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The Names of God in the Old Testament

Julian Spriggs M.A.

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.

The Bible

Pages which look at issues relevant to the whole Bible, such as the Canon of Scripture, as well as doctrinal and theological issues. There are also pages about the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha and 'lost books' of the Old Testament.

Also included are lists of the quotations of the OT in the NT, and passages of the OT quoted in the NT.

Old Testament Overview

This is a series of six pages which give a historical overview through the Old Testament and the inter-testamental period, showing where each OT book fits into the history of Israel.

New Testament Overview

This is a series of five pages which give a historical overview through the New Testament, focusing on the Ministry of Jesus, Paul's missionary journeys, and the later first century. Again, it shows where each book of the NT fits into the history of the first century.

Introductions to Old Testament Books

This is an almost complete collection of introductions to each of the books in the Old Testament. Each contains information about the authorship, date, historical setting and main themes of the book.

Introductions to New Testament Books

This is a collection of introductions to each of the 27 books in the New Testament. Each contains information about the authorship, date, historical setting and main themes of the book.

Old Testament History

Information about the different nations surrounding Israel, and other articles concerning Old Testament history and the inter-testamental period.

New Testament History

Articles which give additional information about the history and culture of the first century, giving helpful background knowledge for the Gospels and Paul's travels.

Old Testament Studies

A series of articles covering more general topics for OT studies. These include a list of the people named in the OT and confirmed by archaeology. There are also pages to convert the different units of measure in the OT, such as the talent, cubit and ephah into modern units.

More theological topics include warfare in the ancient world, the Holy Spirit in the OT, and types of Jesus in the OT.

Studies in the Pentateuch (Gen - Deut)

A series of articles covering studies in the five books of Moses. Studies in the Book of Genesis look at the historical nature of the early chapters of Genesis, the Tower of Babel and the Table of the Nations.

There are also pages about covenants, the sacrifices and offerings, the Jewish festivals and the tabernacle, as well as the issue of tithing.

Studies in the Old Testament History Books (Josh - Esther)

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the history books. These include a list of the dates of the kings of Israel and Judah, a summary of the kings of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and studies of Solomon, Jeroboam and Josiah.

There are also pages describing some of the historical events of the period, including the Syro-Ephraimite War, and the Assyrian invasion of Judah in 701 BC.

Studies in the Old Testament Prophets (Is - Mal)

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the OT prophets. These include a page looking at the way the prophets look ahead into their future, a page looking at the question of whether Satan is a fallen angel, and a page studying the seventy weeks of Daniel.

There are also a series of pages giving a commentary through the text of two of the books:
Isaiah (13 pages) and Daniel (10 pages).

New Testament Studies

A series of articles covering more general topics for NT studies. These include a list of the people in the NT confirmed by archaeology.

More theological topics include the Kingdom of God and the Coming of Christ.

Studies in the Four Gospels (Matt - John)

A series of articles covering various studies in the four gospels. These include a list of the unique passages in each of the Synoptic Gospels and helpful information about the parables and how to interpret them.

Some articles look at the life and ministry of Jesus, including his genealogy, birth narratives, transfiguration, the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and the seating arrangements at the Last Supper.

More theological topics include the teaching about the Holy Spirit as the Paraclete and whether John the Baptist fulfilled the predictions of the coming of Elijah.

Studies in the Book of Acts and the New Testament Letters

A series of articles covering various studies in the Book of Acts and the Letters, including Paul's letters. These include a page studying the messages given by the apostles in the Book of Acts, and the information about the financial collection that Paul made during his third missionary journey.

More theological topics include Paul's teaching on Jesus as the last Adam, and descriptions of the church such as the body of Christ and the temple, as well as a look at redemption and the issue of fallen angels.

There are a series of pages giving a commentary through the text of five of the books:
Romans (7 pages), 1 Corinthians (7 pages), Galatians (3 pages), Philemon (1 page) and Hebrews (7 pages)

Studies in the Book of Revelation

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the study of the Book of Revelation and topics concerning Eschatology (the study of end-times).

These include a description of the structure of the book, a comparison and contrast between the good and evil characters in the book and a list of the many allusions to the OT. For the seven churches, there is a page which gives links to their location on Google maps.

There is a page studying the important theme of Jesus as the Lamb, which forms the central theological truth of the book. There are pages looking at the major views of the Millennium, as well as the rapture and tribulation, as well as a list of dates of the second coming that have been mistakenly predicted through history.

There is also a series of ten pages giving a detailed commentry through the text of the Book of Revelation.

Inductive Bible Study

These are a series of pages giving practical help showing how to study the Bible inductively, by asking a series of simple questions. There are lists of observation and interpretation questions, as well as information about the structure and historical background of biblical books, as well as a list of the different types of figures of speech used in the Bible. There is also a page giving helpful tips on how to apply the Scriptures personally.

Types of Literature in the Bible

These are a series of pages giving practical help showing how to study each of the different types of book in the Bible by appreciating the type of literature being used. These include historical narrative, law, wisdom, prophets, Gospels, Acts, letters and Revelation.

It is most important that when reading the Bible we are taking note of the type of literature we are reading. Each type needs to be considered and interpreted differently as they have different purposes.

Geography and Archaeology

These are a series of pages giving geographical and archaeological information relevant to the study of the Bible. There is a page where you can search for a particular geographical location and locate it on Google maps, as well as viewing photographs on other sites.

There are also pages with photographs from Ephesus and Corinth.

Early Church Fathers

These are a series of pages giving biographical information about some of the more significant early church fathers, such as Irenaeus, Origen and Tertullian, as well as some important groups and events in the first centuries of the church.

Artifacts in the British Museum relevant to Biblical studies

These are a series of pages describing artifacts in each gallery of the British Museum, which have a connection with the Bible.

Biblical Archaeology in Museums around the world

A page with a facility to search for artifacts held in museums around the world which have a connection with the Bible. These give information about each artifact, as well as links to the museum's collection website where available showing high resolution photographs of the artifact.

There is also page of photographs from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem of important artifacts.

Historical documents

These are a series of pages containing historical documents which give helpful information for Biblical studies. These include Hittite suzerainty treaties with a similar structure to the Book of Deuteronomy, different lists of the New Testament books and quotations from Josephus and other ancient writers.

Life Questions

These are a series of pages looking at some of the more difficult questions of Christian theology, including war, suffering, disappointment and what happens to those who have never heard the Gospel.

How to Preach

These are a series of pages giving a practical step-by-step explanation of the process of preparing a message for preaching, and how to lead a small group Bible study.

Information for SBS staff members

Two pages particularly relevant for people serving as staff on the School of Biblical Studies (SBS) in YWAM. One gives helpful instruction about how to prepare to teach on a book in the SBS. The other gives a list of recommended topics which can be taught about for each book of the Bible.