Librarian's Lobby
by Daniel D. Stuhlman
March 2004

Biblical Names of God

Many Biblical and modern personal names contain the name of God by the use of two or more letters from one of the Hebrew names of God. This suggests that humans, created in the image of God, attempt to put a bit of God in the newborn. The Hebrew names for God do not always translate precisely into English partly because the name of God in Hebrew is closely connected with the religion, history, and nationality of the Jewish people and partly because of changes in use of language. In English expressions such as, “Oh God!”, “My God!” and “God be with you,” the syntactical concept is the representation of the personal name. We are addressing God directly by using the word G – O – D . In Hebrew both from a theological and linguistic point of view the each name for God addresses an attribute or aspect of God. The phrase, “ה' הוא אלה-ים “ (Y is God) is meaningless in modern English. ‘Elohim is the “office of divinity.” An analogous express in English is, “Jack Goldberg is the rabbi.” You may still call, “rabbi” and Jack Goldberg will answer, but “rabbi” is the name of the office, not the person. In the human world, another person may occupy the office of rabbi. In the divine world, Y always has been and always will be God. The divinity and personal aspects of God’s names are integral to understanding the history of human and divine names.

This article is concerned with names of God that set precedence for Hebrew names. Those names are YHVH, ‘el, or ‘elohim [י-ה-ו-ה, אל, אלה-ים ] Names describing qualities such as “redeemer, Lord of hosts, and Man of War” are not part of this study.

Hebrew personal names including, the name of God are more than mere distinguishing titles. The names used for God represent the conception of the Divine nature or character or the relation of God to the people. The name represents the Deity as He is known to worshipers and stands for all attributes which are revealed to them through His activity. A new manifestation of His interest or care may give rise to a new name. An old name may acquire a new connotation or significance through new experiences of sacred relationships. Names for people represent qualities and attributes of that person.

The poetic and mythological texts which came to light in the excavations of Ras Shamra-Ugarit in the years 1930, 1931, and 1933 refer to the Canaanite pantheon. Baal was the god of fertility. [1] ‘El was the head of the pantheon and recognized as the god of all Canaanite peoples. Yamm was the master of the sea.

We see from a corpus of over one hundred inscriptions with the Yod – Heh [יה ] or other forms of the tetragrammaton the scribes wrote the letters in an archaic script. Since most of the inscriptions of these ancient dwellers were religious, their language was viewed as a carrier of sacred knowledge and such a language has a conservative preference for archaic forms. That is, God's name should be written in the script used by Moses. When explaining God’s names it is difficult to separate the theological from the linguistic, grammatical, or sociological aspects. The tetragrammaton or שם הויה in Hebrew represents the personal name of God. The four letters י-ה-ו-ה , represent the four letter [2] personal or private name of God are never written casually or taken in vain.  When two letters of the name are used (such as yod-yod [יי]  or yod-hey [יה]) they imply that the writer meant the full name of God. In the inscriptions the picture of a ram is connected with both Yah and ‘El. Perhaps the sound made by a ram is connected to its Hebrew name ‘ayil or the yod between the aleph-lamed , is part of a name of God and connected to the tetragrammaton

Eliezer Berkovits[3] says that the Hebrew words associated with God are difficult to translate.  In his Man and God he lets the Hebrew stand as an appreciation of the original whenever possible.  When the limitations language did not allow that he uses a “Y” to present the four letters of God’s name when writing about the concept or philosophy of God and YHVH when dealing with the uniqueness and personal closeness to God. He does not put the letters in bold or italics. This method works for a book of theology, but is not satisfactory for a work dealing with linguistics and orthography. I will use the letters in bold face when dealing with the letters or orthography of God’s name “Y” in plain type face if writing about any other aspect of the personal nature of God.

There is a separation of the name of God from God's attributes. When Moses is at the burning bush in chapter 3 of Exodus talking directly to God, he is skeptical. Y first identifies himself with history,“the God of your father, the God of Abraham …”[4]  Moses was afraid but still wanted a better way of referring to Y. Moses said that the Israelites would not believe he was sent by God without a name. God says to Moses that His name is: Eheyeh-Asher-Eheyeh. [5] Moses is then commanded to tell the Children of Israel Y the God of their fathers … has sent him and “This shall be My name forever.”[6] God is telling Moses and the Children of Israel his personal name.

What does it mean to be able to call God by His name? Berkovits says that this and other phrases referring to God are mysterious.“Y is a man of war, Y is His name [7]” Berkovits suggests that Y is a man of war because Y is his name and Y is equated with war. This contradicts narrow interpretations of God’s name.

In some places “the name, Y” or “Your name” means giving glory or reputation. Psalm 8:2 and 10 says : “How majestic is Your name throughout the earth. “ If the universe is the creation of God and Man is the image of God, it is logical that parents would want a piece of God’s name in their children to always remind them of the glory of God. Another reason to use a form of God’s name in naming your child is that the spoken name is equivalent to having the divine presence, power, or glory in your family all the time. Since God’s name excites emotions of love, joy, and praise (Ps. 5:11; 7:17; 9:2; 20:1, 7) parents want those emotions toward their children. Berkovits, the theologian, explains the meaning of God’s name in the terms of glory, redemption, and honor, while the linguist wants to understand how the names enter the language and thought of the people.

Elohim

Elohim (אלהי ם) is a plural form though commonly accompanied with a singular verb or adjective. This is, most probably, to be explained as a majestic or royal plural. Compare to the similar use of plurals of "ba'al" (master) and "adon" (lord).  The singular, Eloah (אלוה ), is comparatively rare, occurring only in poetry and late prose (in Job, 41 times).

The word El (אל) appears in Assyrian (ilu), Ugaritic and Phoenician, as well as in Hebrew, as an ordinary name of God. It is found also in Aramaic, Arabic, and Ethiopic, as also in Hebrew, as an element in compound proper names. It is used in both the singular and plural, both for other gods and for the God of Israel. As a name of God, however, it is used chiefly in poetry and prophetic discourse, rarely in prose, and then usually with some epithet attached, as "a jealous God." Other examples of its use with some attribute or epithet are: El 'Elyon (אל עליון "most high God"), El Shaddai ( אל שדי"God Almighty"), El 'Olam (אל עולם "everlasting God"), El hai (אל חי  "living God"), El Elohe Israel (אל אלוה ישראל "God, the God of Israel"), El Gibbor (אל גיבור "Hero God"). The root aleph-lamed-hey אלה is assumed to be the root of אל, אלוה, ואלוהים ‘el, ‘eloha, and ‘elohim but this is uncertain. According to Brown, Driver, Briggs, W. Gesenius claims אל and אלהים are distinct forms and not from the same root.  Genenuis says that אלהים  is from the root אלה  meaning to go to and fro in awe as in the object of reverence and אל  has the root  אול meaning strong.

The derivation of this name from the Hebrew root אול, "to be strong," is extremely doubtful since a similar root has been explained from the Arabic as meaning "to be in front," "to be foremost," "to lead," "to rule," which would give the meaning "leader," "lord."  The initial vowel in ‘El was originally short, as seen in such proper names as Elkanah, Elihu, and in the Assyrian "ilu," is strong evidence against this derivation. Because of the connection to the Canaanite god, ‘el I speculate the meaning is connected to the concept of “strong.” However, it is necessary to admit that the root, original source, and meaning is not known with certainty.

In the pre-Israelite Canaan  pantheon ‘El  is the supreme god. ‘El is the leader and intermediary between the people and other gods. This parallels the use of the word ‘El and ‘Elohim.  Chapter 18 of Kings throws the most light on the phrase,  ki Y hu ha-Elohim, כי יה-ו-ה הוא האליהים (that Y He is the Elohim)[8]  This chapter is the story of the prophet Eliyahu confronting the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel.

Eliyahu confronts all the people and says: "If Y is God, how long will you keep hopping between two opinions. If Y is God, follow him!" Why do we need to know Y is 'El? (Kings 18: 21) [9] This kind of translation is misleading. the reader to a meaning for Even using the English word, "God" is difficult in this discussion. Relying on the English translation the reader gets the idea that the people are wondering if Y is God. This notion is not in the Hebrew text. After the Exodus and revelation at Sinai the people knew that Y is the one and only God. "ha-elohim" has another kind of meaning here. The answer is in the formulation of Eliyahu's question, "If Y is God, follow him!" "Ha-Elohim" is the one to follow. This parallels the Canaanite god, 'El who is the leader. The god who leads is the one we follow. Eliyahu tells the prophets of Baal in verse 24 "You will then invoke your god by name, and I will invoke Y by name. Let us agree the god who responds with fire is the God."

Relying on the English translation the reader gets the idea that the people are wondering if Y is God. This notion is not in the Hebrew text. After the Exodus and revelation at Sinai the people knew that Y is the one and only God.“ha-elohim” has another kind of meaning here. The answer is in the formulation of Eliyahu’s question, “If Y is God, follow him!” “Ha-Elohim” is the one to follow. This parallels the Canaanite god, ‘El, who is the leader. The god who leads is the one we follow. Eliyahu tells the prophets of Baal in verse 24 “You will then invoke your god by name, and I will invoke Y by name. Let us agree the god who responds with fire is the God.” Berkovits explains that the god of the prophets of Baal are in search of an ‘elohim to serve their needs. Thus in Tanakh Y is our Elohim; Y is one, but the word “elohim” not the only messenger.

The names God in the Tanakh in both two streams are important for understanding names in later Hebrew literature and society. Names that include two or more letters of YHVH seem to be part of a parental wish to include a bit of God in the child. Names that contain 'El give the message, parents want the child to take the attribute and go toward Godliness. In our language and culture we are much more reserved in our use of God's name than in Biblical times. We use the name in prayers, blessing and proper names, but not in casual conversation. Some names such as Daniel and Michael are very common, while most Biblical names are no longer used.


Footnotes

[1] See Judges 6:25-32 for the story of Gideon tearing down the alter of Baal.  Baal worship was a wide spread rival to Judaism in Biblical times.  Prophets and kings fought against the pagan rituals of Baal worship.  King Ethball of the Phoenicians served Baal as mentioned in 1Kings 17:31.  For some reason “Bel” is sometimes used in English translations of Canaanite stories.

[2] See the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:7.  While many explain this commandment means not use God’s name falsely in an oath; others say it means never to use God’s name in way not connected to a higher purpose. In the Talmud Pesahim 50a it is stated that in the world to come the tetragrammaton and its pronunciation will be one.לא כעולם הזה העולם הבא העולם הזה נכתב ניו"ד ה"י ונקרא באל"ף דל"ת אבל לעולם הבא כולו אחד ...

[3] In Man and God pages 9, 11-21.

[4] Verse 6. אנכי אלהי אביך, אלהי אברהם ...

[5] The JPS English translation leaves these words untranslated in the main text.  A footnote adds that the usual translation is either “I am who I am,” “I am that I am,”or I will be what I will be.”  The YHVH is associated with the root היה  meaning “to be.” An archaic form of the root is  הוה probably meaning “to blow” or “to breathe.”

[6] זה שמי לעלם וזה זכרי לדר דר   3:15.

[7] Exodus 15:3 איש מלחמה  י שמו

[8] This translation is temporary. The following paragraphs explain the whole meaning and the process for figuring out that meaning.

[9]  ... עד-מתי אתם פסחים על-שתי הסעפים אם-י-ה-ו-ה האלהים


Daniel D. Stuhlman is president of Stuhlman Management Consultants, Chicago, IL, a firm helping organizations turn data and information into knowledge. We are looking for new clients and opportunities. Visit our web site to learn more about knowledge management and what our firm can do for you. Previous issues of Librarian's Lobby can be found at: http://home.earthlink.net/~DDStuhlman/liblob.htm.

Links
Librarian's Lobby Judaica Library Network of Metro Chicago Stuhlman Management Consultants Stories by Stuhlman

 ©2004 by Daniel D. Stuhlman. All rights reserved.
Last revised March 16, 2004