women such as Sarah and Rebecca to conceive (Gen 18:10, 14; 25:21), bringing an oppressed people out of Egypt (Exod 20:2), and with power raising Jesus Christ from the dead (Rom 1:1-4). Believers, Peter writes, are "shielded by God's power" (1 Peter 1:5). In the name Elohim [אֱלֹהִים] is fullness of divine power.
Compounds with El. El Elyon. A pervasive compound is El 'Elyon (lit. God, most high). derives from the root "go up, " "ascend, " so thatEl 'Elyon may be thought of spatially as the highest. Abraham mentions El 'Elyon when addressing Melchizedek (Gen 14:18,19,20,22). Closely linked to temple services, twenty of its forty-five occurrences are in the Psalter. Sometimes the compound is construed as a name: "It is good … to make music to your name, O Most High" (Psalm 9:1). El 'Elyon denotes exaltation and prerogative and belongs to "monarchical theology" for it speaks of absolute right to lordship. In the same vein may be found the question, "Who is like you?" (Psalm 35:10). Yet this pointer to hierarchy is not about a God of arbitrariness, but about power in the service of life.
El Shaddai. To Abraham God appears as God Almighty, El Shaddai (Gen 17:1). The designation "Shaddai, " which some think is the oldest of the divine names in the Bible, occurs forty-eight times, thirty-one of which are in Job. The traditional rendering "God Almighty" is debated. A consensus of sorts holds that "shaddai" is to be traced, not to the Hebrew, but to an Accadian word that means "mountain" so that the expression produces a meaning like, "'El, the One of the mountains." If so, El Shaddai highlights God's invincible power. Or, the name may point to his symbolic dwelling. The juxtaposition of El Shaddai [שַׁדַּיאֵל , אֵל] and El 'Elyon (Num 24:16; Psalm 91:1) may suggest that El Shaddai is a God who is chief in the heavenly council, whose residence was sometimes broadly associated with mountains (Hab 3:3).
Other Compounds with El. Some compounds with El register a significant encounter with Elohim or may be loosely associated with certain geographical sites. The list would include El Ro' ("God of seeing, " Gen 16:13), El Bethel ("God of Bethel, " house of God, Gen 35:7), El 'Olam, ("Everlasting God, " Gen 21:33), and El Berith ("God of Covenant, " Judges 9:46).
Yahweh/Yah. yhwh, the tetragrammaton because of its four letters, is, strictly speaking, the only proper name for God. It is also the most frequent name, occurring in the Old Testament 6, 828 times (almost 700 times in the Psalms alone). Yah is a shortened form that appears fifty times in the Old Testament, including forty-three occurrences in the Psalms, often in the admonition "hallelu-jah" (lit. praise Jah). English Bibles represent the name yhwh by the title "Lord" (written in capitals to distinguish it from "lord" [adonai] [אֲדֹנָי]). The Septuagint rendered yhwh as kyrios [κύριος] (Lord). The line from yhwh to 'adonai [אֲדֹנָי] to kyrios [κύριος] is significant for the Pauline statement: "And every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord" (Php 2:11).
In the postexilic period the Jews, for reverence reasons, did not pronounce the name but substituted for it the word adonai [אֲדֹנָי] (lord), and in written form attached these vowels to the tetragrammaton. The resulting misguided pronunciation of the name yhwh as a three-syllable word, Y [J]ehovah, continued in English Bible translations until early in the twentieth century. Evidence from Greek usage in the Christian era points to the two-syllable pronunciation, "Yahweh."
The meaning of the name yhwh may best be summarized as "present to act (usually, but not only) in salvation." The revelation of the name is given to Moses, "I am who I am" (Exod 3:14), and later in a self-presentation, "I am the Lord" (Exod 6:2-8). The name yhwh specifies an immediacy, a presence. Central to the word is the verb form of "to be, " which points in the Mosaic context to a "being present, " and may in Israel's later history, as some suggest, have come to mean "I (and no other [god]) Am" (Isa 41:4; 43:10). Such was Paul's understanding (1 Col 8:4, 6; 1 Tim 2:5). Quite possibly we need to hear the Old Testament meaning for Yahweh behind the words of Jesus when he speaks of himself as "I am" ("It is I, " Matt 14:27; "I am the one, " John 8:24, 28, 58). For Moses and for Israel the question was not whether the Deity existed, but how that Deity was to be understood.
The name yhwh was probably given to Moses as a new revelation; the "faith" that came to be associated with the name yhwh, although in continuity with that of the patriarchs, was different from theirs. Mosaic Yahwism differed from patriarchal religion in that Mosaic Yahwism stressed, among other matters, divine intervention in oppressive situations and holiness—features not central to patriarchal religion.
The theological significance that attaches to the name yhwh is multiple. Judging from the etymology, but more particularly from the context in which the name is disclosed (Exod 3:12, 14; 6:2-8), the name signifies "presence." God is "with, " he is near and among his people. This overtone of presence is reiterated in the naming of the wilderness structure as "tabernacle" (lit. dwelling), and in the promised name Immanuel ("God with us, " Isa 7:14; Matt 1:23). Yahweh is present, accessible, near to those who call on him (Psalm 145:18) for deliverance (107:13), forgiveness (25:11), and guidance (31:3). Yahweh is dynamically near, but as God (Elohim [אֱלֹהִים]) he is also paradoxically transcendent.
The name yhwh defines him as involved in human struggle. Yahweh's name is forever tied, through the exodus event, with salvation and liberation (Exod 15:1-13; 20:2-3). The salvation promise given in Exodus 6:6-8 is an expansive one, including intimacy with God and blessings of abundance, but is decidedly bracketed first and last with "I am Yahweh." The name yhwh is prominent in salvation oracles (Zep 3:14-17) and in petitions (Psalm 79:5, 9; 86:1). The salvation dimension of the name recurs in the announcement of the incarnation: the one born is to be called "Jesus" for (as an echo of the name yhwh) "he will save his people from their sins" (Matt 1:21). In the name yhwh God's character as the savior of a people is revealed.
Theologically the name of Yahweh resonates with covenant, partly because in the explication of the name in Exodus 6:6-8 the covenant formula is invoked ("I will be your God and you will be my people"). The name yhwh is a name to which Israel can lay particular claim. In covenant, matters such as justice (Isa 61:8) and holiness (Lev 19:2) have an extremely high profile.
The name yhwh is anything but empty. The name carries overtones of presence, salvation defined as deliverance and blessing, covenantal bondedness, and integrity.
Compounds with Yahweh. Yahweh of Hosts. The most pervasive compound with Yahweh is "Lord of hosts, " which occurs 285 times in the Bible and is concentrated in prophetic books (251 times) especially in Jeremiah and Zechariah. The hyphenation has a double-edged meaning. As a military term it signifies that Yahweh is, so to speak, "Commander-in-chief" (1 Sam 17:45). The "hosts" or "armies" may be heavenly beings, part of the "heavenly government" (1 Kings 22:19), the astral bodies of sun, moon, and stars (Deut 4:19), or Israel's armies (1 Sam 17:45). As a military title, it signifies that God is equal to any adversary and well able to achieve victory. The Septuagint sometimes translates the compound as kyrios pantokrator [κύριοςπαντοκράτωρ] (Lord Almighty); this designation appears also in the New Testament.
A second "edge" to the compound is more royal than military, since it is monarchs who in the ancient Near East and Scripture are said to be "enthroned upon the cherubim" (1 Sam 4:4; 2 Kings 19:15; Psalm 80:1). The expression "Lord of hosts, " frequent in worship-type psalms (especially those that mention Mount Zion), emphasizes God's royal majesty. It designates God as the regnant God (Psalm 103:19-21), the enthroned God whose royal decrees will carry the day (Isa 14:24; Jer 25:27).
The title addresses religious pluralism, both past and present. God retains exclusive prerogative as deity. Any competing ideology is idolatry, whether that be the ancient worship of Baal or the modern preoccupation with technique, nationalism, or militarism. The title underscores God's presence, but also the force behind divine decisions affecting political history (Isa 19:12, 17; Jer 50:31).
Less Frequent Compounds with Yahweh. Several hyphenations or compounds are attached, for the most part, to some notable experience, as with Yahweh-Nissi ("The-Lord-is-my-Banner") where "banner" is understood as a rallying place. This name commemorated the desert victory of Israel against the Amalekites (Exod 17:15). From the wilderness experience of bitter waters at Marah emerges another such "name": Yahweh Rophe ("The Lord who heals, " Exod 15:26; cf. Psalm 103:3). Abraham memorialized God's provision of a sacrifice in the name Yahweh-jireh ("The Lord will provide, " Gen 22:14). Jeremiah identifies the name of the "Righteous Branch" as "The Lord our Righteousness" (Jer 23:5-6). Names for structures in which hyphenated Yahweh names occur include Gideon's altar, named Yahweh-shalom ("The Lord is peace, " Judges 6:24) and the temple Yahweh-samma ("The Lord is There, " Ezek 48:35).
Yahweh and Elohim. The combination, "Yahweh Elohim" (Lord God), is found in Genesis 2 and 3 (nineteen times; twenty-one times elsewhere). A double name was not strange for deities in the ancient Near East. The double name in Genesis 2:4b-3:24, may be to emphasize that the majesty of God that attaches to the name Elohim [אֱלֹהִים] in Genesis 1 is not to be separated from the immediacy of a Yahweh in the garden. (English Bibles commonly also employ "lord God" to translate adonai Yahweh [lit. lord Lord]).
The Deity named Yahweh (Lord) is identical with Elohim [אֱלֹהִים] (God). The shema—"Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one" (Deut 6:4) underscores that identity, as do expressions like "Yahweh your/our God." Yahweh as God is exclusively God: "This is what the Lord says—Israel's King and Redeemer, the Lord Almighty: I am the first and I am the last; apart from me there is no God" (Isa 44:6).
Titles, Epithets, Figurative Language. There are over one hundred descriptive "names" for God. The subject is large and the adjectives are overpowering.
Holy One. Of the fifty-six lexical attestations to God's holiness in the Old Testament, many include the name/title of "The Holy One" or "Holy One of Israel, " which occurs thirty-one times in the Old Testament, twenty-five occurrences being in Isaiah. The demand for human holiness is rooted in divine holiness or cleanness (Lev 19:2; 21:6). The "entrance liturgies" stress the importance of moral and ritual cleanness (Psalm 15; 24:3-6). Holiness speaks of God as supraworldly, as "Other, " and as one virtually unapproachable in majesty (1 Sam 6:20; Isa 6:3; 33:14-16).
Ruler. A highly significant epithet for God, which is strikingly metaphorical, is "Ruler." The term occurs forty-three times. It is clustered in poetic passages in the prophets and the Psalter. The idea of rule is expressly asserted in the enthronement psalms (93, 96-99), but is already found in Psalm 2. This suggests that the entire Book of Psalms should be read with an emphasis on God's rulership. The origin of the epithet precedes the Israelite monarchy. It signals rulership and sovereignty, and so reinforces the names for God such as El Elyon and Lord of hosts (Psalm 84:3). Kingly rule, however, also called for defense of the poor and needy (72:4) and deliverance of those victimized by wickedness (98:9). Around it cluster other epithets/metaphors, such as Judge (Isa 33:22; cf. Psalm 99:4).
Father. The Old Testament designation of God as Father (Deut 32:6; Isa 63:16; 64:8; Jer 3:4, 19; 31:9; Mal 2:10) is employed often in the New Testament: by Paul (Eph 1:3; 3:14-19; 4:6; 5:20; 6:23; cf. Rom 1:7; 8:15; 15:6; 1 Col 8:6); by Jesus (Mark 8:38; 11:25; 13:32; cf. "Abba, Father, " Mark 14:36). It is the word for God in the Lord's prayer (Luke 11:2). The epithet is strikingly frequent in John (108 times) and also in Matthew (forty times). The range of meanings include those of authority and discipline, but also those of compassion, care, protection, and provision.
Other Titles, Epithets, Figurative Language. "God of the ancestors (fathers)" is a title associated with the patriarchs, and especially with God's promises to them (Exod 3:13). Other titles are "God of Abraham" (Gen 28:13; 31:53; 1 Chron 29:18), "Fear of Isaac" (Gen 31:42,53), "Mighty One of Jacob" (Gen 49:24), and especially (more frequent than the foregoing three) "God of Israel" (Num 16:9; 1 Sam 5:8; Psalm 41:13).
Rich symbolism is also found in role descriptions that include language pictures like judge (Isa 33:22), warrior (Exod 15:3), and shepherd (Ps. 23). God is also pictured as a mother who gives birth, nurtures, and trains (Deut 32:18; Isa 49:15; Hosea 11:1-4). God is spoken of in metaphors such as Rock (Deut 32:4,15,18,31), the stability of which is proverbial.
Honoring the Name of God/Lord. That God discloses his name means that his name can be invoked, but it should not be invoked "in vain, " carelessly or glibly as in an oath (Lev 19:12), or misused in other ways (Exod 20:7). Jesus instructed us to pray, "Hallowed be your name" (Luke 11:2). In stressful times one calls on the name of the Lord (Psalm 79:5; 99:6; Zeph 3:9). Foremost among the ways God's name is to be invoked is honorifically. His name is to be praised (Psalm 7:17; 9:2). Other admonitions call for blessing the name (103:1), offering thanks to the name (106:47), or ascribing glory or blessedness to the name (96:8; 113:2).
Elmer A. Martens
See also Fatherhood of God; God; God, Name of; Presence of God
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