“And you shall call His Name…”: Luke 1:57-66

Luke 1:57-66

As we continue through a study of the Infancy Narratives, we come now to the episode of the circumcision and naming of John the Baptist in Lk 1:57-66. Following the Visitation scene in vv. 39-56, in which the John and Jesus halves of the Infancy narrative come together, in v. 57 the scene shifts back to John’s side, picking up from verse 25. Clearly this episode functions as a fulfillment of the annunciation scene in vv. 8-22, and is given much more attention than the corresponding circumcision/naming of Jesus. The birth of John itself is narrated simply in verse 57:

“And the time for her to produce (a child) was fulfilled for Elisheba, and she caused to be (born) [i.e. gave birth to] a son”.

The verses which follow narrate the circumcision and naming of the child—this event is framed by two notices which establish the significance of the scene:

“And the (one)s housing round about [i.e. neighbors], and the (one)s together (with) her [i.e. her relatives], heard that the Lord did (a) great (act of) his mercy with her, and they took delight (in it) together with her.” (v. 58)

“And fear came to be upon all the (one) housing round about them, and in the whole mountain-region of Yehudah {Judea} all these utterances were spoken throughout; and all the (one)s hearing (this) set it in their heart saying, ‘What then will this (little) child be?'” (vv. 65-66)

The first reaction by the people is a response to the miraculous nature of the birth (i.e. to Elizabeth, who was elderly and barren), the second is to the wondrous sign of Zechariah suddenly speaking again. In between is the moment of circumcision and naming.

Circumcision was a customary cultural practice throughout much of the ancient world, and in traditional societies even today. It was scarcely unique or original to Israel; however, there was special significance to the practice for Israelites—it was an essential mark of religious identity, going back to the tradition of its introduction for Abraham (Gen 17:10-14). Indeed, it is called the “sign of the covenant”, an indication that the person belongs to God’s chosen people, and is thus obligated to observe the terms of the agreement (covenant) established by God—namely, the Torah (or Law) as recorded in the Pentateuch (Exodus–Numbers & Deuteronomy). The central importance of circumcision is stated or otherwise indicated numerous times in Scripture (Gen 21:4; 34:15ff; Exod 4:24-26; 12:44ff; Lev 12:3; Deut 10:16; Josh 5:2-8; Jer 4:4; John 7:22-23; Phil 3:5, etc). Its significance in terms of religious identity made it a controversial issue for early Christians, as dramatically illustrated in the book of Acts (10:45ff; 15:1-16:3; 21:21) and the letters of Paul. By ancient tradition, circumcision was to take place on the eighth day, as narrated here in v. 59, and also (for Jesus) in 2:21. This is not merely an incidental detail in the birth narratives, but is of the utmost importance for the author, as it relates to the key theme of Jesus as the fulfillment of the types and forms from the Old Testament and Israelite religion—the New Covenant that fulfills and completes the Old Covenant. This is the primary reason for emphasizing details which show that John and his parents, as well as Jesus and his parents, were devout in religious matters, faithfully observing the commands and precepts of the Torah.

The narrative context suggests that the naming of the child took place at the circumcision. Such a practice is known from later Jewish tradition, but is otherwise unattested in this early period (cf. Fitzmyer, Luke, p. 380). Based on the pattern indicated in the Old Testament, we might expect the naming to occur at the time of birth, rather than eight days later (Gen 4:1; 21:3; 25:25-26, etc). It is possible that the author (trad. Luke) has taken dramatic license and moved the naming ‘ahead’ to coincide with the circumcision, given the importance of that event to the narrative (cf. above). Apparently, some of the neighbors and relatives were expecting that the child would be named after his father, Zechariah (v. 59b); or, on the assumption that the naming was delayed until the time of circumcision, in lieu of a name, they may have been referring to the child e.g., as “little Zechariah” (Fitzmyer, Luke, p. 380). At this time it was perhaps more common to name a child after his grandfather, rather than his father. In any case, the name spoken by Elizabeth—Yohanan ( )Iwa/nnh$, John)—was, it seems, not one common among the child’s immediate relatives (v. 61).

I discussed the meaning of the name Yôµ¹n¹n (/n`j*oy) in the earlier note on vv. 13-17. It means “Yah(weh) has shown favor”. As such, it is an old Yahweh-name, dating back to the Kingdom period; it is not especially common in the Old Testament, but is known in priestly circles (Neh 12:13, 42; 1 Macc 2:1f), so it is perhaps not unusual that a priestly family such as Zechariah and Elizabeth might adopt it. As I noted previously, the name can be understood or interpreted three ways:

  • God has shown favor to Zechariah and Elizabeth by giving them a child
  • God has shown them favor due to the special role the child will play in the deliverance of His people
  • God shows favor to His people in the person of Jesus, and the child John will play a key role in “preparing the way” for him

All three aspects are present in the narrative, but especially the latter two, which will be emphasized more clearly in the hymn of Zechariah (the Benedictus) that follows in vv. 67-79.

In the Introduction to this series, I discussed the way in which names (and the idea of a name) were understood in the ancient world, much differently than in our society today. The name was thought to represent and embody the essential nature and character of a person—to know a person’s name was effectively the same as knowing the person. When applied in a religious setting or context, names which include a theophoric element (i.e. a shortened form of a deity’s name), often had a very special significance, usually as a phrase- or sentence-name. It may indicate praise to God for his care, power, etc., in bringing the child into the world and blessing the parents. At the same time, such a name could be invoked over the child as a blessing or prophecy over his/her future life and destiny. This aspect of the name Yôµ¹n¹n is included as part of the Angel’s annunciation, in vv. 15-17, when the name is first declared (by Gabriel) to Zechariah (see the earlier note). No such explanation is given by Elizabeth in v. 60, but it is emphasized again in the hymn of Zechariah (vv. 76-77ff), as will be discussed in the next note.

Also important to the structure of the narrative is the moment when Zechariah’s (mute) silence ends and he speaks again (v. 64). Keep in mind the basic outline and note the parallelism:

  • Annunciation of John’s coming birth to Zechariah (vv. 8-25)
    —with the sign: Zechariah will be mute until it comes to pass
  • Annunciation of Jesus’ coming birth to Mary (vv. 26-38)
    —with the sign: the miracle of Elizabeth conceiving & giving birth
    • The fulfillment: Mary sees Elizabeth’s pregnancy (vv. 39-56)
    • The fulfillment: Zechariah speaks following John’s birth (vv. 57-66)

The order of scenes is inverted when dealing with the fulfillment of the sign given by the Angel, but otherwise the parallel is precise, covering all four scenes in vv. 8-66ff. Interestingly, Zechariah is not yet able to speak at John’s birth, but only after the child’s circumcision and naming takes place. Indeed, it is only when Zechariah himself confirms the name of John (Yohanan), writing it down, that his speech returns: “and his mouth opened up along (that very) moment, and (also) his tongue, and he spoke, giving good account (of) [i.e. blessing/praising] God”. This leads to the reaction by the people narrated in vv. 65-66 (cf. above), which spreads, with the news of the wondrous sign, all throughout the region. Even as Zechariah speaks (lale/w) again, so word and news of this event is spoken throughout (dialale/w).

Two significant notices close this scene. The first is a question which represents the thoughts of the people: “What then will this child be?” It is a question at the very heart of the child’s identity, as indicated by his name, and the marvelous events surrounding it (and his birth). The second, final statement is made by the author, almost as though in response to the people’s question: “For indeed the hand of the Lord was with him“. The idiom “hand of the Lord (YHWH)” is familiar from the Old Testament (Exod 9:3; 15:6; 16:3; Num 11:23; Deut 2:15; Josh 4:24; 22:31, etc). It is an anthropomorphic image that primarily refers to God’s power, either to bring judgment on people, or protection and deliverance for his chosen ones. Both aspects will be manifest in the preaching and mission-work of John, as we see depicted in the Gospels (Lk 3:3-20 par).

References above marked “Fitzmyer, Luke” are to J. A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 28 (1981).

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

In the final article of this series on the Names of God, I will be looking at two names—±Elyôn (/oyl=u#) and ±Ôl¹m (<l*ou)—both of which were mentioned in the earlier article on °E~l. Indeed, each of these names function as a title of the Creator God (°E~l), as well as being attested as a separate name, or, possibly, as the name of a distinct deity.

±Elyôn

The word ±elyôn (/oyl=u#) is an adjective with the basic meaning “high” (cf. the verb hlu, “go up, ascend”), and often used in the figurative sense of “exalted, great, mighty”, etc. It occurs more than 50 times in the Old Testament, including a significant number (around thirty) where it is used as an epithet of God (Yahweh/El). As a title of God, it is found primarily in older or archaic poetry (esp. the Psalms, cf. 9:2; 18:13; 21:7; 46:4; 50:13; 73:11; 77:10; 78:17, etc), and several times in the Pentateuch (Num 24:16; Deut 32:8). In a few of these instances, the title is used in combination, either with °E~l (cf. below), °E_lœhîm (Ps 57:2; 78:56), or Yahweh (Ps 7:17; 47:2); however, more often it stands alone as a name or title.

This latter point is significant, since ±Elyôn is known as a separate divine name in the Semitic world, attested, for example in an old Aramaic inscription (Sefire I), as well as in the (Phoenician) Theogony of Sakkunyaton perserved by Philo of Byblus and cited by Eusebius (Preparation for the Gospel I.10). In the Sefire text, °E~l and ±Elyôn appear to be regarded as a pair of closely related deities. The close connection of these names is no doubt due to several factors: (1) the similar sound, (2) a partly synonymous meaning (“Mighty/Great” and “High/Exalted”), and (3) similar concepts or characteristics of Deity (associated with the Sky/Heaven).

The combination °E~l ±Elyôn also occurs in the Old Testament, in two passages—Psalm 78 (v. 35, an example of relatively old Hebrew poetry), and the Abraham narrative in Genesis 14. In the setting of this latter passage, following his military victory over a coalition of cities, a campaign to rescue his nephew Lot (vv. 1-16), upon his return, Abraham meets Melchi-Zedek the king of Šalem (vv. 17-18), who is also said to be the priest to (or for) °E~l ±Elyôn. Translating into English, literally the compound name would be something like “Mighty (God), the High(est) One”, but it is typically rendered more simply as “God Most High”. Melchi-Zedek offers a two-fold blessing—both to Abraham and to God—and twice uses the name °E~l ±Elyôn (vv. 19-20), including the longer formula (repeated in v. 22):

°E~l °Elyôn, Creator [Qœnê] of Heaven and Earth”

This establishes and confirms the primary role of God (°E~l) as Creator, the verb hn`q* (q¹nâ), fundamentally meaning “bring forth, produce”, i.e. “create”. This verb, not to be mistaken with a similar root meaning “possess, acquire”, had become more or less obsolete at the time the Scriptures were written, being preserved here (and in Psalm 78) by way of older tradition.

The word ±elyôn was typically rendered rather literally in Greek by the (superlative) adjective u%yisto$ (“highest”), especially when rendering ±Elyôn as a name/title of God, as a substantive with the definite article—o( u%yisto$ (“The Highest”). As such, it occurs in the New Testament in Mark 5:7; Luke 6:35; 8:28; Acts 7:48; 16:17, and also Heb 7:1 (referring to Gen 14:18ff). It appears three times in the Lukan Infancy narrative—1:32, 35, 76 (cf. also 2:14)—and will be discussed in the notes on these verses.

±Ôl¹m

The word ±ôl¹m (<l*ou) is somewhat difficult to translate into English. The root ±lm (<lu) may signify primarily something which is hidden, often in the temporal sense of something “hidden” in the distant/indefinite past or future. When applied to God, it should be understood in an intensive sense—i.e., of extending back in time to the very beginning (of Creation), or ahead indefinitely (“forever”). These two aspects combine in the usual rendering of ±ôl¹m as either “ancient” or “eternal”. It was regularly applied to God by the Canaanites and elsewhere in the Semitic world (cf. Cross, pp. 17-19, 46-50). It occurs as a divine name in a 7th-century B.C. Phoenician inscription (from Arslan Tash), most likely as a title of °E~l, as also attested in a 10th-century Egyptian list of Palestinian place names. In a (14th-cent.) text from Ugarit, °E~l is called malk ±ôlami (“ancient/eternal king”), and the specific title °E~l ±Ôl¹m may be found as early as the 15th-century proto-Canaanite (Sinaitic) inscriptions at Ser¹b£‰ el-–¹dem. A portion of one inscription (Mine M no. 358) has been deciphered to read °il ¼¥ ±ôlami—i.e., “°E~l the Ancient/Eternal (One)” (cf. Cross, pp. 18-22).

In the Old Testament, the compound name °E~l ±Ôl¹m occurs in Genesis 21:33 as part of an Abraham tradition associated with the site of Beer-sheba. The inclusion of the name Yahweh (hwhy) in the text probably reflects a subsequent interpretation, identifying Yahweh specifically with the (one) Creator God worshipped by the Patriarchs (cf. the earlier article on °E~l). Apart from this reference, the word ±ôl¹m is used frequently of God, in various ways. It can refer specifically to attributes or characteristics of God (Deut 33:15, 27; Isa 9:6; 26:4; 40:28; 60:19-20; Jer 10:10, etc), or to his actions toward his people, i.e. his love, covenant, and so forth (Gen 9:16; 17:7-8ff; 2 Sam 23:5; Psalm 105:10; Isa 24:5; 45:17; 54:8; 55:3; 61:8; Jer 31:3; 32:40, etc). Especially noteworthy for an understanding of the basic meaning of ±ôl¹m is the idiom “from ±ôl¹m unto ±ôl¹m“, indicating all time, from the very beginning into the far distant future (cf. Psalm 41:13; 90:2; 103:17; 106:48, etc). Reference should also be made to the use of term in connection with the Kingdom of God, especially in an eschatological and/or Messianic sense, drawing upon Psalm 145:13; Isa 9:6; Jer 10:10; and the book of Daniel (4:3, 34; 7:14, 27; 9:24).

In Greek, as in English, the word ±ôl¹m was rather difficult to translate; more often than not, some form of the noun ai)w/n or the related adjective ai)w/nio$ was utilized. The Greek word ai)w/n usually signifies a period of time, often a long time, and so is typically rendered in English as “age”. While the various Greek idioms involving ai)w/n, including those in the New Testament, can correspond to the Hebrew term ±ôl¹m generally, a very definite eschatological sense and context developed among Jews and early Christians. There was a strong belief that the current “age” was coming to an end, to be followed by a future/coming Age in which God Himself would rule over the earth directly, or through His representative the Anointed One (Messiah). The ushering in of this future Age would involve the great (Last) Judgment upon humankind, which, among early Christians, was associated specifically with the (impending) future return of Jesus. In a sense, the New Age of God had already begun with the first coming of Jesus (at his birth and earthly life), but would only be realized completely at his return. The word ai)w/n occurs several times in the Lukan Infancy narrative (1:55, 70), but most importantly, as part of the Angelic announcement to Mary of Jesus’ coming birth. This will be discussed in detail in the note on Luke 1:33.

References above marked “Cross” are to F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Harvard University Press: 1973 / 1997).

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

Today I will be discussing two names, or titles, applied to God in the Ancient Near East and in Israel. They are /wda* (°¹dôn) and ly^B^ (ba±al), and both have the basic meaning “lord”, being regularly translated in Greek by the word ku/rio$. Because of the frequent use of the Greek ku/rio$ as a name or designation of God (in the New Testament, etc), it is worth considering the meaning and usage of these terms in the Old Testament.

°A~dôn

The noun °¹dôn (/oda*) occurs hundreds of times in the Old Testament. Its exact etymology is somewhat uncertain, but it is clear that strength and the exercise of control are fundamental to the meaning. As such, it is at least partially synonymous with the word °¢l (la@, cf. the prior article), based on its presumed meaning (“mighty, great”). It is a common Semitic word, with cognates in Ugaritic and Akkadian (adannu). Typically, °¹dôn is translated “lord, master”, and, occasionally, “ruler”. Sometimes the idea of ownership is in view, though it may be said that the connotation of authority and control is more common. As with the word ba±al (cf. below), it is often used in the ordinary social context of the master of a household, which, in a patriarchal/patrilineal society, meant the leading male figure—father, husband, and/or eldest son. Thus °¹dôn could be used specifically of the husband in a marriage or family.

Within a religious setting, it is natural that the word would be applied as a title or epithet of God. As noted above, °¹dôn is, to some extent, synonymous with the words °¢l and °§lœhîm, corresponding generally to “God” in English. As a title, it also came to be connected specifically with the name Yahweh, as we see in Exod 34:23; Josh 3:13; Psalm 8:2, etc. The suffixed form, e.g. °¦dœn¹y (yn`d)a&), “My Lord”, was used especially by Israelites in addressing God (Gen 15:2, 8; 18:3, et al), and so was fitting as a reverential substitution in lieu of uttering the name Yahweh (on this, cf. the previous article). Eventually, this substitution was widespread enough that Jewish translators of the Old Testament (into Greek) often rendered Yahweh as ku/rio$ (“Lord”) virtually throughout. A similar convention is adopted in many English versions, where the name Yahweh is translated “LORD” (in caps), which, of course, creates difficulties with the title °A_dôn (also translated “Lord”) when it is appears together with Yahweh.

Ba±al

Many Christians have a distorted understanding of the word ba±al (lu^B^), associating it exclusively with the worship of the pagan (Canaanite) deity “Baal”. However, it is actually a common Semitic word, with a range of meaning quite similar to °¹dôn (cf. above). It is used more than 160 times in the Old Testament, along with a number of other occurrences in personal and place names. Compared with °¹dôn, perhaps the emphasis is on ownership more so than authority/control; and ba±al is often translated as “master”. In its ordinary Hebrew usage, in a social context, it typically refers to the husband in a marriage and family, just as in English it was once common to use the expression “lord/master of the house”.

As was also the case with the word °¹dôn, ba±al could be applied to God, as “Lord” or “Master”. Such a title could be applied to any particular deity, and there is some evidence to indicate that, at earlier periods in Israelite history, it may have been used as a title for El/Yahweh. When we encounter personal names with the element ba±al, at a time when Yahweh/El was predominantly (or exclusively) worshiped, we must consider seriously the possibility that Yahweh is the “Lord/Master” (Ba±al) being referenced (on this, cf. below). However, eventually it was deemed inappropriate to use the title for Yahweh, since it had come to be associated so closely with the Canaanite deity called by that name.

The Canaanite “Baal” was more properly known by the name Haddu (or Hadad), viewed primarily as the personification of the storm—the power behind the (life-giving and restoring) waters in the rain and floods. With the development of agriculture in Syria-Palestine, the figure of Baal Haddu became increasingly prominent in the religious culture of the farming societies who were dependent on the rains and flooding of the rivers. The texts from Ugarit (14th-13th centuries B.C.), especially the so-called Baal Epic (CAT 1.1-1.6), depict a powerful young hero standing at the center of the natural order, with the seasonal cycle and the processes of fertility and growth, death and rebirth. In certain respects, this deity supplanted the old Creator god °E~l in importance—a situation which no doubt helps to explain the conflict between Baal/Haddu and Yahweh/El in Israelite religious history. As the early Israelites began to move into Palestine, especially in the conquest/settlement of the territories further north, they would have increasingly come into contact with established Canaanite religious beliefs and practices associated with Baal/Haddu. This conflict is expressed in the old tradition(s) recorded in Num 25 and in the early chapters of Judges—cf. the warning in Judg 2:1-5, followed by vv. 11-15, the formulae punctuating the various accounts (3:7, 12, etc), and, especially, in the Gideon narrative (6:11-35, see also 8:33-35).

The setting of the Gideon narrative, in particular, raises intriguing questions as to the relationship between Baal (or the name Ba±al) and Yahweh in Israel. Viewed through the lens of later tradition, there is an unequivocal hostility and incompatibility between the two; however, some of the early evidence, taken on its own merits, is rather more ambiguous, as indicated above. There are two possibilities which should be considered:

  • Instances were the title Ba±al (“Lord, Master”) is applied to Yahweh/El, without necessarily any direct connection with the Canaanite deity
  • Examples of syncretism, whereby Baal/Haddu and Yahweh/El were identified with each other, at some level, or religious beliefs/practices associated with each deity were combined

The two religious phenomena may also be related, with use of the title Ba±al having been influenced by syncretistic tendencies. The Gideon narrative itself suggests some degree of religious syncretism. According to the narrative (6:25-27), Gideon’s father had set up an “altar of Baal” and an “Asherah”, typically understood as Canaanite practices adopted by Israel, and here clearly opposed by God. Yet Gideon himself seems completely familiar with, and accepting of, the worship of Yahweh/El (vv. 11-18ff), despite his apparent family situation (cf. also 8:33-35), and the fact that his original name contains the element Ba±alYeruba±al, meaning something like “The Lord/Master [Ba±al] will contend”. On the other hand, there can be little doubt that, in the Semitic/Canaanite world, the title Ba±al was, at times, applied to the chief Creator God °E~l, such as in the titles “Lord of (the) Heavens” [i.e. Ba±l Šamêm] and “Lord of (the) Amanus(? mountain[s])” [Ba±l „amœn] (cf. Cross, pp. 7-8, 24-28). A number of Israelite personal names contain the (theophoric) element Ba±al, including the children of apparently ardent worshipers of Yahweh such as Saul, David and Jonathan (1 Chron 8:33-34; 14:7). It is possible that this may reflect Canaanite influence in Benjamin, etc (cf. Judg 1:21), but there is nothing in the traditions recorded in 1-2 Samuel to suggest that either Saul or Jonathan were particularly inclined toward ‘Baal worship’. Such names were disconcerting enough to Scriptural authors of the (later) Kingdom period that they were intentionally altered (cf. 2 Sam 4:4; 9:4ff, etc). The context of Hosea 2:16 [Hebrew v. 18] suggests that some Israelites of the time may have honestly been referring to Yahweh/El as Ba±al—”My Lord/Master [Ba±®lî]”, similar to “My Lord [°A_dœn¹y]” (cf. above).

Following the reign of Solomon, and into the period of the Divided Kingdom, Canaanite religion gained considerable influence over both the rulers (of Israel and Judah) and the culture as a whole. There came to be an increasingly sharp division between (a) strict Yahwists and (b) those willing to adopt Canaanite beliefs and practices, the latter no doubt reflecting a syncretic blending of Baal and Yahweh traditions, respectively. The Prophets of the Kingdom period (cf. the Hosea passage cited above) denounced, in no uncertain terms, any kind of religious expression associated with foreign deities, and, especially, any worship of “Baal” or “the Baals”—the plural often referring to a wide range of practices or to polytheistic (Canaanite) religion in general. Perhaps the most famous tradition is found in the Elijah narrative of 1 Kings 18, involving the priests of Baal, in which Canaanite religion is lampooned and ridiculed severely. In order to appreciate the strength of the syncretistic tendencies condemned repeatedly by the Prophets, one must realize the features and characteristics which Yahweh shared with Baal/Haddu:

By the time of the New Testament, the conflict between Baal and Yahweh had long since disappeared, with Canaanite Ba±al (Haddu) being preserved in Israelite/Jewish tradition as a ruler of the “demons” (daimons). According to the strict monotheism shared by Jews and early Christians of the period, all other ‘deities’ in the pagan world were either viewed as non-existent or relegated to the status of lesser, evil spirits. As Baal had been the most famous such deity in the Old Testament and Israelite history, it was natural that he take on the role of leader of these spirits—”Prince Ba±al” (Ba±al Z§»ûl, Greek Beelzebou/l) becomes “Prince of the demons” (Mark 3:22 par; Matt 10:25).

The words in the New Testament

As noted above, the word °¹dôn is typically translated in Greek as ku/rio$, both words meaning essentially “lord”. In the New Testament, as in other Jewish writings of the time, ku/rio$ also is used to translated the name Yahweh (hwhy), by way of the common substitution °A_dœn¹y (yn`d)a&), “My Lord” (cf. above). The word ku/rio$ occurs more than 700 times in the New Testament, including 33 times in the Infancy narratives—several of these references will be discussed in the notes in this series.

The noun ba±al is also rendered in Greek by ku/rio$, while the word despo/th$ specifically emphasizes the aspect of ownership (as of a slave) and of possessing authority, and may similarly be translated “lord” or “master”. On occasion, despo/th$ can be used for the name Yahweh, in the vocative of personal address (“O [my] Lord/Master”). The noun appears only 10 times in the New Testament, but in a number of these instances it is used of God (and/or Christ). It occurs in Lukan Infancy narrative at Lk 2:29, a verse which I have discussed previously, and will address again in this series.

References above marked “Cross” are to F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Harvard University Press: 1973 / 1997).

“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).

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

The initial articles of this series (cf. the Introduction) will focus on the names of God—the principal names and titles used of God in the Old Testament. In studying the religions of the Ancient World, from our modern (Western) standpoint with its generalized monotheism, the polytheism common to the vast majority of ancient and traditional cultures can seem most confusing. A multitude of names are used, and it is often difficult to know just what to make of them, especially when looking at the evidence of religion spanning many centuries. Names are apt to change their meaning and point of reference over time. Even with regard to the monotheism of ancient Israel, there is some uncertainty and ambiguity over the precise meaning of particular names as they have been preserved in the text of the Old Testament. By way of introduction, I would emphasize the following points to keep in mind, in terms of how names can be understood in an ancient religious context:

  • Names may refer to distinct deities (or concepts of God)
  • Multiple names may refer to the same deity (or concept)
  • Names may be titles or epithets used of a particular deity (who otherwise has a specific name)
  • Names may be evidence of syncretism—deities (and/or their names) regarded as synonymous or joined together in combination

The first name I will be looking at is Hebrew la@ (°E~l).

The Names of God: °E~l

The word la@ (°¢l) in Hebrew generally corresponds to “God” in English. It is an ancient Semitic word which was well-established and in wide use by at least the early Bronze Age (third millennium B.C.), attested in every part of the Semitic-speaking world—in Mesopotamia, Syria-Palestine, south into Arabia and N. Africa, as well as in the Phoenician (Punic) colonies much further afield. It doubtless belongs to the earliest Proto-Semitic vocabulary, and has a basic meaning and usage similar to the early terms dingir () in Sumer and netjer (n¾r, ) in Egypt. The precise etymology remains uncertain, but the fundamental meaning of la@ would seem to be “mighty” or possibly “great, exalted”. It is often thought to be derived from the root lwa (°awl), but I suspect it stems from a primitive biconsonantal root la. As applied to the power (or powers, i.e. deities) which were thought to govern the universe, the term would literally mean “mighty (one)”, with plural <yl!a@ (°¢lîm) as “mighty (one)s”—that is to say, “God” or “gods”. The main difference between °¢l and the corresponding terms from Sumer and Egypt is that °¢l was commonly used as the name of the chief (Creator) Deity of the Semitic-speaking peoples. The range of usage does generally match that of “God” in English:

  • of Deity generally—”God”
  • to refer to any particular deity (or deities)—”god(s)”
  • as a name when addressing or referring to the Creator Deity—as “God”

There is reasonably well documented evidence for the chief Creator God being named °E~l (“Mighty [One]”) for both the Amorites in Mesopotamia and Canaanites in Syria-Palestine. As pronounced (vocalized) at the time (c. 2000-1400 B.C.) it would have been °Il(u). The most extensive information comes from the religious texts and myths uncovered at Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit) in Syria. For the most part, °E~l is depicted as an elderly, but vigorous, chieftain who rules and judges from his mountain (also envisioned as a domed tent)—a cosmic mountain filling the space between heaven and earth, but which could be represented (symbolically) in any important local mountain. This portrait relates especially to nomadic tent-dwellers, pastoral (herding) societies, in which °E~l was frequently referred to by the descriptive title “Bull”.

The principal role of °E~l was as Father—both of gods and human beings—or, more concretely, as Creator. This is seen in the famous episode in Genesis 14, in which Abraham encounters Melchi-Zedek, the (Canaanite) priest-king of Salem. There °E~l (using the compound name °E~l ±Elyôn, cf. below) is referred to with the formula-title “creator [hn@q)] of heaven and earth” (v. 19). The text clearly implies that Abraham and Melchi-Zedek are symathetic figures who share the same basic religious beliefs. Indeed, despite the notice in Gen 4:26, it is all but certain that the Patriarchs and ancestors of Israel—along with the early Israelites themselves—worshiped God by the name °E~l (i.e. “Mighty [One]”). This is amply confirmed by the traditions recorded in Genesis, most notably that in chapter 33 of the altar consecrated to “°E~l the God of Israel [°E~l °§lœhê Yi´ra¢l]” (v. 20). Moreover, personal and place names incorporating °E~l are relatively common in the early period, whereas corresponding names with Yah(weh) become prevalent only in the later Kingdom period. Most notably, of course, the name Israel itself (Yi´ra°el) includes °E~l, though the precise etymology remains uncertain—perhaps “°E~l is/has dominion” (but cp. the interpretation in Gen 32:28). Eventually, Yahweh came to be identified with °E~l, with the names being regarded as referring to the same (Creator) God. On the relationship between these two names, cf. the upcoming article on “Yahweh”.

There are three important compound °E~l-names which should be noted—°E~l ±Ôlam, °E~l ±Elyôn, and °E~l Šadday. It is significant that all three names—±Ôlam (“Ancient [One]”), ±Elyôn (“High[est One]”), and Šadday (“[He] of the Mountain”, “Mountain[ous One]”)—are attested in the Semitic (Canaanite) world as distinct deities, or as separate divine names. Thus there is some ambiguity as to how such compound names should be understood. There are three possible ways to read them (using the name with ±Ôlam [“Ancient”] as an example):

  • “The God (named) ‘Ancient [One]'”—that is, a deity with the name ±Ôlam. Such an interpretation would be rather unlikely within the context of Israelite monotheism.
  • °E~l the Ancient [One]”—i.e., as an epithet of °E~l
  • As a dual-name, which joins together two deities (or concepts of deity) into a single figure—°E~l-±Ôlam. In a monotheistic context, this would have to be understood something like “The Mighty One (who is also) the Ancient One”

The second option is to be preferred; that is, such compound names, as found in Israelite religious tradition, involve titles or epithets of the (one) Creator God named °E~l. For more on this subject, cf. Cross, pp. 46-60.

By the time of the New Testament, the specific use of the name °E~l had all but disappeared, in Hebrew and Aramaic usage, having been long since been replaced by Yahweh and its associated titles (e.g. °Adôn[ay], “Lord”). However, through the quotation of the Old Testament Scriptures (and their underlying traditions), vestiges of the name are preserved. Within the Infancy narratives in the Gospels, there are at least three names which preserve the element °E~l:

  • Elizabeth, the wife of Zechariah and mother of John the Baptist. The Greek  )Elisa/bet (Elisábet) is a transliteration of the Hebrew ub^v#yl!a$ (°E_lîše»a±), “God [°E~l] is (my) oath [i.e. the one to swear by]”, or perhaps something like “God [°E~l] is (the one who) satisfies”. She will be discussed, together with Zechariah, in the note on Luke 1:5-6.
  • Gabriel, the heavenly Messenger (Angel) who appears to Zechariah and Mary in the Lukan narrative. Again, the Greek Gabrih/l (Gabri¢¡l) is a transliteration of the Hebrew—la@yr!b=G~ (Ga»rî°¢l), usually understood as “Strong/young (man) of God [°E~l]”, but perhaps better rendered “(My) God [°E~l] (is) Strong [i.e. a warrior]”. He will be discussed in the note on Luke 1:18-19ff.
  • Immanuel (Grk  )Emmanouh/l), the name preserved within the quotation of Isaiah 7:14 in Matthew 1:23. The translation given in the Gospel more or less accurately reflects the meaning of the Hebrew la@uWnM*u! (±Imm¹nû°¢l), “God [°E~l] (is) with us”. Matt 1:23 will be discussed in the notes.

References marked “Cross” above (and throughout these notes) are to F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Harvard University Press: 1973 / 1997).

“And you shall call His Name…” (introduction)

“…and you shall call his name Yeshua”
(Matt 1:21; Luke 1:31)

This series, for Advent and Christmas season, explores the Birth of Jesus and the Infancy Narratives (of Matthew and Luke) from the standpoint of names. The declaration of a name was an important part of celebrating the birth of a child, even as it continues to be for us today. Naming events and scenes feature prominently in the birth (infancy) narratives in the Gospels, especially in Luke, where the births of two children—John and Jesus—run parallel throughout the narrative. Such scenes are inspired and influenced by the Old Testament and reflect ancient traditions regarding the meaning and significance of the name given to a child.

It is somewhat difficult for Christians today, especially in modern Western societies, to appreciate how names were used and understood in ancient times. When choosing a name for a child, we may seek out one that appeals to us, perhaps even researching its origins and etymology, but quite often the name itself has no real meaning in our own language. This is true with regard to my own name, Steven, which is an anglicized transliteration of the Greek ste/fano$ (stéphanos), a wreath or “crown”, something which encircles the head as a mark of honor or prestige. It is a fine name, with a rich history, and features prominently in at least one Scripture passage (cf. Acts 6-7), but has no meaning whatever in English. Even in the case of names which have their origins in older English (and its Germanic roots), e.g. Edward, Richard, and the like, most English speakers today would have no idea of their original meaning.

In the ancient world, on the other hand, names typically had clear and definite meaning—often profound meaning—in the ordinary language of the time and place. For names in the ancient Near Eastern languages, including the Semitic languages such as Hebrew and Aramaic, a single word could express an entire phrase or short sentence—something which is nearly impossible in modern English. Not infrequently, these “sentence names” involved and incorporated the name of God—or, in a polytheistic context, the name of a particular deity. I will be exploring a number of such names in this series, but, for now, one example will suffice. The name Why`u=v^y+ (Y§ša±y¹hû, i.e. Isaiah) means something like “Yah(weh) will save” or “(May) Yah(weh) save!” and really ought to be translated this way, since it would have been generally understood by Hebrew speakers and hearers at the time the various Scriptures were written. Yet, as this is strange to our sensibilities, it is simpler and less confusing to retain the customary transliteration. Very few people would give such names to their children in our culture today.

More than this, the ancient mind regarded names (and the idea of a name) very differently than we do in the modern age. There was a kind of magical, efficacious quality to names—they represented and encapsulated the essence and nature of a person or thing. To know a person’s name was virtually the same as knowing the person. To call out (that is, speak out loud) a person’s name established a connection with the person—his/her nature and character, abilities, and the like. This could be utilized in a positive or negative way; in the latter sense, names were thought to allow one to gain control over another person (through binding magical formulae, curses, etc). In the religious sphere, the names of deities were fundamental to nearly every aspect of ritual, in some fashion. To know and utter—properly and correctly—the name of a deity meant the person had established a relationship and connection with that particular deity, and could ‘tap in’ to the divine protection, power, blessing, etc which God (or the gods) provide. This helps to explain the Old Testament idiom of “calling upon” the name of the Lord (YHWH). Divine names were used in a wide range of ritual contexts, related to nearly every area of human society, including their inclusion to safeguard agreements (i.e. covenants), contracts, testimony, and so forth. There was a sacred quality to such names and they were not to be used or uttered (in oaths, vows, etc) for evil, unworthy or frivolous purposes (cf. Exod 20:7 par). For Israelites and Jews the name of God represented by the Tetragrammaton (hwhy, YHWH, Yahweh) was especially sacred and to be treated with the utmost care. This name will be discussed in one of the articles in this series. Early Christians regarded the name Yeshua (Jesus) as efficacious—uttered for the purpose of blessing, healing, protection, etc—in a similar fashion.

This series of (daily) articles will be divided into two parts. The first part will explore the Names of God—that is, the six or seven fundamental names and titles of God used in the Old Testament and ancient Israelite religion. The second part will examine the relevant verses and passages in the Infancy narratives in the Gospels (Matthew 1-2, Luke 1-2), focusing on the scenes of birth and naming, as well as the various names and titles used in the text (especially those applied to Jesus). The commentary on the Infancy narratives will begin with the Lukan account, before turning to that of Matthew. This may seem like a rather narrow lens through which to study the text, but I think you will find it to be a rich and rewarding approach to take, and one which should provide many helpful (and surprising) insights into the familiar Christmas story.