Names of God
God said to Moses, "I am who I am. Exodus 3:14
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Names of God (discussion) (For short comments and opinions)
For related quotations see Names of God (quotes)
The Biblical Idea of the Name
In the Bible, the name of God and the being of God are closely related. This is similar to the ancient idea of what a name signifies.
In the Hebrew language, the word for “name” most probably meant “sign” or “distinctive mark.” In the Greek language, “name” (onoma) comes from a verb that means, “to know.” Because of this, a name indicates how a person or object is to be known. The idea of a name is not to be taken in the sense of a label or an arbitrary way of identifying or specifying a person, place, or object. “Name” in biblical usage correctly describes the person, place, or object and indicates the essential character of the person or thing it is naming. Adam named the animals according to their nature (Genesis 2:19-20). Noah means “one who brings relief and comfort” (Genesis 5:29). Jesus means “savior” (Matthew 1:21). When a person was given a new position or a radical change took place in his life, a new name was given to indicate that new aspect. This happened in the life of Abraham, the “father of many” (Genesis 17:5), and Israel, “one who strives with God” (Genesis 32:28). A person’s name expressed and described the most important characteristics of that person. With regard to the names of God, there are considerable differences. These are most clearly seen when Bible scholars confront the question of whether the names of God are names given by God concerning himself or they are names given to God by people who observed his acts and thought about his character. Here are some examples of various kinds of divine names: 1. Proper names: El, Yahweh, Adonai, Theos (God), Kurios (Lord). 2. Personal names: Father, Abba, Son, Jesus, Holy Spirit. 3. Titles: Creator, Messiah/Christ, Paraclete/Comforter. 4. Essential names: Light, Love, Spirit. 5. Descriptive names: Rock, Ba’al, Master, Rabboni, Shepherd.
The Names Of God in the Old Testament
El and Related Names
The name El is found over 200 times in the Hebrew Bible. It is best translated as “God.” The term el has a number of possible meanings. The root is thought by some to be ‘ul, which means “to be first” or “to be strong.” Others suggest the root is ‘alah, which means, “to precede” and suggests “leader” or “commander.” It can also mean, “to be afraid.” God, the strong one, should be feared. Other scholars suggest that the preposition el, which means, “to, toward” is the root. The idea then is of “one giving self to others” or of “one to whom others go for help.” Some scholars suggest that the word ‘alim, meaning, “to bind,” should be considered as a root also. This would then be translated as, “the strong one binds and holds firm control.” Common to these four suggested root meanings is the idea of strength, power, supreme excellence, and greatness. El in the Old Testament is used particularly in the earlier books, where it describes God’s dynamic power and authority. El describes God as the great producer. He is the One who has such power that whatever is made, done, kept, or destroyed is his doing (Exodus 15). El is also used to express the idea that God is not to be identified as part of creation but as the One who is above, behind, and responsible for all creation (Psalm 19). Elohim is also commonly used as the name of God, and it occurs over 2,500 times in the Old Testament. There are differences of opinion concerning the exact origin and meaning of this plural name. Some scholars have suggested that Elohim is the plural form of El, but it seems more likely that it is a plural of Eloah, which appears in the poetical writings of the Old Testament. Some writers have suggested that this plural form comes from pagan religions that believed in more than one god, but no such plural form is found among pagan religions as the name of a deity. Others scholars have suggested that the plural form is used to indicate the three-part nature of God, and support for this has been seen in the use of a singular verb with this plural noun. The biblical doctrine of the Trinity, as it is developed throughout the Bible, does not appear to be based on the use of this plural form of God’s name, even though the two positions do not contradict each other. The plural form, Elohim, is best understood as expressing intensity. God makes himself known by this name as the Lord of intense and extensive glory and richness as he displays his power in the created universe. Because of this, when the Bible speaks of creation, it states, “In the beginning Elohim created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). This name is repeated 35 times in Genesis 1 and 2 in connection with God’s power as it is revealed in Creation. In the book of Deuteronomy the name Elohim is used repeatedly to stress the majestic power of God that was shown in Israel’s release from slavery in Egypt, their survival in the wilderness, and their preparation to enter the Promised Land. In this context, Elohim is also recognized as the Lawgiver who will powerfully give judgment to people who break the covenant. The writers of the Psalms also used this name repeatedly as they acknowledged and praised God as the majestic ruler who had demonstrated his awesome power in many dimensions of life (Psalm 68). Some scholars point to the use of Elohim when God spoke to Abraham and said he would be Elohim to Abraham and his descendants. In other words, God would be in a covenant relationship to them (Genesis 17:1-8). Included in this relationship is the idea that God is always ready to use his power to help those people who are in covenant relationship with him. With this in mind, Elohim also expresses the concept of God’s faithfulness in regard to the covenant and the promises and blessings involved in it. The name Eloah mainly occurs in the poetic writings of the Old Testament. It occurs about 41 times in Job. Isaiah used it to express the incomparable character of God (Isaiah 44:8). In the same way David asked, “Who is God [Eloah], but the LORD?” (2 Samuel 22:32). Moses was the first to use the name Eloah in his song (Deuteronomy 32:15-17), referring to Israel’s God in the context of the “no-gods,” which had been chosen in place of the Rock of salvation. This name was probably used to stress the fact that God is the only true and living One, the One to be adored and worshiped. God is to be revered with a holy fear. Another closely related name is Elah, which is found in Ezra and Daniel. Some think Elah is a Chaldee or Aramaic form of Eloah. Its root is said to be ‘alah, which means “to fear” or “to be perplexed.” God as Elah is the God to be feared and worshiped. In view of this meaning, we can understand why, in the time of Israel’s exile and immediately after their return, this name was commonly used. El Elyon is the name used to describe the God of Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18-22) as God Most High. In Psalm 57:2 and Psalm 78:56 the Hebrew reads Elohim Elyon. It is believed that the term Elyon comes from the verb ‘alah, which means, “go up, be elevated, to be exalted.” There are a number of instances where the term Elyon is used alone, but the context indicates that it is used in these cases as a synonym for God (Numbers 24:16, Psalm 83:18 and Isaiah 14:14). The term elyon is used quite frequently as an adjective. In these cases, it is translated as “high, highest, upper, and uppermost.” The basic ascription given to God when this name is used is One who is above all things as the maker, possessor, and ruler of everything. He is incomparable in every way. He is subject to no one and no thing. He is the Exalted One. El Shaddai is used in the longer form seven times in the Bible (Genesis 17:1; Genesis 28:3; Genesis 35:11; Genesis 43:14; Genesis 48:3; Exodus 6:3 and Ezekiel 10:5). In the shorter form, Shaddai, it appears more frequently. It appears in Job 30 times, in Psalm 19:1 and Psalm 68:14, one time in Ruth (Ruth 1:21), once in Isaiah (Isaiah 13:6), once in Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1:24) and once in Joel (Joel 1:15). In these passages, the combined ideas of God as the all-powerful, all-sufficient, transcendent, and sovereign ruler are present. This meaning is generally accepted, but there are differences as to the exact meaning of the term Shaddai. Some scholars have begun with shad as the first concept to be considered. The meaning of shad is “breast, pap, or teat,” and it is considered a “precious metaphor” of the God who nourishes, supplies, and satisfies. The root of shad (shadah), in Jewish usage, is to moisten. This meaning is not the preferred one in the context of which El Shaddai appears. Neither is the word shed, a reference to a demon, which some scholars have sought to use because it appears in Deuteronomy 32:17 and Psalm 106:37 speaking of Israel’s idolatry. In addition to the fact that shed is spelled differently, the connection between the concept of demon and God as all-powerful is difficult to establish. More acceptable is the suggestion that Shaddai is a term that combines sha (“the one who”) and dai (“is sufficient”). The later Greek versions have adopted this meaning. The most preferred explanation is that Shaddai comes from the verb shadad (“to overpower, to deal violently, or to devastate”). A clear connection between shadad and Shaddai is said to be found in Isaiah 13:6 and Joel 1:15. God as El Shaddai is presented as the all-powerful One, totally self-sufficient, absolute ruler, and the One who makes final judgments. The Greek Old Testament has adapted this meaning. It translates El Shaddai as Pantokrator, the “All-Ruler” or “Sovereign One.” El ‘Olam is used to refer to God as the everlasting or eternal One, a clear instance where the name of God and a characteristic of God are combined. The term ‘olam has a wide range of uses. It is usually defined in Bible dictionaries as meaning “long duration, antiquity, and indefinite futurity.” It is used to speak of God’s existence, of God’s covenant and promises, and of Jesus’ reign. Speaking to God, the psalmist said, “You are from ‘olam (everlasting) to ‘olam (everlasting)” (Psalms 90:2), and the prophet Isaiah spoke of God as the everlasting Creator (Isaiah 40:28) and as everlasting strength (Isaiah 26:4). Jeremiah also spoke of God as the everlasting King (Jeremiah 10:10). God’s eternal nature speaks of his infinity in relation to time. ‘Olam, as ascribed to God, should not be thought of as duration stretching indefinitely backward and forward. Rather, the word speaks to God’s transcendence of all earthly limits. In addition, ‘olam refers to the quality of God that differs essentially from time. The Bible speaks of El ‘Olam in contexts where the believer’s assurance of well-being, security, and hope are presented as prized possessions. El Gibbor is a name that speaks of God’s power and might. Gibbor alone is used in reference to mighty and heroic men. The two words together always refer to God, and in some instances Haggadol, which means, “the greatest” is added (Deuteronomy 10:17 and Jeremiah 32:18) to emphasize the greatness and awesome majesty of God. El Gibbor is also used to describe the Messiah in Isaiah 9:6 and Psalms 45:4. El Ro’i is used once to describe God as the seeing One. Hagar described the Lord this way when she was found in the wilderness (Genesis 16:13). Psalm 139:1-2 expresses this concept of God as the One who sees everything. Yahweh is a distinctly proper name of God. It is never used to refer to any pagan gods and it is never used in regard to men. It appears 6,823 times in the Old Testament, appearing first in Genesis 2:4, where it is joined with Elohim. Yahweh is used 164 times in Genesis, and it appears 1,800 times in Exodus through Joshua. It never appears in a declined form in the Hebrew language, and it never occurs in the plural form or with suffixes. It is sometimes abbreviated as Yah and Yahu (Exodus 15:2, Psalm 68:4 and Isaiah 12:2). The exact meaning of the name Yahweh is difficult to determine. Some think that it comes from the verb hayah, which means, “to be,” or in an ancient form of that same verb, hawah. There is no agreement as to whether the qal or hiphil form of the verb should be considered as the root. Those who opt for the hiphil form read Yahweh to mean, “cause to be”. If this is the case, Exodus 3:14 would read, “I will cause to be what has come to be.” Others look to the qal form and then translate the name as “I Am” or “I Shall Be.” Still others are inclined to disassociate the name from the verb hayah and regard it as an original term that expresses the uniqueness of Israel’s gracious God. Translators of the Old Testament have not agreed upon the correct translation of the name Yahweh. Since it is translated into the Greek as kurios, which means, “Lord,” many have translated Yahweh as “LORD.” However, ‘Adonai, which is best translated “Lord,” appears with Yahweh in various instances. The King James Version, for example, translates Yahweh as “God,” and ‘Adonai as “Lord.” Some modern translators have chosen to maintain the use of Yahweh. The name Jehovah has been judged by translators to be unacceptable. This name arose due to the Jewish practice of not pronouncing Yahweh because of Leviticus 24:16, “He that blasphemes the name of Yahweh shall surely be put to death” (Leviticus 24:16). This warning against a vain or blasphemous use of the name was taken in an absolute sense, especially after Israel’s exile to Babylon (Amos 6:10). Because of this, when reading the Old Testament, the Jews substituted either Elohim or ‘Adonai for Yahweh. From this, the practice of adding the vowels of ‘Adonai to YHWH (JeHoWaH) became established. The interpretation of Exodus 6:2-3 has caused many debates: “And God said to Moses, ‘I am Yahweh; I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as El Shaddai, but by my name Yahweh I did not make myself known to them.’ “ This passage has been understood to mean that the name Yahweh was not known or used before the time of Moses. But that is not what the passage states. Instead, it shows how the patriarchs did not know God as Yahweh. They knew him as El Shaddai through his historical deeds. They had not come to know God according to his unique character as Yahweh. In other words, God had always been Yahweh. He is saying to Moses that the descendants of the patriarchs would come to know the full, rich meaning of the name by the way God dealt with them. This name Yahweh reveals God’s nature in the highest and fullest sense possible. It includes the meaning of the other names. Yahweh particularly stresses the absolute faithfulness of God. God had promised the patriarchs that he would be their God, that he would be with them and deliver and bless them, keep them, and give them a land as a place of inheritance. God told Moses that Israel was about to behold and experience the faithfulness of God as he wondrously brought them into the Promised Land. God would prove to be a faithful, redeeming, upholding, and restoring God. In working out this redemption, God would demonstrate that he is all that his name implies including merciful, gracious, patient, full of loving-kindness, truthful, faithful, forgiving, just, and righteous (Exodus 34:5-6). Truly, Jacob had received an insight into the meaning of the name when he exclaimed, “I wait for thy salvation, O Yahweh” (Genesis 49:18). Yahweh, then, is the name par excellence of Israel’s God. As Yahweh, he is a faithful covenant God who, by giving his word of love and life, keeps that word by bestowing love and life abundantly on his own people. In view of the richness of the name Yahweh, it can be understood why there were stringent rules regarding its proper use (Leviticus 24:11; Leviticus 24:16). It also explains why thankful, rejoicing, worshiping Israelites used the abbreviated form of Yahweh in song when they sang Hallelujah: “Praise Yah” (Psalm 104:35, Psalm 106:1, Psalm 149:1 and Psalm 150:1). Yahweh is used in a number of phrases that are considered to be names of God. The most common of these compound names is Yahweh Tseba’oth, which means, “hosts”. The word “hosts” is used frequently in the Pentateuch to refer to the armies of Israel (Numbers 10:14-28). This is because the word is derived from the verb saba, which means “to wage” war. It also means, “to serve” in some contexts. For example, Numbers 8:24 clearly makes references to the service performed in the tabernacle. The noun tseba’oth first occurs in Genesis 2:1, where it refers to the many components of the earth and heaven. Some would limit the reference in these contexts to the stars. Still others would suggest that the word sabaoth refers to the angels, appealing to Psalm 33:6 for evidence. The compound name Yahweh Tseba’oth first appears in 1 Samuel 1:3. In view of the frequent use of tseba’oth in 1-2 Samuel to refer to armies (1 Samuel 12:9, 1 Samuel 14:50, 1 Samuel 17:55, 2 Samuel 2:8, 2 Samuel 8:16 and 2 Samuel 10:16), many scholars think that the compound name refers to Yahweh as the God of armies. In other words, God has armies to serve him. These are considered to be armies of angels who are ministering servants to God. It has been correctly pointed out that the compound name Yahweh Tseba’oth is used most frequently by the prophets at times when God’s people had either suffered defeat at the hands of enemy armies or were threatened by defeat. Jeremiah uses it 88 times, Zechariah uses it 55 times, Malachi uses it 25 times, and Haggai uses it 14 times. The compound name was used to remind them that their God had great hosts to fight and work for him on behalf of his people. Because of this, though Israel’s armies failed, their God was sufficient for every possible circumstance. Israel’s commanders were to give allegiance to Yahweh Tseba’oth (Joshua 5:14-15), and in the name of Yahweh Tseba’oth Israel was blessed (2 Samuel 6:18). Yahweh-Nissi, which means, “my banner” is the name that Moses called on when he built an altar celebrating Israel’s God-given victory over the Amalekites (Exodus 17:15). Isaiah uses the term nissi when speaking of the coming Messiah who is to be the conqueror (Isaiah 11:10). Yahweh-Rapha, which means, “healer” appears in Exodus 15:26, when Israel is assured that God, their healer, will prevent the diseases of Egypt from affecting Israel (Exodus 15:26). Although the name is only used once, God was often called upon and praised as the One who could heal (Psalms 103:3, Isaiah 30:26 and Jeremiah 6:14). Yahweh-Rohi, which means, “my shepherd” appears in Psalm 23:1. The concept of Yahweh as shepherd is explained in Ezekiel 34 when the prophet writes, “I myself will be the Shepherd of my sheep” (Ezekiel 34:15). Jesus demonstrated this concept’s full meaning when he came to earth to be the shepherd who gave his life for his sheep. Yahweh-Jireh, which means, “to see ahead or to provide” appears in Genesis 22:14. Abraham gave this name to the place where God provided a substitute for his son Isaac, whom Abraham was to offer as a sacrifice to God. Yahweh-Shalom, which means “peace,” is the name Gideon gave to the altar he built when the angel of the Lord came to give him orders to fight the Midianites (Judges 6:24). Yahweh appears with a few forms of the term tsadaq, which means, “righteousness.” Yahweh is spoken of as our righteousness in Jeremiah 23:6. Evidently, the thought is that David’s Righteous Branch, the Messiah, will bring God’s righteousness to those who are a part of the new covenant. This concept is expressed in the Pentateuch a number of times when it is said that God has provided a way for living righteously. In other words, God provides a way of sanctification and pure living (Leviticus 20:8 and Leviticus 22:9). ‘Adonai as a name for God appears about 360 times in the Old Testament, though it is not used in the same way every time. It is first found in Genesis 15:2 and 15:8, when Abram requests more definite information concerning a son and the Promised Land. It appears only 14 times after that in the Pentateuch. It appears over 50 times in the Psalms, and certain prophets, like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Amos use it frequently also. The word ‘adan, which means, “master, ruler, owner, lord,” is thought to be the root of the noun ‘adon, which is frequently used to describe men. For example, in Genesis and 1-2 Samuel, the term is used often for men who own slaves or are in positions of authority. ‘Adonai is correctly described as the name of personal communication between the believer and God. In such communication the worshiper acknowledged God’s intense majesty and greatness and also the sense of belonging to this God. ‘Adonai, coming from human lips, expressed honor for God and humble submission on the part of the believing person. ‘Adonai is the name that expresses faith, assurance, security, ready service, and thanksgiving (Psalms 16:2 and Psalms 57:9-10).
Old Testament Name Combinations
In the Old Testament, the names of God appear in various combinations. For example Elohim-Yahweh, Elohim-Yahweh-’Adonai, and Elohim-’Adonai are very common. These combinations were an effort to express the fullness of God’s being and character as these had been revealed to the people of Israel. Names of God in combination with “Israel” occur also as, for example, with Yahweh-God-Israel (Judges 5:3 and Isaiah 17:6). God is also invoked in relation to Israel without the mention of one of his names. For example, the name Qedosh Yisrael, which means the “Holy One of Israel” (Isaiah 43:14) and ‘Abir Yisrael, which means “Mighty One of Israel” (Genesis 49:24, Psalms 132:2 and Isaiah 49:26). With phrases like these, covenantal relationship between God and his people was expressed and God’s unchanging character was described.
Old Testament Personal Names
The personal names of God are Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and variations of these three names. The term ‘Abh, which means “father” appears more frequently in Genesis than in any other book, and in the Pentateuch more than in any other division of the Old Testament. However, in these passages it is not used to describe God but rather for someone who is the head of a family or clan. It is used often in the sense of the responsible one God has spoken to or a person who God has blessed with many descendants. In the poetic books of the Bible, God is referred to as Father but is not directly named Father. Job is asked, “Has the rain a father?” (Job 38:28). The reference is to God who is the maker, source, and controller of rain. In Psalm 68:5, God in his holy dwelling place is the “Father of the fatherless.” Psalm 89:26 says that David will cry to God, “Thou art my Father.” The idea here is that God was the Creator and Savior who raised up, delivered, and protected David. In Psalm 103:13, “Father” is used to describe God “as a father pities his children” (Psalms 103:13). Isaiah uses the term “Father” in relation to God four times. Three times it refers to the One who has made, saved, formed, kept, and directed Israel (Isaiah 63:16 and Isaiah 64:8). Isaiah says the child God promises is to be named Everlasting Father (Isaiah 9:6). Used in this sense, the term establishes the Son’s equality with the Father in stature, function, ability, and responsibility. Jeremiah also refers to God as Father in Jeremiah 3:4 when he describes God as the origin, keeper, and friend of Israel. Malachi 1:6 and Malachi 2:10 speak of God as the parent who deserves honor from his children. The term “son” is one of the most-used terms in the Old Testament to refer to God. It commonly occurs to describe a person’s offspring or descendants. It also appears in the sense of follower or successor. There are a few indirect references in the Old Testament to the second person of the Trinity. Psalm 2 has such a reference when it says, “You are my son” (Psalms 2:7). It is stated in the context of a king speaking to one who will rule with the king in future times. In the New Testament, this is interpreted to mean the second person of the Trinity (Acts 13:33). Because of this, the term “son” is applied to the promised Messiah who will be the divine ruler and judge of the nations. The Son is equal with the Father in deity and function. Not all biblical scholars accept this interpretation, but support is found in such New Testament passages as Hebrews 1:8 which quotes Psalm 45:6. As stated above, Isaiah talks about the son who will be given (Isaiah 9:6), the one born of the virgin (Isaiah 7:14), who is Immanuel, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and the Prince of Peace. The name “Holy Spirit” occurs only a few times in the Old Testament. The Spirit is referred to frequently by terms and phrases such as “the Spirit of God” (Genesis 1:2), “the Spirit of the Lord God” (Isaiah 61:1), “the Spirit of the Lord” (Ezekiel 37:1), “the Spirit” (Numbers 11:17 and Numbers 27:18), “my Spirit” (Genesis 6:3), and “your Spirit” (Psalms 51:11). Though the character of the Spirit is not developed as clearly in the Old Testament as it is in the New Testament, it can be safely stated that the relationship between God and the Spirit described in the Old Testament is such that there is no doubt that the Old Testament teaches the deity of the Holy Spirit. The character and function of the Spirit is referred to especially in relation to the work of creation (Genesis 1:2 and Psalms 33:6) and the equipping of servants for the service of God. For example, the Holy Spirit equips people for craftsmanship (Exodus 35:31), leadership (Numbers 11:17 and Numbers 27:18), and prophecy (1 Samuel 10:6, 2 Samuel 23:2, 2 Chronicles 15:1 and Ezekiel 11:5).
The Names of God in the New Testament
Proper names of God
Theos is the New Testament equivalent of the Old Testament names El and Elohim. The Old Testament Elyon appears in the New Testament as Hupsistos, which means the Highest (Mark 5:7, Luke 1:32 and Luke 1:76). Pantokrator (El Shaddai) appears with Theos (2 Corinthians 6:18 and Revelation 16:7). This name was used not only to express God’s power, sovereignty, and lordship, but also to express that God is a person who has a close relationship with his people. This fact is established by the very frequent use of personal pronouns with Theos. The name Theos appears over 1,000 times in the New Testament. Kurios, “Lord,” is used to express the Old Testament names Yahweh and ‘Adonai. Kurios means, “power,” so the meaning is not exactly the same as with Yahweh. However, the New Testament does give Kurios the full weight of meaning that the Old Testament gave to Yahweh, especially when it is used to describe Jesus Christ (Acts 2:36 and Philippians 2:9-11) Despotes is used five times as a name of God or Jesus in the New Testament (Luke 2:29, Acts 4:24, 2 Peter 2:11, Jude 1:4 and Revelation 6:10). It expresses the idea of authority. The idea of brutality conveyed by the modern word “despot” is absent from the New Testament even when it is applied to men, where its central meaning refers to ownership (2 Timothy 2:21).
Personal Names of God
In the baptismal formula, which is part of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20), the three personal names of God appear: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These names carry the same meaning they do in the Old Testament, but since the relationship of the three Persons is explained, the New Testament meaning of the names is enriched. “Jesus” is the personal name of the Son, who is the second person of the triune Godhead. It means “savior” (Matthew 1:21). The root of this name, “to save,” gave rise to names such as Joshua, Hoshea, and Hosea. The basic meaning of the Old Testament root is “to bring into a safe, wide-open place.” Joshua, bringing Israel into Canaan, personally did what his name meant. The New Testament explanation, which means “save from sin,” is not contrary to the meaning in the Old Testament. To be saved from sin is to be restored to fellowship with God and to enter into the paradise of the heavenly kingdom.
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