When the prophet Jonah, on a ship in the Mediterranean, was asked by his fellow travelers who he was, he answered: “I am a Hebrew. I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (Jonah 1:9). From this passage, it is clear that the Hebrews referred to their God as both “God” (Hebrew, Elohim) and “the Lord” (Yahweh). Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, God is called Adonai (also translated as “Lord”);a El and Eloah (also rendered as “God”); Shaddai, traditionally translated as “the Almighty”; El Elyon, the “Upper God” or “Most High”; and Yahweh Elohim, the “Lord God”—to name just a few of God’s names (see the sidebar to this article, “From Adonai to Yahweh: A Glossary of God’s Names”).
Why does God have so many names? There are as many reasons as there are names.
Today, scholars attribute some of the different names to different biblical authors; indeed, two of the four major authorial strands that scholars believe are woven together in the Bible are identified by the name of God that they use: E, or the Elohist strand, uses the name Elohim; J, the Yahwist strand, employs Yahweh (in German, Jahweh). (The other two major strands are called P, the Priestly Code, and D, the Deuteronomist.) But enthusiasm for splitting apart these strands has led us to forget that there are many other literary, theological and historical reasons for using a variety of names for God in the Bible.
Consider this passage from the Book of Psalms:
It is for you, O Yahweh, that I wait,
it is you, O Adonai, my God [Elohim], who will answer.
(Psalm 38:15; Hebrews 38:16)
In two lines, we find three words for the Hebrew God. The names are not used simply for variety’s sake; instead the poet is trying to produce a cumulative effect. The repetition is meant to impress the listener, as in this passage from Isaiah:
For your Maker is your husband.
Lord of Hosts [Yahweh tseva’ot] is his name;
the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer,
the God of the Whole Earth he is called.
This kind of repetitive parallelism is common in the poetry of the Hebrew Bible. When applied to the name of God, it creates a numinous atmosphere of majesty and awe. God is so mighty that it takes more than one name to capture his essence.
The various names also help to characterize God. The divine name Yahweh, the personal name of the Israelite God, is often used in reference to the history of the people of Israel. Yahweh is found in the stories of the Exodus from Egypt, the life of Moses and the revelation of the Law at Mt. Sinai. Yahweh is a stern, austere figure, prone to getting angry and meting out punishment. Elohim is the God of Genesis 1. He is the universal God, the Creator and the ruler of all Creation. Compared with Yahweh, he generally appears to be an intrinsically kindly god.
The myth of Adam and Eve and Paradise lost in Genesis 2 takes a mediating position: It uses both names, referring to God as Yahweh Elohim. By using the name Elohim, the narrator of Genesis 2 highlights this God’s role as creator of all humankind; the addition of the name Yahweh gives the story a more specifically Israelite cast, one that encourages readers to read the account as an allegory for Israel’s later history. The expulsion from the Garden, for example, comes to be interpreted as a precursor to the deportation of the Judahites from Israel in the sixth century B.C.E.
The story of God’s multiple names is further complicated by the fact that within the biblical era the name Yahweh came to be considered a particularly sacred name, one that should be used with caution or not at all. When and by whom a sacred taboo was placed on the name Yahweh to restrict its pronunciation remains unknown. In modern Judaism, the name Yahweh is not spoken. Presumably when scriptural passages were read aloud in ancient synagogues, the reader simply replaced Yahweh with Adonai (literally, “My Lord”) or some other word. In the second century B.C.E., when the Pentateuch was translated from Hebrew into Greek for the Greek-speaking Jewish community of Alexandria, the divine name Yahweh was replaced by kyrios, the Greek word for “the Lord.”
In the Hebrew Bible we can detect some awareness of this taboo. The name Yahweh was apparently deleted from many passages in Psalms 42 through 83 at a very early stage and replaced with Elohim.b This not only protected the writer and reader from any taboos surrounding the name Yahweh, it also gave these psalms a more universal message: They speak not just of the God of the Israelites, Yahweh, but of the universal creator God, Elohim. Elsewhere in the Bible, we find just the opposite happening. In the Book of Proverbs, for example, the name Elohim was almost completely eliminated, or so it seems. A stray Elohim overlooked by the editor can be found in the Book of Proverbs 25:2: “It is the glory of God [Elohim] to conceal things, but the glory of Kings to search things out.” Perhaps the scribes who introduced the name Yahweh wanted to give the text more of an Israelite flavor.
The Bible itself offers an explanation for God’s multiple names. In Exodus, God tells Moses, “I am Yahweh. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai, but by my name Yahweh I did not make myself known to them” (Exodus 6:2–3). The biblical narrator clearly wanted to make sense of the two names, and so decided El Shaddai, traditionally translated as “God Almighty,” was an early name used in the Patriarchal period, and that Yahweh was used only from Moses’ time on. Modern historians generally reject the idea of two periods using two different divine names. Incidentally, the introduction of the divine name Yahweh through Moses, as explained in this passage from Exodus, is contradicted by a statement in Genesis, which explains that the name of Yahweh was introduced much earlier, during one of the earliest generations of human existence. In the days of Adam’s son Seth, Genesis 4:26 tells us, “the people began to invoke the name of Yahweh.”
Although this simplistic notion of an early name and a late one has been dismissed by modern scholars, the multiple names of the Bible do offer a glimpse of early Israel’s polytheistic beliefs. This is apparent in the song Moses sings beside the Reed Sea:
When the Most High [Elyon]
apportioned the nations,
when he divided humankind,
he fixed the boundaries of the peoples
according to the number of the gods;
Yahweh’s own portion was his people,
Jacob his allotted share.
Here the Most High and Yahweh are two different deities occupying two different levels of the pantheon. The Most High is the superior deity who is responsible for divvying up the nations; Yahweh and several unnamed lesser gods receive their individual portions from him. With the introduction of monotheism, the Most High and Yahweh were merged; they became just two of the many names for the same God. Thus, the Psalm 7:17 reads:
I will praise the Lord [Yahweh]
for his righteousness,
and sing a hymn to the name
of the Lord Most High [Yahweh Elyon].
Perhaps this hymn should have been dedicated to the names instead, for it includes two in this short passage.
Why does God have so many names? It’s no mistake. It’s not a case of sloppy editing. It’s because the multiple names best characterize the awesomely complex figure of God.
The glossary that follows is provided as a handy reference to God’s many names.
When the prophet Jonah, on a ship in the Mediterranean, was asked by his fellow travelers who he was, he answered: “I am a Hebrew. I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (Jonah 1:9). From this passage, it is clear that the Hebrews referred to their God as both “God” (Hebrew, Elohim) and “the Lord” (Yahweh). Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, God is called Adonai (also translated as “Lord”);a El and Eloah (also rendered as “God”); Shaddai, traditionally translated as “the Almighty”; El Elyon, the “Upper God” or “Most High”; […]