The essential purpose of the Bible is to give us a revelation of God, so we can gain an understanding of who he is, what he is like, how he acts in the lives of people, and particularly, how sinful mankind can come into relationship with him. Without the Bible we would know very little about God, and would not know the way of salvation.
For unredeemed humanity, God is unknowable because of the barrier of sin between them and a holy God. Because of this, God needed to take the initiative to show mankind who he is and what he is like. The Old Testament can be seen as the story of the self-revelation of God. He chose one particular character, Abraham, through whom the Jewish people would be descended. God chose them to be his own people, who would have the privilege of knowing him. This self-revelation of God increased through the centuries of the OT, leading to the ultimate revelation in Jesus.
God's name given as a revelation of God
Through the OT God revealed who he is to Israel through the use of his name. To know God's name was to know God. God introduced himself to his people through giving his names. The names of God describe his character: what he is like, what he can do, what he will do, and what he will not do. He revealed his name so his people might truly know him and have relationship with him.
The significance of a name in Hebrew thought
In Hebrew thought a person’s name described their character or nature, or recorded some event surrounding the circumstances of their birth. Hebrew names have a real meanings, so they can be translated into English. For example, Abraham’s name really means 'Father of a people', as the 'Ab' (pronounced 'Arv') means father, and the 'ham' means a people or nation. The meaning of biblical names are often given as footnotes in English versions of the Bible. A person's name was often a description of their character, and of their very nature and individuality. For example, Esau declared that Jacob was rightly named, as he has supplanted me twice (Gen 27:36), as the name 'Jacob' means a cheat. So to know a person’s name is to know that person and to have a relationship with them, as the name shows us something about that person. Similarly to know God’s name is to know God, and to call upon God’s name is to call upon his presence.
If one person gave another person a name, or changed their name, that indicated that they had power and authority over them. So Adam named the animals demonstrating his God-given dominion over them (Gen 2:20). More controversially, Adam named his wife Eve (Gen 3:20), also showing his authority over her. Nebuchadnezzar changed Mattaniah's name to Zedekiah so he became a puppet king under his authority (2 Kg 24:17). When God changed a person’s name, it indicated an inward change of character. After Jacob had wrestled with God, his name was changed from Jacob, the supplanter (25:26) to Israel, the one who strives with God (Gen 32:28).
The two main names of God in OT
The two Hebrew names for God which are particularly significant in the OT are Elohim and Yahweh.
I. Elohim - translated 'God' (with initial capital 'G') in English Bibles
This is a plural word, as Hebrew words ending with '-im' are normally masculine plurals. The word 'El' is the singular form, which was a general term used for the supreme god by pagan religions in the ancient Near East. It essentially means to be strong, or to be feared. In Canaanite religion, El was their high god, whose son was Baal. When used in the plural form (elohim) they meant gods (plural), which the OT described as images of wood and stone (Deut 4:28). However in the revelation of the One True God, the plural form 'Elohim' shows God’s power and majesty. God is complete in himself, so there no other gods. All the fullness of deity is in the one God.
The most significant characteristic of God as Elohim is as the all-powerful Creator of the universe. “In the beginning when God (Elohim) created the heavens and the earth ...” (Gen 1:1). Elohim is both the creator and sustainer of the universe, he made it at the beginning and now keeps it going. Elohim describes a God who is distinct from his creation, thus excluding any idea of pantheism, the belief that God is in every object. He is also the God who continues to be involved in his creation, thus excluding belief in deism, which describes God as the heavenly watchmaker who started off the creation, and now leaves it to run itself.
Elohim is used thirty-five times in the creation account in Genesis chapter 1. However the plural Elohim is used with a singular verb. This may be rather strange grammar, but it gives profound theological understanding. God is one, but he is plural. This leaves room for the revelation of the Trinity that would come in the NT without contradicting the earlier revelation in the OT. The One God is actually Three: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The hint of the Trinity is also found in the account of the creation of mankind, when God said. “Let us make mankind in our image” (Gen 1:26).
Elohim tells us that God is the creator of the universe, and of mankind. If he is the creator, then he has authority over his creation. Creation belongs to him. Everything and everyone is under his authority, whether they believe in God or not. All are accountable to him, giving him his right to be the judge. As Lord of creation, he holds his creation accountable to himself. The root of human sin is rebellion against the creator, rejecting his rightful authority. If God is king, then he has the right to set his standards through his laws, and hold all of creation accountable to him. His laws are true, his laws are in force, whether we believe them or not. At the end of time, people will be judged on the basis of those laws.
Through the rest of the OT, Elohim is used over two thousand times. It is frequently used in connection with God’s act of creation. These are a few examples:
“For thus says the LORD, who created the heavens (he is God!) (Elohim), who formed the earth and made it”. (Is 45:18)
Jonah said, "I am a Hebrew. I worship the LORD, the God (Elohim) of heaven, who made the sea and the land”. (Jonah 1:9)
“Have you not known? Have you know heard? The LORD is the everlasting God (Elohim), the Creator of the ends of the earth.” (Is 40:28)
Other words were added to Elohim to give a greater explanation of God’s nature and character. One of the most significant is:
El Shaddai - translated 'God Almighty' in English Bibles
The first time this name is used in the Old Testament was when God introduced himself to Abraham as El Shaddai (Gen 17:1-8). He is the God who makes great promises, and has the power to fulfil them. He appeared to Abraham when he was ninety-nine years old, to an old man with no children, and promised that he will make his covenant with him and make him exceedingly numerous. He will become the ancestor of a multitude of nations. This will be the start of God’s plan of salvation, the founding of the Jewish people from whom the Messiah will come. Physically, this was impossible; but creating the universe out of nothing is physically impossible, and yet God did it. El Shaddai, God Almighty, created the world, so he can do anything! El Shaddai became the distinctive name for God used by the Patriarchs, and is found most frequently in the Book of Job.
Other combinations of Elohim, or El are:
El-Elyon - 'God Most High', the Exalted God who is sovereign over the nations (Gen 14:18-25, Deut 32:8-9)
El Elohe Israel - 'God the God of Israel' (Gen 33:19-20)
El-hai - 'The Living God', who is living and awesome, who will drive out their enemies (Deut 5:26, Josh 3:10)
El-Olam - 'The Everlasting God, The God of Eternity', who has started something and will complete it (Gen 21:23)
El-roi - 'The God who sees', and therefore is involved (Gen 16:11-13, 21:15-19)
Elohim Qdhashim - 'Jealous God', who will not share his worship with idols (Josh 24:19)
Elohim, the name as a builder of faith
If God is the all-powerful creator, then we can certainly trust him. Just before the Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem, Jeremiah bought a field as a statement of faith, declaring through his action that there really is hope for the future. He trusted in what seemed to be impossible, that God would restore the land after the exile. After making the purchase, he prayed to the LORD, “Ah Lord GOD! It is you who made the heaven and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you.” (Jer 32:16-17). Jeremiah was confident that the Creator God was all-powerful, and well able to answer his prayer. Later in the passage, God replies to Jeremiah, and asks him this question, “See, I am the LORD, the God of all flesh; is anything too hard for me?” (Jer 32:26-27). Nothing is too difficult for Elohim, the creator of the universe.
II. Yahweh - translated 'LORD' (all capital letters) in English versions
The second of the two significant names for God is his personal name. The other names of God should really be understood as titles or descriptions of God. This name is uniquely found in the Old Testament, where it is used nearly seven thousand times, and is never used in pagan religions.
The personal name for God is first formally introduced to Moses at the burning bush (Ex 3:7-15), even though it is referred to earlier in the Book of Genesis. God has observed the misery of his people, he has heard their cry, and has come down to deliver them (v7-9). He promises he will be with Moses (v12). When Moses asks the name of the God of their ancestors, God replies “I AM WHO I AM” (v14), telling Moses that he is the LORD ('Yahweh'), the God of the patriarchs, who has called him to bring his people out of Egypt. God continues by saying, “This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations” (v15).
'Yahweh' is the God who comes close to be actively present with his people, and wants a personal relationship with them. He is certainly not an impersonal force who just exists. 'Yahweh' is the God of the covenant, significantly revealed when he was about to rescue his people from bondage in Egypt. He meets his people in their place of oppression and bondage and sets them free, saving his people and overthrowing their enemies. Yahweh is the personal name of God, a God who is in relationship with men. It brings God near to people, as a friend, who speaks to them and is involved in their lives. This is a God who intends to reveal to his people his inmost character. Yahweh is the God of the Covenant, who provided salvation for his people and redemption from slavery in Egypt.
The name 'Yahweh', or LORD, is based on the Hebrew verb 'hayah', meaning 'to be'. It is interesting to see how this works in the Hebrew. As the Hebrew language was originally written without vowels, this name of God was written as the four consonants: 'YHWH', which are known as the 'Tetragrammaton'. The Hebrew letters are יהוה. It contains the Hebrew words היה (hayah = 'he was'), הוה (hoveh = 'he is') and יהיה (yeeyah = 'he will be'). He is the God who always is, the God of the past, the present and the future. The description of God as, “The one who was and is and is to come” found in the Book of Revelation (Rev 4:8) is based on this name. When Jesus made the 'I am' statements in John’s Gospel he was taking the personal name for God to himself, therefore claiming to be divine.
When introducing the ten commandments, God declared, “I am the LORD (Yahweh) your God (Elohim), who brought you out of Egypt ... you shall have no other gods before me.” (Ex 20:2). We should notice that the relationship with his people came before the giving of the law. God’s commitment to relationship is fixed, and will not change. His people obey the law in a loving response to that relationship, not to earn that relationship.
To avoid taking the Lord’s name in vain, Jews never spoke the name of God YHWH. They considered that the personal name of God was too holy to be spoken. Because of this, its correct pronunciation is unknown, the most likely is 'Yahweh'. When Jews read their Scriptures, instead of saying 'Yahweh', they would say 'Adonai', which means 'lord'. This tradition is maintained in most modern translations of the Bible, when YHWH is translated 'LORD' (in capital letters). The unfortunate effect of this is to make God appear to be distant, when the original intention of the use of his personal name was to show that God was drawing close to his people.
The name 'Jehovah' was never used in the Hebrew OT. In the tenth century AD, the Jews added vowel points into the Hebrew text, but added the vowels from 'Adonai' into the consonants 'YHWH', to show that Adonai (lord) should be read in its place. The anglicised combination of these became 'Jehovah', which was not found until the thirteenth century.
A profound paradox
These two names (Elohim and Yahweh) give a profound combination, showing the paradox of the God who is the all-powerful creator, but who also reaches down to rescue his people, wanting relationship with them, even becoming vulnerable to his people rejecting him. God is the one who can do anything, but who is also interested and concerned with us and our lives today.
There is a whole page on the website looking at the importance of Paradox in the Christian faith, which gives other important examples to be found in the Bible.
Combinations of Yahweh
As with Elohim, extra descriptions were also added to 'Yahweh'. One of the most important was:
Yahweh S'va'oth - translated 'LORD of hosts' or 'LORD Almighty' in English Bibles
The word is derived from a military term for an army or company. 'S'va'oth' was first used as a divine name in 1 Samuel, when Elkanah, the future father of Samuel went to sacrifice to the LORD of hosts at Shiloh (1 Sam 1:3). It is not found in the Pentateuch. However, it is derived from 'The LORD is a warrior' (Ex 15:3).
Through the rest of the Old Testament it is used 279 times. During the time of the monarchy it described the presence of God marching out as a warrior with the armies of Israel. When David challenged Goliath, he said, “I come to you in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel.” (1 Sam 17:45). In the ancient Near East battles between nations and empires were understood as battles between the gods of the two nations. Victory of one nation over another, showed that their god was stronger. Yahweh was fighting on David's behalf as the supreme warrior God, who overcame the gods of the Philistines. There is more about warfare in the OT on the Holy War page.
'S'va'oth' is often found in connection with the ark of the covenant, which represented the presence of God with his people. Whenever the ark set out, Moses would say, "Arise, O LORD, let your enemies be scattered" (Num 10:35-36). People brought the ark of the covenant of the LORD of hosts into battle against the Philistines (1 Sam 4:4), thinking that it will bring them victory over their enemies.
Later in Israel's history, and particularly after the return from exile, 'LORD of hosts' came to be used more to describe God's exalted nature, and omnipotence (Is 23:9, 24:23). It is used 88 times in Jeremiah. The word 'host' can also refer to the heavenly host, the stars and planets (Gen 2:1, Ps 33:6), or the angelic armies of spirit beings (Ps 148:2, 1 Kg 22:19, Hag 2:6-9, Zech 4:6). The LORD of hosts was thought of as the saviour and protector of Israel (Ps 46:7,11).
Other combinations using Yahweh are the following:
Yahweh Shalom - 'The LORD of peace' (Judges 6:24)
Yahweh Rophe - 'The LORD who heals', both physically and spiritually (Ex 15:22-26)
Yahweh Nissi - 'The Lord is my banner', who gives renewed strength in the fight against enemies (Ex 17:15)
Yahweh Mekaddishkem - 'The LORD who sanctifies', separating his people from evil (Ex 31:13)
Yahweh Jireh - 'The LORD who provides', who knows what his people need and provides for them (Gen 22:14)
Yahweh Tsidkenu - 'The LORD is our righteousness' (Jer 23:6, 33:16)
Yahweh Elyon - 'The LORD Most High' (Ps 7:17)
Yahweh Rohi - 'The LORD is my Shepherd', who cares for his people (Ps 23:1)
Yahweh Yahweh - 'LORD, LORD', for emphasis (Is 12:2)
Yahweh Shammah - 'The LORD is There', ever present, giving security (Ex 48:35)
Yahweh Elohim - 'The LORD God' (Gen 2:4 - 3:24, Ps 7:1,3)
Yahweh Elohe Israel - 'The LORD, the god of Israel', (Judges 5:3, Is 17:6, Zeph 2:9)
III. Other names for God
There are a number of other names used for to describe or address God in the O.T.:
Adonai - translated 'Lord', or 'my Lord' (with initial capital in most English translations)
This is the normal word used for a human lord or master, such as the king or other leader (Num 11:28, 1 Sam 24:8, 26:17). When used to address God, it refers to his authority, or personally to God as an individual’s master (Gen 15:2,8). The Hebrew word 'Adon' is the singular form, and 'Adonai' is the plural form, which, like Elohim, is used with singular verb when referring to God.
Melek - 'king'
This is the normal Hebrew word for 'king'. When referring to God, it emphasises his rule over his creation, or over his people (Num 23:21, Ps 29:10)
Qedos Israel - 'The Holy One of Israel'
This is a description of God characteristically used by Isaiah (Is 1:4). It probably derives from Isaiah’s vision of God, when the seraphs call out, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts...”, and Isaiah realises his lostness before a holy God (Is 6:3-5). It is also found in Jeremiah and the Psalms.
Abir Israel - 'The Mighty One of Israel' (Is 1:24)
Nesah Israel - 'The Glory of Israel' (1 Sam 15:29)
Attiq Yomin - 'The Ancient of Days'
This is an Aramaic description of God, only used by Daniel (Dan 7:9,13,22). It appears in a vision of God sitting on his throne of judgement, judging the great world empires, who gave dominion, glory and kingship to the one who came before him through the clouds of heaven.