“And you shall call His Name…”: Names of God (Yahweh)

Having the discussed the principal Hebrew words signifying “God”—°E~l and °E_lœhîm—in the previous two articles of this series, today I will examine the name which came to be used as the exclusive name of God in ancient Israel, that represented by the tetragrammaton (the ‘four letters’), hwhy, and usually rendered in English transliteration by block letters (YHWH). Numerous difficulties are related to this most important name, and need to be discussed in some detail.

YHWH (Yahweh)

The name hwhy (YHWH) occurs more than 6000 times in the Old Testament, as well as in extrabiblical inscriptions from the Kingdom period. A shortened form hy (YH) appears just under 50 times, primarily in poetry (all but 6 occurrences are in the Psalms); however, it is also incorporated frequently as a hypocoristic element in personal names (cf. below). According to Israelite and Jewish tradition, this name was revered and treated as sacred to the point that it was deemed inappropriate to pronounce out loud in all but the most special of circumstances. As a result, the tradition developed of using the word °¦dœn¹y (yn`d)a&, “My Lord”) in its place. The Masorete copyists of the Scriptures indicated this substitution by applying the vowels of °¦dœn¹y (¦ œ ¹) to the letters hwhy, yielding hw`hy+. The familiar English transliteration “Jehovah” is based on a misunderstanding of this scribal practice.

It is generally recognized that hwhy/YHWH is essentially a verbal form, derived from the verb of being—the old Semitic root hwy, represented in Hebrew by the parallel verbs hwh/hyh (hwh/hyh), “be, come to be”. There is some question, however, whether the form hwhy should be regarded as derived from the basic (ground) stem, or as a causative (Hiphil) form. In my view the latter is more likely, though there continues to be debate among scholars. For a good discussion of the subject, cf. Cross, pp. 63-66 and in TDOT, Vol. V pp. 500-21. As a causative (imperfect) form, it would mean essentially “he causes to be”, i.e. he calls/brings (something) into being, gives life, creates, etc. The principal passage in the Old Testament which offers any sort of explanation as to the meaning of the name among early Israelites (in the time of Moses) is Exodus 3:13ff, which has the famous formula (uttered by God himself) in v. 14hyha rva hyha, vocalized by the Masorete scribes to mean something like “I am what I am”, or “I will be what I will be”. However, the same consonants can be vocalized as a causative—i.e., “I call into being what I call into being”—in which case the expression would be pronounced °ahyê °ašer °ahyê. According to one line of interpretation, in Exod 3:13ff, God is identifying himself with a formula that would have been known and in use by the Semitic-speakers in that region (South Palestine, Sinai), which, translating back into the older language of the period, may have been something like yahw£ ¼¥ yahw£: “he creates [i.e. brings into being] that which he creates”, etc. In other words, God may be saying to Moses, “I am that one who creates all things”, who my people worship as Creator. For more detail, cf. Cross, pp. 68-69.

It would seem that the original form of the name was Yaµw£ or Yahw£, and, subsequently in Hebrew, Yahwê. Most scholars and informed Christians today render this simply as Yahweh, and I will so refer to the tetragrammation (hwhy) in the remainder of this article. As I noted in the previous article (on °E~l), the Scriptural evidence strongly suggests that the Patriarchs and ancestors of Israel, along with the earliest Israelites, worshiped the (one) Creator God by the name °E~l (la@, “Mighty [One]”, i.e. “God”). The notice in Gen 4:26, as well as the use of Yahweh elsewhere in Genesis, likely reflects a later period when the text as we have it was written—either in the time of Moses or thereafter. The name Yahweh eventually came to be in widespread use all throughout Palestine by at least the early Kingdom period, with Yahweh and °E~l being regarded as equivalent names for the same Creator Deity. This is expressed at various points in the Old Testament, most notably in the formula of Exod 3:15, etc—

Yahweh, God of your Fathers…has sent me to you”

where the more common word °E_lœhîm (cf. the previous article) is used instead of °E~l. As an independent Divine name, Yawheh is attested in extrabiblical texts and inscriptions, such as the 9th-century Moabite (Mesha) stone, and the 7th-6th century letters from Lachish and Arad. It would seem that the earliest recorded use of the name preserved to us comes from Egyptian lists of place names from Southern Palestine in the 14th and 13th centuries, which happens to correspond generally with the time of Moses and the geographical setting of Exodus 3. Most likely, however, the name was a verbal epithet applied to °E~l, emphasizing his role and power as Creator, and which eventually came to be used as a separate and distinct name. Such a title could have been expressed simply as Yahwê °E~l, “God [°E~l] brings/calls into being”. In fact, such an expression is found among the personal names, incorporating the verbal element yahwê (or yahw£), in the texts from Mari (18th century B.C. and earlier), which are roughly contemporary with the time of the Patriarchs (Cross, p. 62). Israelite tradition preserves at least one similar expression, the famous Yahwê ƒ§»¹°ôt (toab*x= hwhy), meaning something like “He (who) creates the (heavenly) armies” (Cross, pp. 69-70). It no doubt derives from the tradition of God (El/Yahweh) as a warrior and the ritual “holy war” beliefs and practices of the ancient Near East (Josh 5:14, etc). God is seen as leading the “hosts of heaven”—sun and moon, wind and storm, et al, and the powers (or “Angels”) associated with them—on behalf of Israel (cf. Josh 10:12ff; Judg 5:20). The expression appears to have been associated specifically with symbolism of the Ark in the sanctuary (1 Sam 4:4; 2 Sam 6:2).

We should take most seriously the Scriptural tradition that associates the ‘introduction’ of Yahweh as the name of God for Israel with the time spent by Moses in Midian. Most of the earliest evidence for the use of Yahweh as a distinct name points in the direction of Southern Palestine (cf. above). By the time the Israelites had left Egypt and became established throughout Palestine, Yahweh had begun to supplant °E~l as the primary name of God. There appears to have been relatively little conflict between these two names, as they essentially referred to the same God (and idea of God)—the Creator Deity, the (one) true God. With the split of Israel into the Northern and Southern kingdoms, older °E~l traditions (in the North) may have reasserted themselves, against the Judean royal theology that associated Yahweh specifically with Jerusalem. Yet, even here, the same basic idea of God is involved. There are few, if any, instances in the Old Testament where the name °E~l refers to a (Canaanite) deity different from Yahweh.

By the time of the New Testament, the God of Israel would have been understood by the exclusive (Scriptural) name Yahweh. Israelites and Jews would long have been accustomed, when speaking, to use the substitution °A_dœn¹y (“My Lord”)—or its Aramaic equivalent—for that name. Similarly, in Greek, the word Ku/rio$ (Ky¡rios, “Lord”) was commonly used in place of Yahweh, both in speech, and in translation of the Old Testament Scriptures (in the Septuagint [LXX], etc). When the word ku/rio$ is used of God in the New Testament, at least in a Jewish Christian context, we can assume that the name Yahweh is in view. A certain complication was introduced, however, with the regular use of ku/rio$ in referring to Jesus. There is no doubt that this application reflects a belief in Jesus’ divine nature and status in relationship with God the Father (Yahweh), but it also creates a certain ambiguity in a number of passages. When the word ku/rio$ (“Lord”) is used, without any other qualification or explanation, is the reference to God the Father or to Jesus? We find this problem in a couple of places in the Lukan Infancy narrative (1:17, 43, 76), which will be discussed in upcoming notes in this series.

There are also examples of names in the New Testament—including several in the Infancy narratives—which preserve the name Yahweh (the shortened hypocoristic Yah[û]) in their transliteration from Hebrew (or Aramaic) into Greek. The names Zechariah (Z§kary¹h, “Yah[weh] has remembered”) and John (µ¹n¹n, “Yah[weh] has shown favor”) will be discussed in the notes on Luke 1:5-6, 13-20, and 57-66. Most notably, of course, is the name Yeshua or Jesus itself (šûa±), which will be examined, in detail, in the note on Luke 2:31.

In the references above, “Cross” = F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Harvard University Press: 1973 / 1997). “TDOT” = Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, ed. by G. Johannes Botterweck and H. Ringgren, English translation by John T. Willis (Eerdmans: 1974 / 1977).

“And you shall call His Name…”: Names of God (Elohim)

In yesterday’s article, I examined °E~l (la@) as the basic Semitic word used in the sense of “God” and, in particular, as the name of the chief Creator Deity. Today I will be looking at the related word °E_lœhîm (<yh!ýa$).

°E_lœhîm

Almost certainly this word is related in some way to the more primitive °E~l (°Il[u]); however, the precise relationship, and the origins of its usage, remain rather uncertain. The simple plural form of °¢l°¢lîm (<yl!a@)—is rare in the Old Testament (4 times), and only twice is it certainly a plural (in Exod 15:11 and Dan 11:36, cf. Cross pp. 45-46). By comparison, the plural form °§lœhîm (<yh!ýa$) is widely used (more than 2500 times)—both as a literal plural, and in a singular sense for “God” generally, or the Israelite Deity (Yahweh/El) in particular. The somewhat unusual application of this plural form for God definitely requires comment, and will be discussed below. One common theory to explain the form of the word is that the simple plural of a biconsonantal (two-letter) root la, i.e. <yl!a@ has been expanded (with the letter h [h]) to fit the pattern of a triconsonantal (three-letter) root (such as lwa or hla). In other words, the form °¢lîm becomes °§lœhîm. While not without certain difficulties, this is probably as good an explanation as any.

By the time the Old Testament Scriptures were written—i.e., in the period between c. 1200 and 500 B.C.—the plural form °§lœhîm had all but completely replaced the older °¢l as the basic word corresponding to “God” in English. This may not have been so much the case in the early part of the period, as we find vestiges of the older use of °¢l in (the archaic) portions of the Psalms, etc; but, certainly it is true in the later Kingdom period. In the ordinary plural sense, °§lœhîm would be translated straightforwardly as “mighty (one)s”, i.e. gods, when referring to the (divine) powers as understood by the ancient (polytheistic) religions of the time. In this plural sense, it can be used three ways in the Old Testament:

  • As “mighty ones” generally, i.e. a descriptive term which could refer either to human or divine beings—Exod 22:7-8; Psalm 82:1, 6, etc
  • For divine beings, in the basic sense of supernatural, heavenly beings (i.e. “Angels”) who reside in the heavenly court of God—Psalm 8:6, et al, where it is generally synonymous with the old Semitic expression “sons of God” (b®nê °¢l, or b®nê °¢lîm)
  • For (pagan) deities worshiped by the (Canaanite, etc) peoples surrounding Israel (i.e. “other gods”)—cf. Exod 20:3; 23:13; Josh 24:2, etc

More commonly, however, °§lœhîm refers to “God”, that is, to Yahweh/°E~l in Israelite religion. How did this plural word come to be used for the singular “God” in this sense? A completely satisfactory explanation to this question has not yet been offered. There are two which seem to me reasonably plausible:

  1. As a collective—i.e. “(all) the gods”. This might be a shorthand way of referring to God as the Creator of (all other) divine beings. Note the specific use of °§lœhîm throughout the Creation account in Gen 1:1-2:4, as well as the (apparent) fundamental meaning of the name hwhy (Yahweh) connected with the creation of the heavenly beings (cf. the next article, on “Yahweh”). There may be a rough parallel in Egyptian religion, where the Creator is called by the name Atum (i.e. the “All”). In a monotheistic context, it was a natural development that all other divine names and forms would be seen as embodied in the one true God.
  2. As an intensive—i.e. “the Mightiest“. This use of the plural is attested in Hebrew, primarily in the Psalms and other poetic passages, as in Psalm 21:7; 68:7; 76:11; Isa 32:18; 40:14, 26, etc. For more examples, cf. GKC §124 e. There is some evidence that, in the earliest strands of Israelite religion, Yahweh/°E~l was emphasized as the “Mightiest” or “Greatest” of all deities or divine beings, and, as such, was the one who should be worshiped. Over time, this would have developed into a more distinct and precise monotheism—i.e. God is the only Mighty One, the only divine Being. Once this monotheistic outlook came to dominate Israelite society completely, it was hardly necessary to qualify God (Yahweh) in this manner, and the “Mightiest” (°E_lœhîm) was simply understood as synonymous with (the one) God.

Probably the second of these two explanations is more likely than the first. To see how the names °E~l and °E_lœhîm were related in early Israelite tradition, we should turn to the formula in Gen 33:20, associated with the altar dedicated by Jacob near the city of Shechem. Here °E~l is identified as the “God” (°E_lœhîm) of Israel—”°E~l °E_lœhê Yi´ra°¢l“. In a similar manner, Yahweh (hwhy) is identified as the one (true) God (°E_lœhîm) in the Creation Account of Genesis 1-2. The name °E_lœhîm is used throughout 1:1-2:4a, and Yahweh in chapter 2, but they are joined together in the transitional line 2:4b—”in the day (when) Yahweh °E_lœhîm made the heaven(s) and earth”.

In the New Testament, most of these distinctions have disappeared. When the basic Greek word qeo/$ (theós) is used, which more less corresponds with °§lœhîm, it is assumed that the reference is to the one God, the God of Israel (Yahweh/El), God the Father and Creator. This hardly needed to be explained to Greek-speaking Jews and Christians of the time. The word qeo/$ occurs more than 20 times in the Lukan Infancy narrative (but only once in Matthew, at 1:23). It is especially prominent in the Angelic announcement to Mary (5 times in 1:26-37), the hymn of Zechariah (1:64, 68, 78), and the Angelic appearance to the shepherds (2:13-14, 20). Several of these passages will be discussed in the notes.

In the references above, “Cross” = F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Harvard University Press: 1973 / 1997). “GKC” = Gesenius-Kautsch-Cowley, i.e. Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, edited/expanded by E. Kautsch, 2nd English edition by A. E. Cowley (Oxford University Press: 1910).