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Names of God

The Hebrew Bible employs different names and titles for Yahweh that communicate a variety of character traits and relationships.

Columns 23 and 24 of the Great Psalms Scroll (11Q5)

The authors of the Hebrew Bible might have scoffed at Shakespeare’s rhetorical question, “What’s in a name?” For those authors, names and titles had a key role in cultivating a meaningful relationship between Yahweh and his people. The Hebrew Bible contains numerous different titles for Yahweh. These names use imagery that expresses a variety of particular character traits and relationships and that reflects the rhetorical goals of the authors.

The proper name of the Israelite deity is Yahweh (YHWH; yodhehvavheh), which the exodus tradition suggests derives from the Hebrew root h-y-h, “to be” (see Exod 3:14) and was unknown to the patriarchs (Exod 6:3). The shorter form YHW appears as a regional designation in two second-millennium B.C.E. Egyptian texts, however, and some scholars believe immigrants from that region in the south brought their deity north with them to Israel’s hill country (Deut 33:2, Hab 3:3). According to this theory, the God of Israel was originally a storm deity, frequently conceptualized as a fierce warrior who manifests his power through violent weather (Judg 5:4-5, Ps 18:6-15). Titles like “Yahweh of Hosts” (Jer 32:18) and “Mighty One” (Ps 45:3 [Hebrew, 45:4]) reflect aspects of this imagery.

Elohim, the generic Hebrew word for deity, is the most common title attributed to the God of Israel (singular El is also quite common). Elohim is plural in form but frequently refers to a singular subject, including deities other than Yahweh (1Kgs 11:33). This has traditionally been understood as a plural of majesty, meant to rhetorically multiply Yahweh’s divine qualities, but it may instead be an abstract plural that became concretized through repeated use.

In the Hebrew text, Elohim appears frequently in the patriarchal tradition in compound titles such as “God of Abraham” (Gen 28:13) or “God of my father” (Gen 31:5). This is suggestive of an early view of Israel’s God as a personal deity worshipped by Abraham and his descendants prior to the establishment of an Israelite state. Other titles from this period reflect similar personal relationships and conceptualize the deity in terms of salient agrarian ideals. For instance, Gen 49:24-25 refers to God as the “Mighty One [or Bull] of Jacob,” “Shepherd,” “Rock of Israel,” and “Almighty” (Hebrew Shaddai, referring to deity, mountains, breasts, or perhaps wilderness).

Some titles from the patriarchal literature are not well understood, such as “Fear/Thigh of Isaac” (Gen 31:42, Gen 31:53), which may reflect the salient attribute of Isaac’s imposing personal deity or, alternatively, may have something to do with progeny or offspring; the precise meaning is unclear. Similarly, “Possessor/Creator/Procreator of Heaven and Earth” in Gen 14:19, Gen 14:22 is a title attested elsewhere in the ancient Near East but not clearly understood.

The majority of titles applied to Yahweh throughout the rest of the Hebrew Bible are compounds combining Yahweh or El/Elohim with some predicate or noun phrase describing God’s benevolence or power, such as “Yahweh, Our Righteousness” (Jer 23:6), “My God, My King” (Ps 68:24), or “Yahweh, Creator of the Ends of the Earth” (Isa 40:28).

Interestingly, one early title for Yahweh, Baal, which means “Lord,” became maligned in later periods when the association with the non-Israelite deity Baal problematized its attribution to Yahweh. Eshbaal, “Man of the Lord” (1Chr 8:33), was one of Saul’s sons, but editors rhetorically altered the name to Ish-Bosheth, “Man of Shame,” in 2Sam 2:8. Hosea 2:16 also declares that, in the future, Israel will no longer refer to Yahweh as Baali, “My Lord,” but as Ishi, “My Husband.”

The portraits of Yahweh painted by these many names and titles are complex and sometimes contradictory, but they reveal the characteristics and personality of God that were central to the religious thought and lives of those who composed them.

  • Daniel O. McClellan

    Daniel O. McClellan is a scripture translation supervisor for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a Ph.D. student in theology and religion at the University of Exeter.