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Names of God

Most of us when we hear the word “God” we don’t necessarily question it. We are used to saying God or Lord, in church especially. We rarely stop to think… is “God” His English name? But then, what is the Hebrew word for God? And does He have a name?

Some of us are familiar with names like Jehovah / Yahweh or even Adonai. But do we know how they are different and what they mean?

First, to understand the Hebrew word for God, and yes, the Hebrew names of God in the Bible, we need a mini Hebrew lesson!

Let’s start with the word for “name” itself – which in Hebrew is shem. In Hebrew thought, a shem is not just a combination of sounds, or an identifier, but it is a reputation. It is meant to convey the essence and characteristics of the person or thing being identified.

This concept is present in common English language as, reputation being considered a “good name” or “making a name for oneself”.

So, in Exodus 3:13-22, when Moses asked God what his name was, he was not asking “What should I call you by?”. Rather, Moses is asking, “Who are you, what are you like?”.

Banias waterfall in a Hermon Stream Nature Reserve in northern

The Hebrew Word for God: Elohim

The word for “God” in Hebrew is Elohim, which appears in the Biblical text quite often. However, it appears both as a common noun (divinity, ancestral spirit, ghost)[1], and as the proper noun – name for the one and only God.

Whether Elohim serves as a common or proper noun, depends completely on the context. Thus, it makes sense when a pastor or a rabbi says “little ‘g’ gods” to indicate deities that are not the one true God of Israel. These are “gods” in the way that Zeus, Venus, or Hades are considered “gods”.

But another curious thing about the word Elohim is that it is in a masculine plural form. Meanwhile, in the singular tense it appears feminine (eloha).

According to Maimonides (a Jewish scholar from the Middle Ages), the word emphasizes God’s power, might, creativity, and characteristics of justice and leadership. Variations include El, Eloha, Elohai (my God) and Elohaynu (our God).

You may recognize that these variations made their way into people’s names. Take for example the name Samu-el – which means “heard by God”. Or the one that you are likely very familiar with, Emmanuel, which could be spelled Immanu-El – meaning, God with us.

Where did the Name YHVH Come from?

There is one exceptional instance when God introduces Himself in a unique way to mankind. To learn about it we need to go back to Exodus 3:13-22. The passage describes an encounter that Moses had with God through the burning bush.

Moses asked God for His name, and God responded with “Eyeh Asher Ehyeh”, often translated in English as “I AM WHO I AM”. A closer translation would be something like “I am/will be what I am/will be.”

The consonants YHVH (yud-hey-vav-hey) represent the Hebrew verb to be. At the same time, these consonants are combination of past, present and future tenses of this verb. Meaning, Yehiye – will be, hove – to be (present), and haya – was.

This shows us a key characteristic of God: He is outside of linear time and space as we know it. He is fully omniscient and omnipresent; God is constant and does not change. Because of His name, we can fully trust God to be just and unchanging, in every generation.

This name and its many variations have often been used when describing God’s interfacing with human beings, in loving-kindness and mercy. That is also the origin of many names or phrases, such as Yehoshua (Joshua, meaning the Lord is my salvation) or Yeshyahu (Isaiah – God saves).

Is Adonai a Hebrew Name for God?

The name YHVH, often referred to as the tetragrammaton in academic circles, has gained prominence in recent decades. Most have filled in the vowels to of these consonants to make the words “Yahweh” or “Jehovah” in the English transliteration.

Scholars agree that at one time, the name was commonly used in the Temple, although exactly when this practice stopped is debated. However, already when the Talmud was being written, it was customary to use substitutes for the name of God. And Adonai became one of them.

To this day, it is common practice to say “Adonai” where YHVH is indicated, instead of vocalizing the four-letter name. Adonai translates to “my Lord”, and “kyrios” (koo-ri-ahs) in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures.

But often, Adonai means simply “my Lord”, describing a person or angelic being that has authority. David referred to Saul as Adonai in 1 Samuel 24:8 when he called out from the cave. Lot addressed the angels in the same way in Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:2).

It is worth mentioning a fragment from Psalm 110 here:

“The LORD says to my Lord: “Sit at My right hand Until I make Your enemies a footstool for Your feet.”

Looking at the original, you’ll notice that “The LORD” is used where the Hebrew letters YHVH appear. Meanwhile, “my lord” is used as a translation of the word ‘Adonai’ in the original. Our translation makes it look obscure, but the Hebrew text shows a clear distinction between the two words.

The Tower of David in ancient Jerusalem Citadel, near the Jaffa

Other Biblical Names of God

There are other names ascribed to God throughout the Bible, and you may notice an interesting pattern among them. Meaning, they often include one of the previously mentioned names or a part of them.

In combination with other Hebrew words, they introduce a unique quality of who God is.

Here are some examples:

El Shaddai means God Almighty. It speaks of God’s sustaining power and might over His enemies (Exodus 15:6).

The Book of Job uses the name El Shaddai more than any other book in the Bible. Given that Job faced sickness, death, and suffering, inflicted by Satan, it makes sense that he is looking to God’s might and sovereignty to overpower the devil’s schemes.

Adonai Tzevaot translates to the “Lord of Hosts” or more literally “Lord of Armies”. But this isn’t just a regular human army – His is an army of angelic beings.

Hannah (in the Book of Samuel) calls out to God by this name, and she is the first person to do so in the Bible. At that time, she is barren and desperate for God, Adonai Tzevaot, the commander of angel armies, to hear her petition (1 Samuel 1:10). 

Yahweh Yireh, or Jehovah Jireh made popular by contemporary preaching and worship, first appears in Genesis 22:2, in the binding of Isaac. In Genesis 22:14, Abraham names the mountain where he built the alter YHVH Yireh, which means that God will provide.

There is a special emphasis here on provide, as it is rephrased further in the verse: “as it is said to this day, ‘In the mount of the LORD it will be provided’.” Rephrasing in such a way with slight variation is a common linguistic tactic in Biblical Hebrew to create emphasis.

Adonai Nissi appears in Exodus 17:15, when Amalek came to fight against Israel in the wilderness. After the victory, Moses built an alter and named it Adonai Nissi – the Lord is my Banner.

A banner can mean a covering, and the God of Israel was that to His people when He led them in the desert as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. In battle, banners represented the identity of an army. So, Adonai Nissi points to who is our defender, especially when we are vulnerable.

The Power of His Name

These are just a few examples of the Hebrew names of God, mentioned in the Bible. As you can see, these Hebrew names are more just identifiers. They are deep descriptions of God’s person and character.

God’s traits and virtues are many, and He shows up for us in different ways at different times in our life. Do you have a favorite Hebrew name for God? Let us know in the comments!

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Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Bibliography

Brichto, Herbert Chanan. 1998. The Names of God: Poetic Readings in Biblical Beginnings. Oxford University Press. https://search-ebscohost com.ezproxy.biola.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=cat04317a&AN=bio.b2703034&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Yahweh.” Encyclopedia Britannica, June 30, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Yahweh.

“Jewish Concepts: The Name of God.” The Jewish Virtual Library. American Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE), n.d. Accessed June 21, 2022. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-name-of-god.

 “What Does ‘Lord of Hosts’ Mean?” ONE FOR ISRAEL Ministry. Last modified February 16, 2021. Accessed June 21, 2022. https://www.oneforisrael.org/bible-based-teaching-from-israel/what-does-lord-of-hosts-mean/.

Sproul, R.C. The meaning of “el shaddai”. Ligonier Ministries. (n.d.). Retrieved June 21, 2022, from https://www.ligonier.org/posts/meaning-el-shaddai

Weiner, Rabbi Chaim. “7. היה [Ha-Ya] – to Be and Become.” My Hebrew Word מילה בעברית. World Zionist Organization, Masorti Olami, June 1, 2014. Last modified June 1, 2014.


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