Agape Bible Study

THE MANY NAMES OF GOD

"Give thanks to Yahweh, call on his name..." Psalms 105:1a

In the Bible there are many different names given to the One True God.  The most frequently used names are YHWH, usually rendered as Yahweh (ca. 6,800 times); Elohim (ca. 2,600 times); Adonai (ca. 439 times); and El (ca. 238 times).  Most of the other names are combinations of these names like El Shaddai, El Eloah, and Yahweh Elohim.  The most commonly used names for God in the Hebrew and Protestant Bibles are Ha-Shem (meaning "the name" which is used in the modern Jewish Masoretic Text translations of the Tanach) and Jehovah (used in both Protestant and Jewish translations).  Both are names for God that only date back to the Middle Ages and are not found in the ancient texts of Sacred Scripture.

ADONAI:  The word adon, in Hebrew, is translated "lord."  God's name as Adonai is a form of the word "adon" with an "ai" ending.  Adonai is used about 439 times in the Bible and can be translated either as "Lord" or as "my Lord".   Biblical scholars and linguists, however, cannot agree as to the meaning of the "ai" suffix that has been added to the Hebrew word for "lord" (adon).  Some scholars have suggested it indicates a plural of majesty.  In most English translations this word is rendered as "Lord" with the first letter capitalized and the other letters lower case.  Those translations that have the word "Lord" in all capital letters, "LORD", are instead indicating God's covenant name YHWH (usually rendered "Yahweh").  The use of all capital letters denotes the difference between the use of Adonai and Yahweh.  (Only the NRSV translation confuses the issue by rendering Adonai as both "Lord" and "LORD").

EL and ELOHIM: The word El is used for God about 238 times while Elohim is used about 2,600 times.  In the Bible Elohim has two distinct meanings.  First it is a plural form (-im and -ot are the standard Hebrew plural endings) of the word "god" in the Hebrew and the Canaanite languages which is rendered "el" in the singular (when the word "el" is used for the One True God it is always capitalized = "El").  An example of the first meaning used in the plural form can be found in Deuteronomy 5:7: You shall have not other false gods [elohim] before me.   But the most common use of Elohim is its second distinct meaning when it is used as a personal name for God or when referring to God as the true God among false gods.  Thus it is used in Genesis 1:1: In the beginning Elohim created the heavens and the earth ..., and also in Joshua 24:19: You cannot worship Yahweh for He is a holy god [elohim]....  There is no explanation why the plural form is used for the One True God (as it is in Genesis 1:1).  However, scholars from the times of the Fathers of the Church have suggested that the plural form suggests the mystery of the Trinity which was hidden in the Old Testament to be revealed in the New.

YHWH:  The four Hebrew consonants that comprise YHWH are given in Scripture as God's holy Covenant name, and it is this form of His name that is the most frequently used in the Bible (about 6,800 times).  These four Hebrew characters, YHWH = yad, hay, vav (v in Hebrew can also be rendered w in English), and hay have been called the "Tetragrammaton" or "tetragram", meaning "the four letter word."  Biblical scholars do not know how YHWH was originally pronounced because its original pronunciation, which was part of the sacred Oral Tradition of the Jews, was lost when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70AD.  Throughout history, God's Old Covenant people treated God's name with great reverence, declaring it too holy to be spoken aloud.  Speaking God's divine covenant name was restricted to the priests worshipping in God's Temple in Jerusalem, and so with the destruction of the Temple His holy covenant name was no longer spoken and the correct pronunciation of the name was lost.  The rendering of YHWH as "Yahweh" is a modern conjecture (first suggested in the 16th century by biblical scholar Gilbert Genebrard, professor of Hebrew at the College Royal in Paris) but which has been accepted by biblical scholars today as the most likely rendering.  You will find this rendering in the Catholic New Jerusalem Bible translation.  In other translations, following what became the Jewish custom, YHWH is rendered as LORD (for example in the Catholic Revised Standard and New American Bible translations as well as in most Protestant Bible translations).  This became a custom from the time of the 3rd century BC when the ancient Jewish scholars translated the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) into the Greek translation known as the Septuagint.  They replaced the Sacred Name YHWH with "ho Kyrios" or "the Lord." In the modern Jewish Tanach YHWH is rendered as Hashem (or ha-Shem, meaning in Hebrew, "the name") or as Adoshem, which is a contraction of Adonai and ha-Shem.

But what does the Tetragrammaton YHWH mean?  Biblical scholars have been arguing about the meaning of YHWH for centuries.  Since biblical names generally have a discernible meaning, scholars have believed that YHWH can be reasonably translated.  Based on etymology and context most scholars have agreed that YHWH is an archaic form of the verb "to be" (in Hebrew hawah) and should be translated "I am who I am or I will be who I will be." This meaning contextually fits the passages in Exodus 3:13-15a:  Moses then said to God [Elohim], 'Look, if I go to the Israelites and say to me, "What is his name?" what am I to tell them?'  God [Elohim] said to Moses, 'I am [YHWH] he who is.'  And he said, 'This is what you are to say to the Israelites I am [YHWH] has sent me to you...', which agrees with Exodus 3:6: I am the God of your ancestors ...,  and Jesus' "I AM" statements in the fourth Gospel i.e.: In all truth I tell you, before Abraham ever was, I AM (John 8:58).

JEHOVAH:  The Biblical reference to God as Yehova (Jehova), spelled out with Hebrew characters, first appeared in c. 800AD.  At that time Jewish scholars (called the Masorites) translated the Greek translation of the (Old Testament) Bible back into Hebrew and added vowel points to the Hebrew language, which had originally only been written with consonants.  Since that time, Hebrew Bible manuscripts have inserted the vowels from the Hebrew word "Adonai" (Lord) within the Tetragrammaton ("the four letters), YHWH, as a reminder that readers should say "Adonai" instead of the sacred name which Jews believe must not be spoken.  The pronunciation of "Jehovah" was unknown until 1520 AD when a biblical scholar named Galatians introduced it.  This pronunciation was contested by other scholars as being against grammatical and historical propriety.  However, when Protestant scholars began their vernacular translations (into their common languages) of the Old Testament using the Jewish Masoretic translations, they also mixed the four consonants of YHWH (JHWH in German) with the vowels of Adonai in the mistaken belief that this was the correct pronunciation of the Sacred Name, and from then on, YHWH appeared in Protestant Biblical texts as "Jehovah".  This rendering is most frequently used in the King James Version translations as in, Let them be put to shame, and perish: That men may know that thou, whose name alone is Jehovah, art the most high over all the earth (Psalms 83:18).  Modern scholars do not recognize this form as a legitimate name for the Hebrew God and dismiss it as a misreading or mispronunciation. 

Names for God found in Sacred Scripture
and some of the passages in which these names are found:

All Scripture quotations are from the New Jerusalem Bible (NJB) unless otherwise noted as from the New American Bible (NAB).

The Names of Jesus in the Book of Revelation:

What ever word you use when you call upon the name of God, remember to call in reverence and in love for the word that expresses the essence of God in His most intimate relationship with you is LOVE, for God is love (1 John 4:16c).

We are waiting for Yahweh;
He is our help and our shield,
For in Him our heart rejoices,
In His holy name we trust.
Yahweh, let your faithful love rest on us.
As our hope has rested in you.
Psalms 33:20-22

Michal Hunt, Copyright © 2003 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.

REFERENCES

1. The Jewish Book of Why, Alfred J. Kolatch, Jonathan David Publishers, Inc. 1995

2. Bible Review (August 2003): "Why God has so Many Names" by Bernhard Lang (Old Testament and religious studies, University of St. Andrews, Scotland & Professor of Catholic Theology, University of Paderborn, Germany).

3. Dictionary of the Bible, John L McKenzie, editor (Simon & Schuster, 1995).

4. Vincent's Word Studies in the New Testament vol. II, Martin R. Vincent, D.D., Union Theological Seminary, (Hendrickson Publishers).

5. The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, R. Brown, S. Driver, and C. Briggs, (Hendrickson Publishers, 2002).