Understanding The Bible
"The Names of God"
From the Jewish Encyclopedia


Like other Hebrew proper names, the name of God is more than a mere distinguishing title. It represents the Hebrew conception of the divine nature or character and of the relation of God to His people. It represents the Deity as He is known to His worshipers. And stands for all those attributes which He bears in relation to them and which are revealed to them through His activity on their behalf. A new manifestation of His interest or care may give rise to a new name. So, also, an old name may acquire new content and significance through new and varied experience of these sacred relations.

It can readily be understood, therefore, how the divine name is often spoken of as equivalent to the divine presence or power or glory. In Ex. 23:20-23 it is promised that Yahweh’s angel will lead and give victory to His people, who must yield reverent obedience, for. The Lord says, “My name is in him.” The devout Israelite will not take the name of a false god upon his lips (Ex. 23:18; Josh. 23:7; Hosea 2:16-17; Ps. 16:4). To make mention of Yahweh’s name is to assert confidence in His strength and present and efficient aid. The name excites emotions of love, joy, and praise (Ps. 5:11; 7:17; 9:2; 20:1, 7). That name is therefore, especially connected with the altar or sanctuary, the place where God records His name (Ex. 20:24), or “the place which the Lord your God shall choose out of all your tribes to put His name there“ (Deut. 12:5; comp. 1 Kings 8:16, 29; 9:3: Jer. 7:12). The Temple is “the place of the name of the Lord of hosts, the mount Zion” (Isa. 18:7). In one or two comparatively late passages “the Name” is used absolutely, doubtless as an equivalent for “the name of YHWH“(Lev. 24:11, 16; comp. Deut. 28:58).

Of the names of God in the Old Testament, that which occurs most frequently (6823 times) is the so-called Tetragrammation, YHWH, the distinctive personal name of the God of Israel. The name is commonly represented in modern translations by the form “Jehovah,” which, however, is a philological Impossibility. This form has arisen through attempting to pronounce the consonants of the name with the vowels of Adonai (“Lord”), which the Masorites have inserted in the text, indicating thereby that Adonai was to be read (as a “keri perpetuum”) instead of YHWH. When the name Adonai itself precedes, to avoid repetition of this name, YHWH is written by the Masorites with the vowels of Elohim, in which case Elohim is read instead of YHWH. In consequence of this Masoretic reading the authorized and revised English versions (though not the American edition of the revised version) render YHWH by the word “Lord” in the great majority of cases.

This name, according to the narrative in Ex. 3, was made known to Moses in a vision al Horeb. In another, parallel narrative (Ex. 6:2, 3) it is stated that the name was not known to the Patriarchs.

In appearance, YHWH is the third person singular imperfect" of the verb “to be'', meaning, therefore.”He is," or "He will be," or, perhaps, "He lives." the root idea of the word being, probably, "to blow," "to breathe," and hence, "to live." With this explanation agrees the meaning of the name given in Ex. 3:14, where God is represented as speaking, and hence as using the first person — “I am." The meaning would, therefore, be "He who is self-existing, self-sufficient." or, more concretely, " He who lives." the obstruct conception of pure existence being foreign to Hebrew thought. There is no doubt that the idea of life was intimately connected with the name YHWH from early limes. He is the living God, as contrasted with the lifeless gods of the heathen, and He is (the source and author of life (comp. 1 Kings 18; Isa. 41:26-29; 44:6-20; Jer. 10:10, 14; Gen. 2:7; etc.). So familiar is this conception of God to the Hebrew mind that it appears in the common formula of an oath, “As YHWH lives"; Ruth 3:13; I Sam. 14:45; etc.).

If the explanation of the form above is given be the true one, the original pronunciation must have been Yahweh or Yahaweh. From this the contracted form Jah or Yah is most readily explained, and also the forms Jeho or Yeho and Jo or Yo, which the word assumes in combination in the first part of compound proper names, and Yahu or Yah is the second part of such names. The fact may also be mentioned that in Samaritan poetry Yahweh rimes with words similar in ending to Yahweu, and Theodoret states that the Samaritans pronounced the name “haibe.” Epiphunius ascribes the same pronunciation to an early Christian sect. Clement of Alexandria, still more exactly, pronounces it, ”haove,” or “haovai,” and Origen, “haae”. Aquila wrote the name in archaic Hebrew letters. In the Jewish-Egyptian magic-papyri it appears as “Haovae”. At least as early as the third century BC, the name seems to have been regarded by the Jews as a "nomen ineffabile," on the basis of a somewhat extreme interpretation of Ex. 20:7 and Lev. 24:11 (see Philo. "De Vita Mosis." iii. 519. 520). Written only in consonants, the true pronunciation was forgotten by them. The Septuagint, and after it the New Testament, invariably render “kurios” (“the Lord").

Various conjectures have been made in recent times respecting a possible foreign origin of this name. Some derive it from the Kenites, with whom Moses sojourned, Sinai, the ancient dwelling-place of YHWH, having been, according to the oldest tradition, in the Kenite country. A Canaanite, and, again, a Babylonian, origin have been proposed, but upon grounds which are still uncertain. Various explanations of the meaning of the name, differing from that given above, have been proposed: e.g., (1) that it is derived from the word "to fall", and originally designated some sacred object, such as a stone, possibly an aerolite, which was believed to have fallen from heaven; (2) or from "to blow", a name for the god of wind and storm; (8) or from "to be", meaning, "He who causes to be," "the Creator"; (4) or from the same root, with the meaning "to fall.'' "He who causes to fall" the rain and the thunderbolt — “the storm is, on the whole, to be preferred.

The most common of the originally appellative names of God is Elohim, plural in form though commonly construed with a singular verb or adjective. This is, most probably, to be explained as the plural of majesty or excellence, expressing high dignity or greatness: comp. the similar use of plurals of "ba'al" (master) and "adon" (lord). In Ethiopic, Arnlak ("lords") is the common name for God. The singular, Eloah is comparatively rare, occurring only in poetry and prose (in Job. 41 times). The same divine name is found in Arabic (ilah) and in Aramaic (elah). The singular is used in six places for heathen deities (2 Chron. 32:15; Dan. 11:37, 88; etc.), and the plural also, a few times, either for gods or images (Ex. 9:1, 12:12, 20:3; etc.) or for one god (Ex. 32:1: Gen. 31:80, 82: etc.). In the great majority of cases both are used as names of the one God of Israel.

The root-meaning of the word is unknown. The most probable theory is that it may be connected with the old Arabic verb "alih" (to be perplexed, afraid; to seek refuge because of fear). Eloah. Elohim, would, therefore, be "He who is the object of fear or reverence," or, "He with whom one who is afraid takes refuge" (comp. the name "fear of Isaac" in Gen. 31:43. 58; see also Isa. 8:18; Ps. 76:12). The predominance of this name in the later writings, as compared with the more distinctively Hebrew national name YHWH, may have been due to the broadening idea of God as the transcendent and universal Lord.

The word El appears in Assyrian (ilu) and Phoenician, as well as in Hebrew, as an ordinary name of God. It is found also in the South-Arabian dialects, and in Aramaic, Arabic, and Ethiopia, as also in Hebrew, as an element in proper names. It is used in both the singular and plural, both for other gods and for the God of Israel. As a name of God, however, it is used chiefly in poetry and prophetic discourse, rarely in prose, and then usually with some epithet attached, as "a jealous God." Other examples of its use with some attribute or epithet are: El 'Elyon ("most high God"), El Shaddai ("God Almighty"), El Olam ("everlasting God"), El Hai ("living God"), El Roi ("God of seeing"), El Elohe Israel ("God, the God of Israel"). El Gibbor “Hero God").

The commonly accepted derivation of this name from the Hebrew root "to be strong." is extremely doubtful. A similar root has been explained from the Arabic as meaning "to be in front," "to be foremost," "to lead," "to rule," which would give the meaning "leader," "lord," but the fact that the e in El was originally short, as seen in such proper names as Elkanah. Elihu, and in the Assyrian "ilu." is strong evidence against this derivation. As in the case of Elohim, it is necessary to admit that the original meaning is not certainly known. The word Shaddai, which occurs along with El, is also used independently as a name of God, chiefly in the Book of Job. It is commonly rendered "the Almighty" (in LXX.. sometimes pantokratwr). The Hebrew root "shadad," from which it has been supposed to be derived means, however, "to overpower," "to treat with violence," "to lay waste." This would give Shaddni the meaning "devastator." or "destroyer." which can hardly be right. It is possible, however, that the original significance was that of "overmastering" or “overpowering strength," and that this meaning persists in thee divine name. Another interesting suggestion is that it may be connected with the Assyrian "shadu" (mountain), an epithet sometimes attached to the names of Assyrian deities. It is conjectured also that the Hebrew pointing may be due to an improbable rabbinical explanation of the word as "He who is sufficient", and that the word originally may have been without the doubling of the middle letter. According to Ex. 6:2, 8, this is the name by which God was known to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The name 'Elyon, occurs with El. with YHWH, with Elohim, and also alone. According to Philo Byblius (Euscbius, "Praeparatio Evangelica," i. 10), the Phoenicians used what appears to be the same name for God, (Elioun).

Adonai occurs as a name of God apart from its use by the Masorites as a substituted rending for YHWH. It was, probably, at first Adoni ("my Lord") or Adonai and Ba'al ("my Lord." plural of majesty), and later assumed this form, as a proper name, to distinguish it from other uses of the same word. The simple form Adon, with and without the article, also occurs as a divine name. The name Ba'al, apparently as an equivalent for YHWH, occurs as an element in a number of compound proper names, such as Jerubbaal, Ishbaal, Meribaal, etc. Some of these names, probably at a time when the name of Baal had fallen into disrepute (comp. Hosea, 2:16, 17), seem to have been changed by the substitution of El or Bosheth for Baal (comp. 2 Sam. 2:8; 4:4, 16; I Chron. 8:88, 84; 9:89. 40; 14:7).

Other titles applied to the God of Israel, but which can scarcely be called names, are the following: Abir (Strong One" of Jacob or Israel; Gen. 49:24; Isa. 1:4, 31:1 etc.); Zur (“rock”) and Zur Yisrael (Rock of Israel”’ 2 Sam. 23:3; Isa. 30:29; Deuteronomy 32:4, 18, 30); Eben Yishrael (Stone of Israel”; Gen. 49:24 (text doubtful).

The names YHWH and Elohim frequently occur with the word Zeba'ot ("hosts"), as YHWH Elohe Zeba'ot (YHWH God of Hosts") or " God of Hosts "; or, most frequently, "YHWH of Hosts." To this last Adonai is often prefixed, making the title "Lord YHWH of Hosts." This compound divine name occurs chiefly in the prophetic literature and does not appear at all in the Pentateuch or in Joshua or Judges. The original meaning of Zeba’ot is probably to be found in I Sam. 17:45, where "YHWH Zeba'ot" is interpreted as denoting "the God of the armies of Israel" (comp. Josh. 5:18-15: Isa. 13:4). The word, apart from this special use, always means armies or hosts of men, as, for example, in EX. 6:26, 7:4; and 12:41, while the singular "zaba" is used to designate the heavenly host. It is noteworthy also that the name YHWH Zeba'ot is more than once directly associated with the Ark, which was the symbol of God's presence in the midst of the hosts of His people (Num. 10:35, 86; I Sam. 4:4: II Sam. 6:2). Later, and especially in prophetic usage, the word was transferred to the heavenly hosts, or rather the heavenly were added to the earthly hosts. For this idea of heavenly hosts joining their forces with those of God's people, or righting on behalf of God's servants, compare Judges 5:20; II Kings 6:16.17: Ps. 34:7; 68:17.

*Edited from: The Jewish Encyclopedia