“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$).


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).