What is the name of God?
We began discussing the name of God in a previous blog post, when we did a review of Moses' life. It is in Exodus 3 that Moses asks God what to call him, if the people he is being sent to lead ask who has sent him. To this God replied "Ehyeh" which can be translated as "I will be" or "I am who I am." With the point being that he is, was and forever will be. It was God's self-declaration of as creator, father and ruler of this universe.
He then explains to Moses in verse 14 that "This is what you are to say to the Israelites: 'I am has sent me to you.'" In the Hebrew language this phrase "I am" was the word "Yahweh", which can be understood as a different tense of "Ehyeh". Where the previous name meant "I always have, am and forever will be", Yahweh is a declaration that "He always has been, is and forever will be." Thus, the Hebrews established the proper name for the God of their ancestors, of Abraham, Issac and Jacob, Yahweh. When reading through your Bible and you see "LORD" written in all caps, this is the word used by English scribes for "Yahweh."
How does the name "God" sometimes get watered-down in our culture?
How could the meaning of Yahweh help better our understanding of who God is?
Elohim and YHWH
Even though the origin story of the name Yahweh doesn't occur until Exodus 3, the Bible actually uses this term as early as Genesis 2:
Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done. This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the Lord God made the earth and the heavens. Genesis 2:1-4
In verses 2 and 3, and in the entirety of Genesis 1, whenever you see the word "God", the original writer uses the word "Elohim." Then, as you can see in verse 4, the name switches and the God of this story is now referred to as "LORD God", or "Yahweh Elohim."
Why Genesis 1 uses one term for God while Genesis 2 uses another is an interesting study in itself, but for now it would be good to discuss this other term for God, "Elohim".
Throughout the Bible God is referred to in the various forms of this word, one of them being "Eloah", which is essentially a term used in the most basic way that we understand the word "god". It is a title for a kind of non-physical being, so it can be used to refer to God, but also to angels, demons and other spiritual entities. "El" is another term used, which is a shortened version of that "Eloah", but has the same basic meaning.
"Elohim," which is the first name used for God in the Bible, is a little tricker to understand at face value, but the meaning helps show just how much humans struggle with describing something as vast and unique as God. Basically, "Elohim" is the plural version of "Eloah", so at times it can be used to describe a number of spiritual beings. However, its plural-ness is also why it is used to describe The God. Sort of like how we describe the thing above us in the atmosphere as "blue skies." There is only one sky, since there is no dividing line where one sky stops and another one starts, but due to the sky's vastness, we pluralize it. Thus, due to the vastness of God, he was pluralized, made different than the other beings that could be described as an Eloah.
This is why in Deuteronomy 10:17, where God is described as the God of gods, the original Hebrew says he is the "Elohim of Elohim". Another example is in Numbers 33:4, where the plagues in Exodus were described as "the LORD (Yahweh) brought judgment on Egypt's gods (Elohim). Just as our Bibles designate "God" and "gods", Elohim was a title used to show God's importance and power over anything else that could be called a god or eloah.
When the Bible calls God "the God of gods", what does that mean to you? What other "gods" are out there?
Why would showing the importance of God through his name be important in ancient Hebrew culture, where they essentially had plenty of reasons to believe in Baal or Ashtoreth just as much as the God of Abraham.
One final piece of this formula that produces the many names of God is another name used throughout the Old Testament, "Jehovah." When Hebrews read the scriptures out loud, as part of their culture they wanted to protect that sanctity of God's true name, Yahweh. Therefore, whenever they came to the word "Yahweh", they did not say "Yahweh", they said "Adonai". Adonai is the plural version of Adon, which means "lord." So even in an attempt to avoid using "Yahweh" by referring to God as "the Lord", they still, similar to "Elohim", showed his importance by pluralizing this title.
Over time Hebrew scribes then began using a different word all together when writing the word "Yahweh", in an attempt to further protect the name from being spoken. They infused "Yahweh" and "Adonai" to make basically a hybrid word symbol, spelled "Yahowah". So when they came to this word, even though phonetically it didn't make sense to read it this way, they still said "Adonai." However, as the Bible was eventually translated into English, English scribes did not know about this symbol, and simply read it as "Yahowah", which eventually evolved into the word "Jehovah".
No matter the form used, the names attributed to God throughout the Bible are used to illustrate two very important aspects of his being. One, that he was, is and forever will be. He has no beginning or ending and he was not created by or for anyone else. Secondly, that he will be above any name, title or authority given to anything else on earth or of the spiritual realm. Anything tried to be put on the same level or more important that God can be seen for what it is, always lesser than he.