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Names of God in the Hebrew Bible

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The Oxford Companion to the Bible What is This? Provides authoritative interpretive entries on Biblical people, places, beliefs, events, and secular influences.

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    Names of God in the Hebrew Bible

    The Bible often refers to God by his proper name, which was probably pronounced Yahweh (see Tetragrammaton). In the Hebrew Bible, the consonants yhwh are usually to be read as Adonai (ʾădōnāy), “my Lord,” for the sake of reverence, and English versions represent the word by “Lord” or (less often) “God” in capital letters. The Hebrew word is a plural of majesty (with a singular meaning) of ʾādôn, which is translated “Lord” (e.g., Isa. 1.24; 3.1). The name Yahweh often appears in the phrase “Yahweh of hosts,” as the Hebrew is probably to be translated (cf. “Yahweh of Teman” or “of Samaria” in the Kuntillet ʿAjrud inscriptions of ca. 800 BCE), or the longer “Yahweh the God of hosts” (e.g., 2 Sam. 5.10). Some have thought that the hosts, Sabaoth (⊡ĕbāʾôt), are the armies of Israel (cf. 1 Sam. 17.45), but a reference to these human armies is inappropriate in, for instance, prophetic denunciations of Israel (e.g., Isa. 1.24), and the word probably denotes heavenly or angelic armies. Some maintain that Sabaoth is an epithet in apposition to Yahweh and that it means something like “the Mighty One,” but there is no evidence in Hebrew for such a meaning.

    The usual Hebrew word for God is Elohim (ʾĕlōhîm), another plural of majesty with a singular meaning when used of Yahweh. The singular form Eloah (ʾĕlōah) appears, mainly in the book of Job, but the most common singular noun for God is El (ʾēl), which has cognates in other Semitic languages and whose Ugaritic counterpart is used both for the chief god and as a general word for any god. The Israelites adopted this common Semitic word (cf. Gen. 33.20: El‐Elohe‐Israel, “El the God of Israel”), and some of the divine names compounded with El in the Hebrew Bible were probably originally used of non‐Israelite deities. In Genesis 14.18–20, 22, we find El Elyon (ʿēl ʿelyôn), “God Most High,” whose priest is Melchizedek but who is identified by Abram with Yahweh. The word Elyon is used of Yahweh in other places in the Bible (e.g., Pss. 18.13; 87.5). In the fourth century CE, Philo of Byblos is cited by Eusebius of Caesarea as referring to Elioun, the Most High (Greek hupsistos), as a Phoenician god (Praeparatio Evangelica 1.10.15). The Aramaic cognate of Elyon is ʿlyn (perhaps ʿelyān), and a god with this name appears alongside El in a treaty of the eighth century BCE from Sefire in Syria.

    The element El is found in divine names in Genesis, sometimes in connection with various places, such as Bethel, “the house of God” (cf. 28.19, 22), and we find El‐Bethel, “God of Bethel” (35.7; cf. 31.13). Thus, at a place in the desert there is El‐roi (“a God of seeing,” 16.13), and at Beer‐sheba there is El Olam (“the Everlasting God,” 21.33; cf. špš ʿlm in a Ugaritic letter, and šmš ʿlm in a Phoenician text of ca. 700 BCE, both of which mean “the eternal sun” god or goddess). Another name is El Shaddai, usually translated “God Almighty,” and the Priestly writer (P) in the Pentateuch maintains that God first made himself known by that name before revealing his name Yahweh (Exod. 6.3; cf. Gen. 17.1; 35.11; 43.14; 48.3). The name is not restricted to P, for it is found in a number of places (Num. 24.4, on the lips of Balaam, a non‐Israelite; Ruth 1.20–21; Job 5.17; etc.), and it is part of the names Zurishaddai and Ammishaddai (Num. 1.6, 12). It is perhaps related to an Akkadian word for “mountain.”

    It is uncertain whether El‐berith (“God of the covenant”) in Judges 9.46 refers to Yahweh, for this deity seems to be the same as Baal‐berith in 8.33; 9.4, and may be a Canaanite god. On the other hand, Baal, which means “lord,” was sometimes used of Yahweh in early times without necessarily always identifying him with the Canaanite god Baal. In 1 Chronicles 12.6, there is the personal name Bealiah, “Yah is Baal” (cf. yhwbʿl on an unpublished seal). Saul and Jonathan, who were worshipers of Yahweh, had sons named, respectively, Esh‐baal and Merib‐baal (1 Chron. 8.33–34), which were changed by editors to Ish‐bosheth and Mephibosheth (2 Sam. 2.8; 9.6; etc.), in which “bosheth” (“shame”) was substituted for “Baal.” Jerubbaal (Jerubbesheth in 2 Sam. 11.21), Gideon's other name, is probably to be explained similarly, notwithstanding the forced explanation in Judges 6.31–32. David also had a son named Beeliada (bʿlydʿ, 1 Chron. 14.7), probably identical with Eliada in other lists. Hosea 2.16 says that Israel will call God “my husband” (lit. “my man”) and no longer “my Baal” (i.e., “my lord,” another word for husband), which may imply that some Israelites addressed God in the latter way.

    Both God's holiness and his relation to his people are reflected in the phrase “the Holy One of Israel,” which is characteristic of the book of Isaiah. Although it is not strictly a name, it is relevant to mention this title here.

    Yahweh is frequently described as melek, “king” (e.g., Deut. 33.5; Pss. 29.10; 98.6), “a great king over all the earth” (Ps. 47.2; cf. 47.7; 48.2) or “above all gods” (Ps. 95.3), “my” or “our king” (Pss. 5.2; 47.6; 68.24; 74.12), or “the King of glory” (Ps. 24.7–10). He “reigns” or “has become king” (Pss. 47.8; 93.1; 96.10; 97.1; 99.1; Isa. 52.7), and he “will reign forever” (Exod. 15.18). Personal names include Malchiel (Gen. 46.17; Num. 26.45; 1 Chron. 7.31) and Malchiah (Jer. 21.1; 38.1, 6), meaning “El” or “Yah is king.” Isaiah sees a vision of “the King, Yahweh of hosts” (6.5).

    Various epithets and figures of speech are applied to God, but they cannot all be described as names or titles. In Genesis 15.1, Yahweh says to Abram “I am your shield” (cf. Ps. 84.11), but that does not prove the theory that “the Shield of Abraham” was a title. On the other hand, God is described as “the Fear of Isaac” (Gen. 31.42, 53)—the suggested alternative translation, “the Kinsman of Isaac,” lacks sufficient evidence—and as “the Mighty One of Jacob” (Gen. 49.24; etc.); these may be titles reflecting the special relationship of God with particular individuals. His relationship with people is also shown by names containing the element ʿāb, “father,” such as Abijah, Abiel, and Abra(ha)m. Yet although God was viewed thus (Jer. 31.9; Mal. 2.10; cf. 1.6), and could be addressed as “my (or our) Father” (Jer. 3.4; Isa. 63.16; 64.8), it is doubtful whether the evidence suffices to justify the claim that “Father” was a title, let alone a name.

    See also Jehovah

    .

    J. A. Emerton

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