Names of God in the Old Testament
Harper’s Bible Dictionary
edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)
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names of God in the Old Testament. The names, titles, and metaphors for God in the OT reflect Israels setting in the ancient Near East, the theological richness of OT traditions, and the social contexts that shaped religious life. What unites the many appellations, which are a central feature of Israels dynamic religion, is not monotheism in a strict sense. While there were pre-exilic trajectories such as the emerging wisdom tradition in which monotheistic tendencies were present, the articulation of the existence of one God found clear expression for the first time in Second Isaiah during the crisis of the exile (sixth century b.c.). Yet even before the exile, Israelites believed that the God who had encountered them and shaped their destiny demanded their undivided devotion and loyalty. It was this conviction that led OT theologians (priests, prophets, court historians, and sages) to transform the variety of appellations and their religious traditions into descriptions of the God of Israel.
The Personal Name for God: In the ancient Near East, great significance was attached to personal names, for they revealed character and identity and signified existence. The revelation of a divine name and its continued use were of substantial importance for a people.
Yahweh. The most important name for God in the OT is the tetragrammaton YHWH (occurs about 6,800 times), usually pronounced Yahweh, though the known pronunciation was lost in the postexilic period. Due to the increasing sanctity attached to the name and the consequent desire to avoid misuse, the title Adonai (Heb., My Great Lord) was pronounced in place of the tetragrammaton. In written texts the vowels of Adonai were combined with the consonants YHWH to remind readers to pronounce Adonai instead of Yahweh. The incorrect hybrid, Jehovah, arose from Christian misunderstanding in the late Middle Ages. The respect for the sanctity of the personal name of God is reflected in modern Judaism.
The origin of the name Yahweh (usually translated Lord in English Bibles) remains uncertain. Even the biblical sources are divided at this point. The Yahwist (J) traces the revelation of the name Yahweh to the primeval period (Gen. 4:26), while the Priestly Source (P) honors Moses as the first to know this name (Exod. 6:2-3). The meaning of the name most probably derives from the imperfect form of the Hebrew verb to be. In Exod. 3:14 (the Elohist Source, E,), God responds to Mosesquestion about his identity with the ambiguous statement, I am who [what] I am, or I will be who [what] I will be. In Es connection of the name with the Hebrew Qal (simple) stem of the to be verb, the meaning appears to connote divine mystery (cf. Gen. 32:22-32) and freedom. A variation of this same interpretation understood the name to signify Gods presence. Another interpretation connects Yahweh with the Hebrew Hiphil (causative) verbal stem and thus understands Gods name to mean: He causes to be what exists [happens]; i.e., Yahweh is creator and ruler of history. It is this latter meaning that is more likely. Through Israels encounter with God in nature and history, faith in God as the one who created the world, shaped human destiny, and elected Israel to be the covenant people was actualized. Each pronouncement of the name Yahweh was a succinct expression of this faith.
Yahweh Sabaoth. This compound name, Lord of Hosts, which occurs 279 times in the OT, depicts God as the commander of armies. Originating in holy war, the expression became a polemic against astral cults: Yahweh rules the heavenly armies. The name was eventually understood as a plural of intensity, Lord Almighty, thus neutralizing the existence of the celestial gods. The Septuagint (lxx) translates this name Lord Almighty.
Generic Names for God:
Elohim. Occurring about twenty-five hundred times in the OT, Elohim is one of three common generic names for deity in the OT. The term is plural and on occasion means gods (e.g., Exod. 20:3), but most often it is a plural of majesty for Israels God (e.g., Gen. 1:1). Unlike the term El, Elohim is not found in other Semitic languages. While originally possessing polytheistic associations, Israelite theologians transformed the meaning of the term and used it to refer to God. While the name was used in most traditions, periods, and regions, it was especially favored in Northern Israel.
Eloah. The second generic name for deity in the OT is Eloah (Heb., God), though it is found only fifty-seven times, the great majority of which occur in Job. The poet of Job may have used this generic word for God to avoid the specific Israelite conceptions of covenant and salvation history associated with the name Yahweh. Job, a part of wisdom literature, prefers to speak of the universal dominion of creation theology.
El. Occurring more than two hundred times in the OT (including compounds), El (Heb., god) is the common Semitic name for deity in ancient Near Eastern cultures. Every divine being was properly designated by this generic name. El is also the name of the head of the pantheon of Ugarit, however. As creator and father of the gods, El possessed the authority of the divine decree that ordered the world of gods and humans. Polytheism and the worship of El were major components of both Canaanite and Israels ancestral religions. In the settlement of Canaan, the tribes of Israel began to assimilate Canaanite religious centers and associate those religious traditions with Yahweh, the one who liberated them from Egypt.
El Shaddai. According to P (Exod. 6:3), El Shaddai (Heb., God, the One of the Mountain[s]) was worshiped by the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In the mythologies of the ancient Near East, gods often resided on a cosmic mountain that was the center of the earth. Shaddai came to be identified with El, the head of the Canaanite pantheon, and then with Yahweh (Exod. 6:3; Ezek. 1:24). The lxx translated Shaddai Almighty. Thus many English Bibles translate El Shaddai as God Almighty.
El Elyon. El Elyon (Heb., God Most High), originally a compound for the high god El, was worshiped in Jerusalem before Davids conquest (ca. 1000 b.c.). In Genesis 14, Melchizedek is the priest-king of Jerusalem who blesses Abraham in the name of God Most High, Maker of Heaven and Earth, the God who gave Abrahams enemies into his power. In Js rendition of this story, El Elyon is identified with Yahweh. After the Israelite takeover of Jerusalem, the El Elyon tradition is associated with Yahweh (Ps. 47:2-3).
El Olam. El Olam (Heb., God of Eternity) was the Canaanite god of Beersheba. After this religious center was incorporated into Israelite religion, the title came to designate Yahweh (Gen. 21:33).
El Berith. El Berith (Heb., God of the Covenant) was the Canaanite god of Shechem (Judg. 9:46). In Joshua 24 the Deuteronomic historians placed the covenant renewal ceremony at Shechem following the conquest of Canaan. In the D history the covenant became the basis for the tribal league during the period of the Judges (eleventh century b.c.).
El Roi. El Roi (Heb., The God of Seeing/Divination) was a localized deity of a sacred spring (Beer-la-hai-roi) whose water sustained Hagar in the desert and inspired her to see a divine vision (Gen. 16:13-14). J connects this story with Yahweh, who promises Hagar a son (Ishmael) who will have many descendants.
In summary, the local Canaanite gods and El, the head of the pantheon, were worshiped in sanctuaries eventually taken over by Israel. Canaanite religious traditions were eventually applied to Yahweh. In this theological process, Yahweh, the God of liberation from Egyptian slavery, merged with Canaanite gods, including the high god El, who legitimated a stratified social system of city-states ruled by local dynasts. This combination provided the critical tension that characterized Israelite religious expression throughout the OT.
Social Titles for God: The changing social constructions of Israel also provided important titles for God.
Adonai. Adonai (Heb., My Great Lord) is a plural of majesty derived from the singular Adon (Heb., lord), a title of respect used to address a social superior (e.g., king, husband, slave owner). In the postexilic period, Adonai came to replace the name Yahweh in common worship because of the increasing sanctity associated with the latter name (e.g., Job 28:28).
Baal. Baal (Heb., lord) is a title designating a social superior (e.g., leader, owner, husband). In Canaanite religion, Baal is the name of the storm god of fertility who brought rain and military victory. This god rivaled Yahweh for Israels devotion, as especially noted in prophetic literature (e.g., Hosea). While certain theomorphic names may indicate that some Israelites identified Baal with Yahweh (e.g., Meribbaal, the son of Jonathan), the term was generally avoided because of strong pagan associations (cf. Hos. 2:16-17).
Royal Titles. The political matrix of Israel and other ancient Near Eastern cultures provided a host of titles and images for God. Among the more important are royal titles: king (Ps. 95:3), judge (Gen. 18:25), and shepherd (Ps. 23). These titles signified Gods position and function as ruler over Israel.
Family Titles. Other important titles derived from the Israelite family, including father (Deut. 32:6), brother (Ahijah: Heb., brother of Yahweh, 1 Sam. 14:3), kinsman (kinsman [fear] of Isaac, Gen. 31:42), and redeemer (Ps. 19:14). These titles may have originated in patriarchal religion where the personal deity of the head of the clan became the protector of the group (The God of My Father, Exod. 3:6). The redeemer was the next of kin responsible for delivering the relative from hard times (Lev. 25:25). While God is not explicitly called mother or sister, the OT does use female images to speak of God. God is depicted as mother who conceives, bears, and gives birth to Israel (Num. 11:12; Deut. 32:18) and as midwife (Ps. 22:9-10). These images demonstrate that the OT does not limit and confine God to the masculine gender.
Edited for BibleTexts.com by Robert Nguyen Cramer