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Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology

God, Names of

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Names are more than labels. In Old Testament times a name expressed identification, but also identity. Significant meaning often attached to a name. Names had an explanatory function (cf. Abigail's explanation about her husband, "He is just like his name — his name is Fool" [ 1 Samuel 25:25 ]). Name changes were important, since a message attached to the name. Abram (great father) became Abraham (father of a multitude) (Genesis 17:5 ; 32:28 ). In some sense a name was the expression of an inmost reality.

Scripture makes much of the name for deity because in the name lies a theology. "I am the Lord, that is my name!" (Isaiah 42:8 ; cf. Exodus 15:3 ). The name of God is a surrogate for God himself (Psalm 54:1 ; Proverbs 18:10 ; Jeremiah 23:27 ). To give attention to the name (i.e., to God himself) is to put oneself in the place of blessing (Malachi 3:16 ).

God ( Elohim [ Genesis 1:1 ). Elohim [ Genesis 31:29 ; cf. Nehemiah 5:5 ). Job and Psalms have most of the 238 occurrences of El [ Numbers 23:19 ; Deuteronomy 32:4 ), jealousy (Deuteronomy 5:9 ), and compassion (Nehemiah 9:31 ; Psalm 86:15 ), but the root idea of "might" remains.

The word Eloah [ אֱלֹוהַּ ] (60 times), occurring most often in Job, etymologically underscores the idea of "power." The term is also generic for "god, " and while it refers most often to the true God, it can refer in instances to any god.

Elohim [ אֱלֹהִים ] (God), a plural of Eloah [ אֱלֹוהַּ ], occurs more than 2,250 times, sometimes with an addition such as "God of Abraham/Israel, " but mostly it is free standing. Next to Lord (Yahweh), Elohim [ אֱלֹהִים ] is the major designation for God. Elohim [ אֱלֹהִים ] is generic, (as are El [ אֵל , אֵל ] and Eloah [ אֱלֹוהַּ ]) and refers to "deity" but comes virtually to be a name for the true God. All three are represented in the Septuagint as theos ("God"), which is also the New Testament term for God. Elohim [ אֱלֹהִים ] sums up what is intended by "god" or the divine.

The plural form (although used with verbs in the singular form) is likely a plural of majesty or perhaps of intensity, either of deity or of power to signify "highly or intensely powerful." The plural form is accommodating of the doctrine of the Trinity. From the Bible's first sentence the superlative nature of God's power is evident as God (Elohim [ Genesis 1:3,6,9 ). His actions also bespeak his power, enabling barren women such as Sarah and Rebecca to conceive (Genesis 18:10,14 ; 25:21 ), bringing an oppressed people out of Egypt (Exodus 20:2 ), and with power raising Jesus Christ from the dead (Romans 1:1-4 ). Believers, Peter writes, are "shielded by God's power" (1 Peter 1:5 ). In the name Elohim [ אֱלֹהִים ] is fullness of divine power.

Compounds with El . El Elyon . A pervasive compound is El 'Elyon (lit. God, most high). derives from the root "go up, " "ascend, " so that El 'Elyon may be thought of spatially as the highest. Abraham mentions El 'Elyon when addressing Melchizedek ( Genesis 14:18,19,20,22 ). Closely linked to temple services, twenty of its forty-five occurrences are in the Psalter. Sometimes the compound is construed as a name: "It is good to make music to your name, O Most High" (Psalm 9:1 ). El 'Elyon denotes exaltation and prerogative and belongs to "monarchical theology" for it speaks of absolute right to lordship. In the same vein may be found the question, "Who is like you?" ( Psalm 35:10 ). Yet this pointer to hierarchy is not about a God of arbitrariness, but about power in the service of life.

El Shaddai . To Abraham God appears as God Almighty, El Shaddai ( Genesis 17:1 ). The designation "Shaddai, " which some think is the oldest of the divine names in the Bible, occurs forty-eight times, thirty-one of which are in Job. The traditional rendering "God Almighty" is debated. A consensus of sorts holds that "shaddai" is to be traced, not to the Hebrew, but to an Accadian word that means "mountain" so that the expression produces a meaning like, "'El, the One of the mountains." If so, El Shaddai highlights God's invincible power. Or, the name may point to his symbolic dwelling. The juxtaposition of El Shaddai [ Numbers 24:16 ; Psalm 91:1 ) may suggest that El Shaddai is a God who is chief in the heavenly council, whose residence was sometimes broadly associated with mountains ( Habakkuk 3:3 ).

Other Compounds with El . Some compounds with El register a significant encounter with Elohim or may be loosely associated with certain geographical sites. The list would include El Ro' ("God of seeing, " Genesis 16:13 ), El Bethel ("God of Bethel, " house of God, Genesis 35:7 ), El 'Olam , ("Everlasting God, " Genesis 21:33 ), and El Berith ("God of Covenant, " Judges 9:46 ).

Yahweh/Yah . yhwh, the tetragrammaton because of its four letters, is, strictly speaking, the only proper name for God. It is also the most frequent name, occurring in the Old Testament 6,828 times (almost 700 times in the Psalms alone). Yah is a shortened form that appears fifty times in the Old Testament, including forty-three occurrences in the Psalms, often in the admonition "hallelu-jah" (lit. praise Jah). English Bibles represent the name yhwh by the title "Lord" (written in capitals to distinguish it from "lord" [adonai] [ Philippians 2:11 ).

In the postexilic period the Jews, for reverence reasons, did not pronounce the name but substituted for it the word adonai [ אֲדֹנָי ] (lord), and in written form attached these vowels to the tetragrammaton. The resulting misguided pronunciation of the name yhwh as a three-syllable word, Y [J]ehovah, continued in English Bible translations until early in the twentieth century. Evidence from Greek usage in the Christian era points to the two-syllable pronunciation, "Yahweh."

The meaning of the name yhwh may best be summarized as "present to act (usually, but not only) in salvation." The revelation of the name is given to Moses, "I am who I am" (Exodus 3:14 ), and later in a self-presentation, "I am the Lord" (Exodus 6:2-8 ). The name yhwh specifies an immediacy, a presence. Central to the word is the verb form of "to be, " which points in the Mosaic context to a "being present, " and may in Israel's later history, as some suggest, have come to mean "I (and no other [god]) Am" (Isaiah 41:4 ; 43:10 ). Such was Paul's understanding (1Col 8:4,6; 1 Timothy 2:5 ). Quite possibly we need to hear the Old Testament meaning for Yahweh behind the words of Jesus when he speaks of himself as "I am" ("It is I, " Matthew 14:27 ; "I am the one, " John 8:24,28 , 58 ). For Moses and for Israel the question was not whether the Deity existed, but how that Deity was to be understood.

The name yhwh was probably given to Moses as a new revelation; the "faith" that came to be associated with the name yhwh, although in continuity with that of the patriarchs, was different from theirs. Mosaic Yahwism differed from patriarchal religion in that Mosaic Yahwism stressed, among other matters, divine intervention in oppressive situations and holinessfeatures not central to patriarchal religion.

The theological significance that attaches to the name yhwh is multiple. Judging from the etymology, but more particularly from the context in which the name is disclosed (Exodus 3:12,14 ; 6:2-8 ), the name signifies "presence." God is "with, " he is near and among his people. This overtone of presence is reiterated in the naming of the wilderness structure as "tabernacle" (lit. dwelling), and in the promised name Immanuel ("God with us, " Isaiah 7:14 ; Matthew 1:23 ). Yahweh is present, accessible, near to those who call on him (Psalm 145:18 ) for deliverance (107:13), forgiveness (25:11), and guidance (31:3). Yahweh is dynamically near, but as God (Elohim [ אֱלֹהִים ]) he is also paradoxically transcendent.

The name yhwh defines him as involved in human struggle. Yahweh's name is forever tied, through the exodus event, with salvation and liberation (Exodus 15:1-13 ; 20:2-3 ). The salvation promise given in Exodus 6:6-8 is an expansive one, including intimacy with God and blessings of abundance, but is decidedly bracketed first and last with "I am Yahweh." The name yhwh is prominent in salvation oracles ( Zephaniah 3:14-17 ) and in petitions (Psalm 79:5,9 ; 86:1 ). The salvation dimension of the name recurs in the announcement of the incarnation: the one born is to be called "Jesus" for (as an echo of the name yhwh) "he will save his people from their sins" (Matthew 1:21 ). In the name yhwh God's character as the savior of a people is revealed.

Theologically the name of Yahweh resonates with covenant, partly because in the explication of the name in Exodus 6:6-8 the covenant formula is invoked ("I will be your God and you will be my people"). The name yhwh is a name to which Israel can lay particular claim. In covenant, matters such as justice ( Isaiah 61:8 ) and holiness (Leviticus 19:2 ) have an extremely high profile.

The name yhwh is anything but empty. The name carries overtones of presence, salvation defined as deliverance and blessing, covenantal bondedness, and integrity.

Compounds with Yahweh . Yahweh of Hosts . The most pervasive compound with Yahweh is "Lord of hosts, " which occurs 285 times in the Bible and is concentrated in prophetic books (251 times) especially in Jeremiah and Zechariah. The hyphenation has a double-edged meaning. As a military term it signifies that Yahweh is, so to speak, "Commander-in-chief" (1 Samuel 17:45 ). The "hosts" or "armies" may be heavenly beings, part of the "heavenly government" (1 Kings 22:19 ), the astral bodies of sun, moon, and stars (Deuteronomy 4:19 ), or Israel's armies (1 Samuel 17:45 ). As a military title, it signifies that God is equal to any adversary and well able to achieve victory. The Septuagint sometimes translates the compound as kyrios pantokrator [ κύριος παντοκράτωρ ] (Lord Almighty); this designation appears also in the New Testament.

A second "edge" to the compound is more royal than military, since it is monarchs who in the ancient Near East and Scripture are said to be "enthroned upon the cherubim" (1 Samuel 4:4 ; 2 Kings 19:15 ; Psalm 80:1 ). The expression "Lord of hosts, " frequent in worship-type psalms (especially those that mention Mount Zion), emphasizes God's royal majesty. It designates God as the regnant God (Psalm 103:19-21 ), the enthroned God whose royal decrees will carry the day (Isaiah 14:24 ; Jeremiah 25:27 ).

The title addresses religious pluralism, both past and present. God retains exclusive prerogative as deity. Any competing ideology is idolatry, whether that be the ancient worship of Baal or the modern preoccupation with technique, nationalism, or militarism. The title underscores God's presence, but also the force behind divine decisions affecting political history (Isaiah 19:12,17 ; Jeremiah 50:31 ).

Less Frequent Compounds with Yahweh . Several hyphenations or compounds are attached, for the most part, to some notable experience, as with Yahweh-Nissi ("The-Lord-is-my-Banner") where "banner" is understood as a rallying place. This name commemorated the desert victory of Israel against the Amalekites (Exodus 17:15 ). From the wilderness experience of bitter waters at Marah emerges another such "name": Yahweh Rophe ("The Lord who heals, " Exodus 15:26 ; cf. Psalm 103:3 ). Abraham memorialized God's provision of a sacrifice in the name Yahweh-jireh ("The Lord will provide, " Genesis 22:14 ). Jeremiah identifies the name of the "Righteous Branch" as "The Lord our Righteousness" (Jeremiah 23:5-6 ). Names for structures in which hyphenated Yahweh names occur include Gideon's altar, named Yahweh-shalom ("The Lord is peace, " Judges 6:24 ) and the temple Yahweh-samma ("The Lord is There, " Ezekiel 48:35 ).

Yahweh and Elohim . The combination, "Yahweh Elohim " (Lord God), is found in Genesis 2,3 (nineteen times; twenty-one times elsewhere). A double name was not strange for deities in the ancient Near East. The double name in Genesis 2:4b-3:24 , may be to emphasize that the majesty of God that attaches to the name Elohim [ אֱלֹהִים ] in Genesis 1 is not to be separated from the immediacy of a Yahweh in the garden. (English Bibles commonly also employ "lord God" to translate adonai Yahweh [lit. lord Lord]).

The Deity named Yahweh (Lord) is identical with Elohim [ Deuteronomy 6:4 ) underscores that identity, as do expressions like "Yahweh your/our God." Yahweh as God is exclusively God: "This is what the Lord saysIsrael's King and Redeemer, the Lord Almighty: I am the first and I am the last; apart from me there is no God" (Isaiah 44:6 ).

Titles, Epithets, Figurative Language . There are over one hundred descriptive "names" for God. The subject is large and the adjectives are overpowering.

Holy One . Of the fifty-six lexical attestations to God's holiness in the Old Testament, many include the name/title of "The Holy One" or "Holy One of Israel, " which occurs thirty-one times in the Old Testament, twenty-five occurrences being in Isaiah. The demand for human holiness is rooted in divine holiness or cleanness (Leviticus 19:2 ; 21:6 ). The "entrance liturgies" stress the importance of moral and ritual cleanness (Psalm 15 ; 24:3-6 ). Holiness speaks of God as supraworldly, as "Other, " and as one virtually unapproachable in majesty (1 Samuel 6:20 ; Isaiah 6:3 ; 33:14-16 ).

Ruler . A highly significant epithet for God, which is strikingly metaphorical, is "Ruler." The term occurs forty-three times. It is clustered in poetic passages in the prophets and the Psalter. The idea of rule is expressly asserted in the enthronement psalms (93,96-99), but is already found in Psalm 2 . This suggests that the entire Book of Psalms should be read with an emphasis on God's rulership. The origin of the epithet precedes the Israelite monarchy. It signals rulership and sovereignty, and so reinforces the names for God such as El Elyon and Lord of hosts ( Psalm 84:3 ). Kingly rule, however, also called for defense of the poor and needy (72:4) and deliverance of those victimized by wickedness (98:9). Around it cluster other epithets/metaphors, such as Judge (Isaiah 33:22 ; cf. Psalm 99:4 ).

Father . The Old Testament designation of God as Father (Deuteronomy 32:6 ; Isaiah 63:16 ; 64:8 ; Jeremiah 3:4,19 ; 31:9 ; Malachi 2:10 ) is employed often in the New Testament: by Paul (Ephesians 1:3 ; 3:14-19 ; 4:6 ; 5:20 ; 6:23 ; cf. Romans 1:7 ; 8:15 ; 15:6 ; 1Col 8:6); by Jesus (Mark 8:38 ; 11:25 ; 13:32 ; cf. "Abba , Father, " Mark 14:36 ). It is the word for God in the Lord's prayer (Luke 11:2 ). The epithet is strikingly frequent in John (108 times) and also in Matthew (forty times). The range of meanings include those of authority and discipline, but also those of compassion, care, protection, and provision.

Other Titles, Epithets, Figurative Language . "God of the ancestors (fathers)" is a title associated with the patriarchs, and especially with God's promises to them (Exodus 3:13 ). Other titles are "God of Abraham" (Genesis 28:13 ; 31:53 ; 1 Chronicles 29:18 ), "Fear of Isaac" (Genesis 31:42,53 ), "Mighty One of Jacob" (Genesis 49:24 ), and especially (more frequent than the foregoing three) "God of Israel" (Numbers 16:9 ; 1 Samuel 5:8 ; Psalm 41:13 ).

Rich symbolism is also found in role descriptions that include language pictures like judge (Isaiah 33:22 ), warrior (Exodus 15:3 ), and shepherd (Psalm 23 ). God is also pictured as a mother who gives birth, nurtures, and trains (Deuteronomy 32:18 ; Isaiah 49:15 ; Hosea 11:1-4 ). God is spoken of in metaphors such as Rock (Deuteronomy 32:4,15,18,31 ), the stability of which is proverbial.

Honoring the Name of God/Lord . That God discloses his name means that his name can be invoked, but it should not be invoked "in vain, " carelessly or glibly as in an oath (Leviticus 19:12 ), or misused in other ways (Exodus 20:7 ). Jesus instructed us to pray, "Hallowed be your name" (Luke 11:2 ). In stressful times one calls on the name of the Lord (Psalm 79:5 ; 99:6 ; Zephaniah 3:9 ). Foremost among the ways God's name is to be invoked is honorifically. His name is to be praised (Psalm 7:17 ; 9:2 ). Other admonitions call for blessing the name (103:1), offering thanks to the name (106:47), or ascribing glory or blessedness to the name (96:8; 113:2).

Elmer A. Martens

See also Fatherhood of God ; God ; God, Name of ; Presence of God

Bibliography . S. Dempster, Revue Biblique 98 (1991): 170-89; W. Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament ; D. N. Freedman, Magnalia Dei: The Mighty Acts of God, pp. 5-107; J. Goldingay, Tyn Bul 23 (1972): 58-93; C. D. Isbell, HUCA 2 (1978): 101-18; J. G. Janzen, Int 33 (1979): 227-39; G. A. F. Knight, I AM: This Is My Name ; L. Koehler, Old Testament Theology ; H. J. Kraus, Theology of the Psalms ; H. Kleinknecht, et al., TDNT, 3:65-123; G. T. Manley and F. F. Bruce, IBD, 1:571-73; E. A. Martens, Reflections and Projection: Missiology at the Threshold of 2001, pp. 83-97; T. N. D. Mettinger, In Search of God: The Meeting and Message of the Everlasting Names ; R. W. L. Moberley, The Old Testament of the Old Testament ; J. A. Motyer, The Revelation of the Divine Name ; G. H. Parke-Taylor, Yahweh: The Divine Name in the Bible ; M. Riesel, The Mysterious Name of YHWH ; H. Rosin, The Lord Is God: The Translation of the Divine Names and the Missionary Calling of the Church ; J. Schneider, et al., NIDNTT, 2:66-90; H. T. Stevenson, Titles of the Triune God: Studies in Divine Self-Revelation ; N. J. Stone, Names of God ; W. A. Van Gemeren, JETS 31 (1988): 385-98; R. de Vaux, Proclamation and Presence, pp. 48-75; W. Zimmerli, Old Testament Theology in Outline ; W. Elwell, TAB, pp. 10-34.


Copyright Statement
Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of Baker Book House Company, PO Box 6287, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49516-6287.
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Bibliography Information
Elwell, Walter A. Entry for 'God, Names of'. Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/bed/g/god-names-of.html. 1996.

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