The names of God

In western culture it has become common practice to refer to the God of the Bible simply as God. This is a generic term and its widespread use causes some confusion these days. It is similar to calling every vacuum cleaner, no matter who manufactured it, “a hoover”. (For those who don’t know, William Hoover and his son were the first to market an “Electric Suction Sweeper” in 1908.) Many religions worship one or more gods and increasingly, it seems, a large number of people have a pick-n-mix design approach to the type of god they hope is out there, somewhere. It may therefore surprise many people to know that the Christian God has several names, though these are often masked by the way the Bible has been preserved over the years.

This practice began with the Israelites who would not pronounce His name when reading from the sacred books. Instead they said, and still do, the Hebrew title ‘Adonai’ (i.e. Lord). The reason they substituted one word for another was their interpretation of passages like Exodus 20:7 (You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain) and Leviticus 24:16 (And whoever blasphemes the name of the LORD shall surely be put to death). Rather than taking to heart the need to honour the name of their God and to use it respectfully, they decided to eliminate any possibility of abusing His name by never using it at all! Whilst originally they retained His name in the written text, their practice of substituting it verbally has been followed by most English translations. Thus we can read the Bible today and generally only see the words God, Lord or The LORD - only the last of these gives any indication of the name of our Creator.

In the Old Testament besides the title ‘Adonai,’ God is also called ‘Elohim’ and ‘Yahweh’. The first is a descriptive title and is in English ‘God’, though the Jews also consider it to be a name of God. It has the root meaning of “to be strong” and/or “to be in front”. It is also used in Hebrew scriptures to refer to pagan gods. However when it or its short-forms ‘El’ or ‘Elohei’ are combined with another word, it becomes a specific title of the Godhead, though some describe these as names. Examples are: El Shaddai - God Almighty (Gen. 17:1); El Elyon - The Most High God (Gen. 14:19); El Olam - The Everlasting God (Gen. 16:13); Elohei Avraham - The God of Abraham (Ex. 3:15); Elohei Chasdi - God of my Kindness (Ps. 59:17); Elohei Haelohim - The God of gods (Deut. 10:17); Elohei Mikkarov - God who is near (Jer. 23:23); Elohei Mishpat - God of Justice (Isa. 30:18); Elohei Tseva’ot - God of hosts or God of armies (2 Sam. 5:10); Elohei Kedem - God of the beginning; Eternal God (Deut. 33:27); Elohim Emet - The God of truth (Jer. 10:10); and so on. The God of the Bible is certainly the foremost when it comes to kindness, justice, truth and the like.

Whilst ‘Elohim’ is a description of God, ‘Yahweh’ is His name. Though it is used earlier in Old Testament, God revealed His name to Moses when He spoke to him from a burning bush in the desert (Exodus 3:1-4:17, specifically 3:13-15). Hebrew does not use vowels, so the name God in this passage and elsewhere is written with the four letter YHWH - the vowels being added later. It is this word that the Jews have read as ‘Adonai’ for centuries. In the Exodus passage it is usually translated into English as “I AM”, or given that it is repeated in the first part of the verse, “I AM WHO I AM”. Besides Yahweh, it is also common to see the anglicised version Jehovah used in hymns and books. It has also been suggested that the best word in contemporary English which sums up the meaning of His name is ‘Always’. This is particularly noticeable when we think of the way his name is extended in the Old Testament just as we have seen with Elohim above.

Yahweh Jireh - “The Lord will provide” or “Always our Provider”(Genesis 22:14).

Yahweh Nissi - “The Lord is my Banner” or “Always our Victory” (Exodus 17:15).

Yahweh Maccaddeshcem - “The Lord your Sanctifier” or “Always our Refiner” (Exodus 31:13).

Yahweh Shalom - “The Lord is Peace” or “Always our Peace” (Judges 6:24).

Yahweh Sabbaoth - “The Lord of Hosts” or “Always our Commander” (1 Samuel 1:3; 17:45).

Yahweh Ro’i - “The Lord my Shepherd” or “Always our Shepherd” (Psalm 23:1).

Yahweh Tsidkenu - “The Lord our Righteousness” or “Always our Righteousness” (Jeremiah 23:6).

Yahweh Shammah - “The Lord is there” or “Always there!” (Ezekiel 48:35).

He is also called, Yahweh Elohim Israel, “The Lord, the God of Israel.” or “Always the God of Israel” (Judges 5:3 and Isaiah 17:6), which reminds us that He will never desert the people He called His own.

Most English translations have been influenced by Jewish practice and do not put YHWH or Yahweh in their texts. Instead they use the two words “The LORD” with the word “LORD” normally capitalised. Whilst I personally prefer Yahweh or Always as the name of my God, throughout Journey into New Life and elsewhere I tend to write The LORD, not out of false reverence for His name, but because that is what most people are used to. Also when His name appears in quotations from English translations, it is inevitably “The LORD” so keeping with that form avoids confusion.

In the New Testament, no new name is given for Always. Four Greek words are used for God, the last one in my list being emphasised much more in the Christian scriptures than in the Jewish ones.

Theos - “God” primary title for God used in the New Testament, also used of pagan gods (Hebrew ‘Elohim’);
Kurios - “Lord” a common term of respect (e.g. Sir) also used of pagan idols (Hebrew ‘Adonai’);
Despotes - “Master” Usually translated ‘Lord’, carries the idea of ownership;
Pater - “Father” the Hebrew equivalent is used of God in the Old Testament only 15 times, whilst pater refers to Him 245 times in the New Testament. In 3 of these instances it is preceded by Abba, the Aramaic equivalent of the English “Daddy”. “Daddy, father” was first used by Jesus when He prayed on the night before He was executed (Mark 14:36). Later Paul also used the phrase to describe how the Holy Spirit causes us to relate to our Father in heaven. It signifies the closest possible relationship with Him.

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