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Barbara Ann Duffy

Professor Martin

Bible as Literature

July 29, 2009

A Study in the Names of God

One of the benefits of human language is the use of arbitrary words to connect the

individual to his group and/or distinguish him from other within the group. These

arbitrary word which are proper nouns known as names are given to most people at birth.

For most modern people the names they are given have little to do with the traits, talents,

or disposition of the individual. In those cultures that have the option of changing names

as the individual ages, the names chosen usually refer to talents, disposition or traits, not

the essence of the spirit or life force of the individual. Among the exceptions recognized

by mankind are those names that God uses to refer to Himself in the bible. Like the face

of God, which no man can see and live (RVS Ex 3:5), and the ground surrounding the

burning bush which no man can survive touching because of its holiness (NIV Ex 33:20),

the very names of God carry power too awesome for humans to comprehend or use

wisely because God’s name is part of His essence or being. It is this belief that created

and sustains the Jewish tradition that the name of God cannot be spoken.

While not verified by the scripture, there is an ancient Hebrew myth of Lilith, the

first wife of Adam who called out the true name of God when Adam tried to dominate

her. The result is that she disappeared from Earth. In some version she went directly to

heaven; in others she became a succubus stealing the life force of men by seducing them

in their sleep. The myth is a snapshot of the Jewish belief that even the name of God held
power that could be used by any who said it and the fear of what could happen if the

power fell into the wrong hands. The belief that just knowing the name of something

gave you power over it is steeped in antiquity and carries through today in the practice of

the Roman Catholic rite of exorcism where the name of the demon must be know to

break its hold on the possessed person and it out of the body, soul and mind.

Of the more than six hundred names and titles of God in the scriptures (Rubsam),

there are seven that are considered troublesome for scribes. At the time the Talmud was

written, rabbis pondered long and hard on the question of which names of God could be

written. The list they have handed down is: El, Elohim, Ehyer Asher Ehyer, Adonai,

Teviot, Shaddai and YHWH (Wigoder 147). These names of God are considered so

sacred to the Jewish people that when a scribe writes the name of God in preparing a

Torah, he prepares himself with prayer, silence is maintained, and he does not stop

writing until he name is completed. If an error is made, the mistake is circled and the

erroneous document is then buried or stored in a sacred site dedicated to such Holy

Documents. A modern day example of this hiding of God’s name is seen on the home

page of www.hebrew4christians.com. In the index column of the page the word “God” is

spelled “G-D.” While this homage may seem excessive or superstitious in today

materialistic, scientific and humanistic world, it has its roots deep in the religious

traditions and cultural psyche of the Hebrew people. It would be considered a grave

offence to God to do otherwise even by some of the more modern forms of Judaism.

This paper is an inspection of the seven names of God that can be written by not

spoken except in a liturgical setting. The first names we will examine are El and Elohim.

These are two of the covenant names used by God. The Hebrew word “El” is a generic
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term meaning God or gods. In biblical times the word “El” with a capital “E” signified

the God of Israel, when the lower case “e” was used it referred to the others god of the

day and could be used in both the singular “god” and the plurals “Gods.” El was often

combined with other terms that either modified it or designated it as a specific title of

God as in “El-Elyon--The Lord Most High,” (Wikipedia). El is often used in

combination to signify an attribute rather than the absolute essence of God.

Perhaps the most common name of God in the Old Testament is a combination of

the generic term “El” for God and “Ohim.” One possible explanation for the combination

is that “the plural form ending “im”… denotes abstraction …” (Wikipedia). Thus Elohim

could be translated as “The Unknowable God” or “The God that is beyond the

understanding of man.”

The origin of the name Shaddai is still under some doubt, however, in the late

Bronze Age there was an Amorite city by that name (Wikipedia). It might therefore be

deduced that a possible derivation of the term “El Shaddai” could be “God of Shaddai.”

There is a further connection to the area of the Euphrates River area of Shaddai, Abraham

was from Ur which is in the area. The name may have come into use from the oral

tradition of stories about Abraham. In Exodus 6:2-3 and the Book of Job “Shaddai” is the

name used to identify the god of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. By the time the Septuagint

and early written text were translated, “Shaddai” had come to mean “Almighty” and “El

Shaddai” was translated “God Almighty” or the God Who is Sufficient for the Needs of

His People” (Rubsam).

When God Reveals himself to Moses, the reader hears a new name is heard for
the first time. When Moses asks, “Who shall I tell the Children of Israel you are?” God

replies, “Ehyer-Asher-Ehyer”-- “I AM THAT I AM” (Wikipedia, “Jews and Judaism” and

RVS 3:14), establishing in three words that very essence of Himself as having no

beginning, no end, and no peer. There is no doubt that God is proclaiming Himself to be

the only true God and the only truly powerful God. It should be noted here that the

Israelites had been under Egyptian rule for more than four hundred years and that

included exposure to Egyptian polytheism. The phrases “Ehyer-Asher-Ehyer” is singular,

thereby establishing Judaism’s monotheism, the worship of a single God. The phrase

also infers that the Israelites will have no problem identifying the God of Abraham, Isaac

and Jacob as the speaker. Or that the phrase will call the Israelites back from the worship

of Egyptian gods and graven images of said gods.

It is through the “I AM” power of God’s name that Moses is told to go to Pharaoh

with instructions “… tell Pharaoh that the God of the Israelites commands he release His

people…” (RSV Ex 5:1) It is the Same “I AM” power that Moses uses to perform

miracles and prove he is sent to the Israelites by God, and that he uses to perform

miracles in Pharaoh’s presence, and bring Egypt to her knees and gain the release of the

Israelites, (his staff changes into a snake and eats the ones created by the magicians, the

Nile is turned to blood, the plagues of frogs, gnats, flies, live stock, boils, hail, locust, and

darkness (RSV Ex 7-10). However, it should be noted that although God allowed Moses

through Aaron to use His name for the above plagues, He reserved the tenth plague and

final, the taking of human life, for Himself (RVS EX 11-12).

“Ehyer-Asher-Ehyer--I AM THAT I AM” is one of the three exceptions to the

non-use rule. The High Priest could utter the name of God on Yom Kippur, the Day of
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Atonement. This is possibly the most famous name of God known to the human race.

“Ehyer” would be considered the imperfect future tense of the verb “to be” in English

and technically translated to “I will be what I will be.” “Asher” is problematic in that it is

a word that can have more than one translation including, “who,” “that,” “which” and

“where” leading to several different translation of the phrase (Wikipedia).

The second name exempt from the non-spoken rule is “Adonai--Lord” which can

be used only in prayer (Wikipedia). It should be noted that this name has multiple

meanings that have no reference to God at all including but not limited to the English

tradition of the House of Lords and the familial title Lord passed down from eldest male

to a male offspring upon death. It was a common salutation used when in the presence of

a man of higher rank as in Yes, my lord,” in both literature and common spoken use in the

British Empire. Like its translation’s use in English, the word “Adonai” can be found

several times in the bible without reference to God. However, when Adonai is applied to

God, the name cannot be spoken except as stated prayer motif above. Even today, when

prayers are being recoded for later use, the “Adonai” will be altered either by changing

the “n” to an “m” of use of the term “Hashem” which is translated “the name,”

(Wikipedia).

Tzebaot or Zebaot, the sixth name of the group we’re discussing is frequently

combined with “YHWH” or “Adonai” to form the phrases “Lord of Hosts” or “Lord of

Armies.” In its most complicated form, “Adonai YHWH Tzebaot” is translated “Lord

YHWH (GOD) of Hosts”; unlike Eloch and Elyon which are used in the poetic books,

Tzebaot or Zeboat is generally reserved for use in the prophetic writing such as I Samuel
17:45 (Wikipedia).

“YHWH” is the last and most formal name of God in the Old Testament covered

in this paper. Translations of the Tetragrammaton range from “Lord” to “The Eternal

One.” It is strictly forbidden to say this name of God with only one exception. It, like

Adonai, can be said on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, by the High Priest. Extreme

measures are taken to prevent the intentional or even accidental use of the name. It is

contracted to the Tetragrammaton; the four Hebrew letters YHWH, probably because

ancient Hebrew had no vowels. Adonai seems to have existed prior to the

Tetragrammaton because in an attempt to ensure that the name YHWH was never spoken

even by mistake ancient scribes added the “a” and “e” from Adonai under the

Tetragrammaton. English translators mistakenly added the vowels “a” and “e” to the

Tetragrammaton’s YHWH to form the visual word “YaHWeH” based on the phonetic

pronunciation of the combined letters Y, E, H, W, E, and H. The Hebrew “YaHWeH” was

later converted to Iehovah or Jehovah when spelled in the Hebrew (Wikipedia, Jews and

Judaism).

The most frequent English translation of the Tetragrammaton is LORD. It is the

name of God of Covenants with mankind and of the seven names of God it is used more

than 6800 times. Even after Jacob and his sons settle in Egypt, the reverence to this term

used for God and the references to Him remain the same in the Hebrew lexicon.

The admonition “Address no man as LORD” refers to the term “YHWH” not

“Adonai” since “Adonai” could also be classified as a more conversational form of the

word. The difference between the translation of “YHWH” and “Adonai” (i.e.,

capitalization of the last three letters) may at first glance seem a minor distinction; in
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reality it is the distinction between a word used solely to denote the God of Israel, the

former, and a word used as a sign of respect for anyone of higher rank such as master for

a slave or sir for another male who is older or of higher rank. In essence this is

representative of the distinction between Creator and Created.

One oddity of the names of God is that at times they are plural nouns used with

singular verbs, but at other times they are singular nouns with singular verbs. YHWH

and Adonai both use singular forms of the verb “to be,” but Elohim uses the plural when

used in Genesis, Kings and Jeremiah. This pluralism shows itself in the translation of

phrases such as “Let us … Our image…” (Gen 1:26). While these instances in the Old

Testament are the foundation of speculation of the plurality of God, perhaps the proof

that it refers to the Holy Trinity is in the opening five verses of the Gospel of John in the

New Testament. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the

Word was God. He was with God. Through Him all things were made: without Him was

not made anything that was made. In Him was life and that life was the light of men.

The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness overcomes it not” (RVS John 1: 1-5).

By these verses we are told for the first time the name of the second person of the God

Trinity of the “Us” stated in Genesis 1:26.

Perhaps like the Eskimos, who have more than forty words for snow (the usage of

which is determined by the texture of the snow, the use being made of the snow and the

depth of the snow just to name a few differences), the proliferation of names for God in

the bible are a result of two complementary evolutions of understanding and feelings to

God. The first being that the more you know about God and understand Him; the more
names you can apply to Him, and the second, the more you love Him; the more names

you can apply to Him. Like a lover or new parent who begins by called their loved by

their name, and progresses from there to pet names. Perhaps, the numerous names of

God in the Bible are names of continuingly increasing understanding of the Creator and

increasing love for God creating affectionate and ever more descriptive names for the

God they love and the God that has proven His love for them.