Names of God by Daniel O. McClellan

The authors of the Hebrew Bible might have scoffed at Shakespeare’s rhetorical question, “What’s in a name?” For those authors, names and titles had a key role in cultivating a meaningful relationship between Yahweh and his people. The Hebrew Bible contains numerous different titles for Yahweh. These names use imagery that expresses a variety of particular character traits and relationships and that reflects the rhetorical goals of the authors.

The proper name of the Israelite deity is Yahweh (YHWH; yod-heh-vav-heh), which the exodus tradition suggests derives from the Hebrew root h-y-h, “to be” (see Exod 3:14) and was unknown to the patriarchs (Exod 6:3). The shorter form YHW appears as a regional designation in two second-millennium B.C.E. Egyptian texts, however, and some scholars believe immigrants from that region in the south brought their deity north with them to Israel’s hill country (Deut 33:2, Hab 3:3). According to this theory, the God of Israel was originally a storm deity, frequently conceptualized as a fierce warrior who manifests his power through violent weather (Judg 5:4-5, Ps 18:6-15). Titles like “Yahweh of Hosts” (Jer 32:18) and “Mighty One” (Ps 45:3 [Hebrew, 45:4]) reflect aspects of this imagery.

Elohim, the generic Hebrew word for deity, is the most common title attributed to the God of Israel (singular El is also quite common). Elohim is plural in form but frequently refers to a singular subject, including deities other than Yahweh (1Kgs 11:33). This has traditionally been understood as a plural of majesty, meant to rhetorically multiply Yahweh’s divine qualities, but it may instead be an abstract plural that became concretized through repeated use.

In the Hebrew text, Elohim appears frequently in the patriarchal tradition in compound titles such as “God of Abraham” (Gen 28:13) or “God of my father” (Gen 31:5). This is suggestive of an early view of Israel’s God as a personal deity worshipped by Abraham and his descendants prior to the establishment of an Israelite state. Other titles from this period reflect similar personal relationships and conceptualize the deity in terms of salient agrarian ideals. For instance, Gen 49:24-25 refers to God as the “Mighty One [or Bull] of Jacob,” “Shepherd,” “Rock of Israel,” and “Almighty” (Hebrew Shaddai, referring to deity, mountains, breasts, or perhaps wilderness).

Some titles from the patriarchal literature are not well understood, such as “Fear/Thigh of Isaac” (Gen 31:42, Gen 31:53), which may reflect the salient attribute of Isaac’s imposing personal deity or, alternatively, may have something to do with progeny or offspring; the precise meaning is unclear. Similarly, “Possessor/Creator/Procreator of Heaven and Earth” in Gen 14:19, Gen 14:22 is a title attested elsewhere in the ancient Near East but not clearly understood.

The majority of titles applied to Yahweh throughout the rest of the Hebrew Bible are compounds combining Yahweh or El/Elohim with some predicate or noun phrase describing God’s benevolence or power, such as “Yahweh, Our Righteousness” (Jer 23:6), “My God, My King” (Ps 68:24), or “Yahweh, Creator of the Ends of the Earth” (Isa 40:28).

Interestingly, one early title for Yahweh, Baal, which means “Lord,” became maligned in later periods when the association with the non-Israelite deity Baal problematized its attribution to Yahweh. Eshbaal, “Man of the Lord” (1Chr 8:33), was one of Saul’s sons, but editors rhetorically altered the name to Ish-Bosheth, “Man of Shame,” in 2Sam 2:8. Hosea 2:16 also declares that, in the future, Israel will no longer refer to Yahweh as Baali, “My Lord,” but as Ishi, “My Husband.”

The portraits of Yahweh painted by these many names and titles are complex and sometimes contradictory, but they reveal the characteristics and personality of God that were central to the religious thought and lives of those who composed them.

Daniel O. McClellan, "Names of God", n.p. [cited 19 Sep 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/people/related-articles/names-of-god

Contributors

Daniel O. McClellan

Daniel O. McClellan
Ph.D. student, University of Exeter

Daniel O. McClellan is a scripture translation supervisor for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a Ph.D. student in theology and religion at the University of Exeter.

 

Relating to agriculture, or (of a society) dependent on agriculture for food.

A region notable for its early ancient civilizations, geographically encompassing the modern Middle East, Egypt, and modern Turkey.

The supreme male divinity of Mesopotamia and Canaan.

Gods or goddesses; powerful supernatural figures worshipped by humans.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

migration of the ancient Israelites from Egypt into Canaan

Not specific; not connected to a particular version.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

A social hierarchy based on men and paternity.

Relating to persuasive speech or writing.

The name of Israel's god, but with only the consonants of the name, as spelled in the Hebrew Bible. In antiquity, Jews stopped saying the name as a sign of reverence. Some scholars today use only the consonants to recognize the lost original pronunciation or to respect religious tradition.

Exod 3:14

14God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ ”

Exod 6:3

3I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name ‘The Lord’ I did not make myself known to them.

Deut 33:2

2He said:
The Lord came from Sinai,
and dawned from Seir upon us;
he shone forth from Mount Paran.
With him were myriads of holy ones;
at his right, a host of h ... View more

Hab 3:3

3God came from Teman,
the Holy One from Mount Paran. Selah
His glory covered the heavens,
and the earth was full of his praise.

Judg 5:4-5

4“Lord, when you went out from Seir,
when you marched from the region of Edom,
the earth trembled,
and the heavens poured,
the clouds indeed poured water.5The m ... View more

Ps 18:6-15

6In my distress I called upon the Lord;
to my God I cried for help.
From his temple he heard my voice,
and my cry to him reached his ears.
7Then the earth reele ... View more

Jer 32:18

18You show steadfast love to the thousandth generation, but repay the guilt of parents into the laps of their children after them, O great and mighty God whose ... View more

Ps 45:3

3Gird your sword on your thigh, O mighty one,
in your glory and majesty.

Hebrew, 45:4

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1Kgs 11:33

33This is because he has forsaken me, worshiped Astarte the goddess of the Sidonians, Chemosh the god of Moab, and Milcom the god of the Ammonites, and has not ... View more

Gen 28:13

13And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and ... View more

Gen 31:5

5and said to them, “I see that your father does not regard me as favorably as he did before. But the God of my father has been with me.

Gen 49:24-25

24Yet his bow remained taut,
and his arms were made agile
by the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob,
by the name of the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel,25by the God ... View more

Gen 31:42

42If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, had not been on my side, surely now you would have sent me away empty-handed. God saw my af ... View more

Gen 31:53

53May the God of Abraham and the God of Nahor”—the God of their father—“judge between us.” So Jacob swore by the Fear of his father Isaac,

Gen 14:19

19He blessed him and said,
“Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
maker of heaven and earth;

Gen 14:22

22But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I have sworn to the Lord, God Most High, maker of heaven and earth,

Jer 23:6

6In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”

Ps 68:24

24Your solemn processions are seen, O God,
the processions of my God, my King, into the sanctuary—

Isa 40:28

28Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understand ... View more

1Chr 8:33

33Ner became the father of Kish, Kish of Saul, Saul of Jonathan, Malchishua, Abinadab, and Esh-baal;

2Sam 2:8

Ishbaal King of Israel
8But Abner son of Ner, commander of Saul's army, had taken Ishbaal son of Saul, and brought him over to Mahanaim.

Hosea 2:16

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