The Divine Name in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Tradition

According to many Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions, the god worshipped in these three religions is one and the same. Jews, Christians, and Muslims, however, have different understandings of the divine name.

What is God’s personal name in the Hebrew Bible?

In the Hebrew Bible, God is referred to using many different titles including ’ĕlōhîm “god,” ’ădōn “lord,” ’ēl šadday “mountain god,” and ’ēl ‘elĕyôn “highest god.” He is also frequently called by his personal name: YHWH. This series of four consonants is known as the Tetragrammaton and, in academic circles, is pronounced as “Yahweh.” According to one theory, the divine name stems from the Hebrew root h-y-h, which means “to be.” In its vocalized form, it means “he causes to be.” According to the accounts in Exod 3:14-15 and Exod 6:3, God revealed his personal name to Moses. From this point forward in the biblical narrative, God is commonly referred to as Yahweh.

Why do Jews, Christians, and Muslims use different titles and epithets to refer to God?

In many sects of modern Judaism, however, the name Yahweh is understood to be too sacred to pronounce. This attitude dates to the second century BCE. The name was viewed with such reverence that, in copying biblical manuscripts, the copyists began to avoid using the original vowels under the consonants of the Tetragrammaton and instead wrote the vowels for Hebrew ’ădōnāy (my lord) or ’ĕlōhîm (God). In contemporary Judaism, it is common to hear God described by either of these terms or by the term“Hashem” which means “the name.” Using these titles rather than the historical divine name is understood to be an act of reverence for God. In addition to these titles, seventy-two different names for God developed in Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism.  

This reverence for the divine name is evident in the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, which took place over the course of the first century BCE. In the Greek Bible, also known as the Septuagint, the Hebrew YHWH is frequently rendered as the Greek kyrios (lord). It is also occasionally translated as the Greek theos (God). The Septuagint was especially popular in early Christian communities, and this led early Christians to refer to God as “lord” or “God” rather than using his personal name. Christians today might use the name Yahweh to refer to God or simply refer to God as God.

In Islam, God is typically referred to as Allah or God. “Allah” is the product of the Arabic al’illah. This Arabic term is cognate with the Hebrew word ’ĕlōhîm and is thus the equivalent of the English term “God.” Allah tends to be the preferred divine title in Islam because Arabic is the language of the Qur’an and is thus invested with a level of sacrality. However, in addition to the designation of Allah, Muslims understand God to have ninety-nine names, which are used throughout the Qur’an to describe his essence. These include the Arabic equivalents of the English terms “being,” “life,” “the honorer,” and “the Almighty.” The recitation of these names is a common devotional practice in Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam.

Contributors

  • cook-sarah

    PhD Student, University of Georgia

    Sarah Cook is a PhD candidate at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia. Her research interests include prophecy in the E-source, the redaction of the Torah, and translation in the ancient world with a specific focus on the Septuagint translation of the Torah.