Names of God

Elohim - YHWH - Yahweh - Adonai - Abba - Tetragrammaton

An early discussion by St. Jerome, in a Letter (XXV) to Marcella, written from Rome in 384 a.d., included these:

El, Elohim, Saba˘th, Eli˘n, Asher yeheyeh, Adonai, Jah, JHVH, and Shaddai

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The Divine Names as Vehicles of Revelation

Efforts to find the origins and significance of the Hebrew divine names in other ancient Near Eastern cultures have yielded generally disappointing results. One of the major reasons for this is that the ancient Hebrew theology invested these names with a uniqueness that renders investigation outside the narratives of the OT incapable of exploring fully their historical and religious significance.

Basic to ancient Hebrew religion is the concept of divine revelation. While God is conceived of as revealing his attributes and will in a number of ways in the OT, one of the most theologically significant modes of the divine self-disclosure is the revelation inherent in the names of God.

This aspect of divine revelation is established in the words of Exod. 6:3, "I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by my name the Lord [Yahweh] I did not make myself known to them." According to classical literary criticism, the verse teaches that the name Yahweh was unknown to the patriarchs. Thus, an ideological conflict exists between the Priestly author and the earlier Yahwist, who frequently put the name Yahweh on the lips of the patriarchs.

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However, the words "by my name Yahweh I did not make myself known to them" have a somewhat hollow ring if the name Yahweh is understood only as an appellative. The reason for this is that Moses asks in Exod. 3:13, "What is his name?" (mah-semo). M. Buber has demonstrated that the syntax of this question does not connote an inquiry as to the name of God but an inquiry into the character revealed by the name. He says, "Where the word 'what' is associated with the word 'name' the question asked is what finds expression in or lies concealed behind that name" (The Revelation and the Covenant, p. 48). J. Motyer also concludes, "In every case where ma is used with a personal association it suggests enquiry into sort or quality or character, whereas mi expects an answer instacing individuals, or, as in the case of rhetorical questions, calling attention to some external feature" (The Revelation of the Divine Name, 19).

Exod. 14:4 also supports the view that the name Yahweh embodies aspects of God's character. It says, "and the Egyptians will know that I am Yahweh." It is hardly likely that the intent of this assertion is that they would learn only the name of the Hebrew God.

In the light of these observations, the use of the concepts of the name of God in the early narratives of the book of Exodus is far broader than simply the name by which the Hebrew God was known. It has a strong element of divine self-disclosure within it.

The corpus of divine names compounded with el and a descriptive adjunct also support this concept. The very fact that the adjunctive element is descriptive is an indication of its value as a source of theological content.

Typical of this type of name is el rot ("God who sees"; Gen. 16:13) and el olam ("God eternal"; Gen. 21:33). These el names sometimes emerge from a specific historical situation that illuminates their significance.

The Meaning of the Divine Names

Yahweh, Jehovah (LORD)

Efforts to determine the meaning of the tetragrammaton (YHWH) through historical investigation have been rendered difficult by the paucity of informative data relative to the various forms of the name ya in historical sources outside the OT. For this reason the investigation has generally followed philological lines. G. R. Driver suggested that the form ya was originally an ejaculatory cry, "shouted in moments of excitement or ecstasy," that was "prologued to ya(h)wa(h), ya(h)wa(h)y, or the like." He suggested further that the name Yahweh arose from the consonance of an extended form of ya with the "imperfect tense of a defective verb." Thus, he saw the origin of the name in a popular etymology and asserted that its original form was forgotten (ZAW 46:24).

Mowinckel proposed the theory that the tetragrammaton should be understood as consisting of the ejaculatory element and the third person pronoun hu,' meaning "O He!"

Another approach to the problem is to understand the tetragrammaton as a form of paronomasia. This view takes account of the broad representation of the name ya in extrabiblical cultures of the second millennium B.C. The name Yahweh is thus understood as a quadriliteral form, and the relationship of the name of haya ("to be") in Exod. 3:14-15 is not intended to be one of etymology but paronomasia.

The most common view is that the name is a form of a triliteral verb, hwy. It is generally regarded as a 3 p. Qal stem imperfect or a 3 p. imperfect verb in a causative stem. Another suggestion is that it is a causative participle with a y preformative that should be translated "Sustainer, Maintainer, Establisher."

With regard to the view that the tetragrammaton is an elongated form of an ejaculatory cry, it may be pointed out that Semitic proper names tend to shorten; they are not normally prolonged. The theory that the name is paronomastic is attractive, but when appeal is made to the occurrences of forms of ya or yw in ancient cultures, several problems arise. It is difficult to explain how the original form could have lengthened into the familiar quadriliteral structure. Mowinckel's suggestion is attractive, but speculative. It is also difficult to understand how the name Yahweh could have such strong connotations of uniqueness in the OT if it is a form of a divine name that found representation in various cultures in the second millennium B.C.

The derivation of the tetragrammaton from a verbal root is also beset with certain difficulties. The root hwy on which the tetragrammaton would be based in this view is unattested in West Semitic languages before the time of Moses, and the form of the name is not consonant with the rules that govern the formation of lamed he verbs as we know them.

It is evident that the problem is a difficult one. It is best to conclude that the use of etymology to determine the theological content of the name Yahweh is tenuous. If one is to understand the theological significance of the divine name, it can be only be determining the theological content with which the name was invested in Hebrew religion.

Jah, Yah

This shorter form of Yahweh occurs twice in Exodus (15:2 and 17:15). The former passage is echoed in Isa. 12:2 and Ps. 118:14. It also occurs numerous times in the formula haleluya ("praise yah"). Its use in early and late poetic passages and its formulaic function in the Hallel psalms suggest that this form of Yahweh is a poetic stylistic device.

The compounding of yah with Yahweh in Isa. 12:2 (yah yhwh) indicates a separate function for the form yah, but at the same time an identification of the form with Yahweh.

Yahweh Seba'ot ("Lord of Hosts")

The translation "He creates the heavenly hosts" has been suggested for this appellative. It is based on the assumption that Yahweh functions as a verbal form in a causative stem. This conclusion is rendered difficult by the fact that the formula occurs in the expanded form yhwh elohe sebaot ("Yahweh God of hosts"), which attributes the function of a proper name to Yahweh. The word seba'ot means "armies" or "hosts." It is best to understand Yahweh as a proper name in association with the word "armies."


The root of Elohim is El (el). The form elohim is a plural form commonly understood as a plural of majesty. While the word occurs in Canaanite ('l) and Akkadian (ilu[m]), its etymology is uncertain. In the OT the word is always construed in the singular when it denotes the true God. In the Pentateuch the name elohim connotes a general concept of God; that is, it portrays God as the transcendent being, the creator of the universe. It does not connote the more personal and palpable concepts inherent in the name Yahweh. It can also be used to apply to false gods as well as to judges and kings.


El has the same general range of meaning as Elohim. It is apparently the root on which the plural form has been constructed. It differs in usage from Elohim only in its use in theophoric names and to serve to contrast the human and the divine. Sometimes it is combined with yah to become Elyah.

El Elyon ("God Most High")

The word 'elyon, an adjective meaning "high," is derived from the root 'lh ("to go up" or "ascend"). It is used to describe the height of objects (II Kings 15:35; 18:17; Ezek. 41:7) as well as the prominence of persons (Ps. 89:27) and the prominence of Israel as a nation (Deut. 26:19; 28:1). When used of God it connotes the concept of "highest."

The name El Elyon occurs only in Gen. 14: 18-22 and Ps. 78:35, although God is known by the shorter title Elyon in a significant number of passages.

There is a superlative connotation in the word 'elyon. In each case in which the adjective occurs it denotes that which is highest or uppermost. In Deut. 26:19 and 28:1 the superlative idea is apparent in the fact that Israel is to be exalted above the nations. The use of the word in I Kings 9:8 and II Chr. 7:21 may not seem to reflect a superlative idea, but there is, as C. F. Keil suggests, an allusion to Deut. 26:19 and 28:1, where the superlative idea exists. The superlative is also evident in the use of the word in Ps. 97:9, where it connotes Yahweh's supremacy over the other gods.

El Shaddai

The etymology of sadday is obscure. It has been connected with the Akkadian sadu ("mountain") by some. Others have suggested a connection with the word "breast," and still others have seen a connection with the verb sadad ("to devastate"). The theological significance of the name, if it can be understood fully, must be derived from a study of the various contexts in which the name occurs.

The name Shaddai frequently appears apart from El as a divine title.


This appellation occurs only in Gen. 33:20 as the name of the altar that marked the place of Jacob's encounter with God. It denotes the unique significance of El as the God of Jacob.


The root 'dn occurs in Ugaritic with the meanings "lord and father." If the word originally connoted "father," it is not difficult to understand how the connotation "lord" developed from that. The basic meaning of the word in the OT is "lord."

Critical to the understanding of the meaning of the word is the suffix ay. It is commonly suggested that the ending is the first person possessive suffix on a plural form of 'adon ("my lord"). This is plausible for the form adonay, but the heightened form adonay, which also appears in the Massoretic text, is more difficult to explain, unless it represents an effort on the part of the Massoretes "to mark the word as sacred by a small external sign."

Attention has been drawn to the Ugaritic ending -ai, which is used in that language "as a reinforcement of a basic word," However, it is doubtful that this explanation should be applied in all cases. The plural construction of the name is evident when the word occurs in the construct as it does in the appellation "Lord of lords" ('adone ha adonim) in Deut. 10:17. And the translation "my Lord" seems to be required in such vocative addresses as "my Lord Yahweh, what will you give me?" (Gen. 15:2; see also Exod. 4:10).

It appears, then, that it is best to understand the word as a plural of majesty with a first person suffixual ending that was altered by the Massoretes to mark the sacred character of the name.

Other Divine Names

The name Baali occurs only once, in Hos. 2:16 (AV; "My Baal," RSV) in a play on words. The word means "my husband," as does isi, the word with which it is paired.

Ancient of Days is an appellation applied to God in Dan. 7. It occurs with other depictions of great age (vs. 9) to create the impression of noble venerability.

Abba is an alternate Aramaic term for "father." It is the word that Jesus used to address God in Mark 14:36. Paul pairs the word with the Greek word for "father" in Rom. 8:15 and Gal. 4:6.

The 'alep that terminates the form 'abba' functions as both a demonstrative and a vocative particle in Aramaic. In the time of Jesus the word connoted both the emphatic concept, "the father," and the more intimate "my father, our father."

While the word was the common form of address for children, there is much evidence that in the time of Jesus the practice was not limited only to children. The childish character of the word ("daddy") thus receded, and 'abba' acquired the warm, familiar ring which we may feel in such an expression as "dear father."

The Theological Significance of the Divine Names


The parallel structure in Exod. 3:14-15 supports the association of the name Yahweh with the concept of being or existence. It says, "I AM has sent me to you" (vs. 14; "The LORD has sent me to you" (vs. 15). The name "I AM" is based on the clause "I AM WHO I AM" found in 3:14 which, on the basis of the etymology implied here, suggests that Yahweh is the 3.p. form of the verb 'ehyeh (I am).

The clause 'ehyeh'aser 'ehyeh has been translated in several ways, "I am that I am" (AV), "I am who I am" (RSV, NIV), and "I will be what I will be" (RSV margin). Recently the translation "I am (the) One who is" has been suggested. The latter translation has much in its favor grammatically and fits the context well.

The main concern of the context is to demonstrate that a continuity exists in the divine activity from the time of the patriarchs to the events recorded in Exod. 3. The Lord is referred to as the God of the fathers (vss. 13, 15, 16). The God who made the gracious promises regarding Abraham's offspring is the God who is and who continues to be. The affirmation of vs. 17 is but a reaffirmation of the promise made to Abraham. The name Yahweh may thus affirm the continuing activity of God on behalf of his people in fealty to his promise.

Jesus' application of the words "I am" to himself in John 8:58 not only denoted his preexistence but associated him with Yahweh. Jesus was the fulfillment of the promise given to Abraham, the fulfillment of which Abraham anticipated (John 8:56).

In the Pentateuch, Yahweh denotes that aspect of God's character that is personal rather than transcendent. It occurs in contexts in which the covenantal and redemptive aspects of God predominate. Cassuto says, "The name YHWH is employed when God is presented to us in His personal character and in direct relationship to people or nature; and 'Elohim, when the Deity is alluded to as a Transcendental Being who exists completely outside and above the physical universe" (The Documentary Hypothesis, p. 31). This precise distinction does not always obtain outside the Pentateuch, but Yahweh never loses its distinct function as the designation of the God of Israel.

The name Yahweh Sabaoth appears for the first time in Israel's history in connection with the cult center at Shiloh (1 Sam. 1:3). It is there that the tent of meeting was set up when the land of Canaan had been subdued by the Israelites (Josh. 18:1). The name apparently had its origin in the period of the conquest or the postconquest period. It does not occur in the Pentateuch.

It is possible that the name was attributed to Yahweh as a result of the dramatic appearance to Joshua of an angelic being called the "commander of the host of Yahweh" at the commencement of the conquest (Josh. 5:13-15). The name would thus depict the vast power at Yahweh's disposal in the angelic hosts.

The association of this name with the ark of the covenant in I Sam. 4:4 is significant in that Yahweh is enthroned above the angelic figures known as the cherubim (II Sam. 6:2). Because the name was associated with the ark of the covenant, David addressed the people in that name when the ark was recovered from the Philistines (II Sam. 6:18). The name is often associated with the military activities of Israel (I Sam. 15:2-3; II Sam. 5:10).

The almighty power of Yahweh displayed in this name is manifested in the sphere of history (Pss. 46:6-7; 59:5). His power may be displayed in the life of the individual (Ps. 69:6) as well as the nation (Ps. 80:7). Sometimes he is simply referred to as "the Almighty."

The military connotation of the name was not lost, even in the eighth century, for Isaiah appeals to that name to depict the hosts of heaven that accompany Yahweh in his intervention in history (Isa. 13:4).


This is the more general name for God. In the Pentateuch, when used as a proper name, it most commonly denotes the more transcendental aspects of God's character. When God is presented in relation to his creation and to the peoples of the earth in the Pentateuch, the name Elohim is the name most often used. It is for this reason that Elohim occurs consistently in the creation account of Gen. 1:1-2:42 and in the genealogies of Genesis. Where the context takes on a moral tone, as in Gen. 2:4bff., the name Yahweh is used.

Throughout Genesis and the early chapters of Exodus elohim is used most often as a proper name. After Exod. 3 the name begins to occur with increasing frequency as an appellative, that is, "the God of," or "your God." This function is by far the most frequent mode of reference to God in the book of Deuteronomy. When used in this fashion the name denotes God as the supreme deity of a person or people. Thus, in the frequent expression, "Yahweh your God," Yahweh functions as a proper name, while "God" functions as the denominative of deity.

The appellative elohim connotes all that God is. As God he is sovereign, and that sovereignty extends beyond Israel into the arena of the nations (Deut. 2:30, 33; 3:22; Isa. 52:10). As God to his people he is loving and merciful (Deut. 1:31; 2:7; 23:5; Isa. 41:10, 13, 17; 49:5; Jer. 3:23). He establishes standards of obedience (Deut. 4:2; Jer. 11:3) and sovereignly punishes disobedience (Deut. 23:21). As God, there is no one like him (Isa. 44:7; 45:5-21).

The same connotations obtain in the use of the shorter form el. He is the God who sees (el ro i; Gen. 16:13) and he is el the God of Israel (Gen. 33:20).

As El Elyon, God is described in his exaltation over all things. There are two definitive passages for this name. In Ps. 83:18 Yahweh is described as "Most High over the earth," and Isa. 14:14 states, "I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will make myself like the Most High."

However, in the majority of cases the attributes of this name are indistinguishable from other usages of El or Elohim. He fixed the boundaries of the nations (Deut. 32:8). He effects changes in the creation (Ps. 18:13). El Shaddai occurs most frequently in the Book of Job, where it functions as a general name for the deity. As El Shaddai, God disciplines (Job 5:17); he is to be feared (Job 6:14); he is just (Job 8:3); he hears prayer (Job 8:5); and he creates (Job 33:4).

This name occurs six times in the patriarchal narratives. In most of those instances it is associated with the promise given by God to the patriarchs. Yet the name is often paired with Yahweh in the poetic material, and thus shares the personal warmth of that name. He is known for his steadfast love (Ps. 21:7) and his protection (Ps. 91:9-10).

The root of Adonai means "lord" and, in its secular usage, always refers to a superior in the OT. The word retains the sense of "lord" when applied to God. The present pointing of the word in the Massoretic text is late; early manuscripts were written without vowel pointing.

In Ps. 110:1 the word is pointed in the singular, as it usually is when it applies to humans rather than God. Yet Jesus used this verse to argue for his deity. The pointing is Massoretic, and no distinction would be made in the consonantal texts. Since the word denotes a superior, the word must refer to one who is superior to David and who bears the messianic roles of king and priest (vs. 4).

The name Abba connotes the fatherhood of God. This is affirmed by the accompanying translation ho pater ("father") which occurs in each usage of the name in the NT (Mark 14:36; Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6).

The use of this name as Jesus' mode of address to God in Mark 14:36 is a unique expression of Jesus' relationship to the Father. Jeremias says, "He spoke to God like a child to its father, simply, inwardly, confidently. Jesus' use of abba in addressing God reveals the heart of his relationship with God" (The Prayers of Jesus, p. 62).

The same relationship is sustained by the believer with God. It is only because of the believer's relationship with God, established by the Holy Spirit, that he can address God with this name that depicts a relationship of warmth and filial love.

In a sense the relationship designated by this name is the fulfillment of the ancient promise given to Abraham's offspring that the Lord will be their God, and they his people (Exod. 6:7; Lev. 26:12; Jer. 24:7; 30:22).

T E McComiskey
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

W.F. Albright, From Stone Age to Christianity; W. Eichrodt, Theology of the OT,I, 178ff.; L. Koehler, OT Theology; J. Schneider et al., NIDNTT, II, 66ff.; G. Oehler, Theology of the OT; M. Reisel, The Mysterious Name of Y.H.W.H.; H.H. Rowley, The Faith of Israel; H. Schultz, OT Theology, II, 116ff.; T. Vriezen, An Outline of OT Theology; H. Kleinknecht et al., TDNT, III, 65ff.


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Tetragrammaton is the designation for the four (tetra) letters (grammata) in the Hebrew Bible for the name of the God of Israel, yhwh. The name was God's particular revelation to Moses and the Israelites (Exod. 6:2-3). It signifies that the God of Israel, unlike pagan deities, is present with his people to deliver them, to fulfill his promises to them, and to grant them his blessings. The pronunciation of the tetragrammaton yhwh was lost when the Jews avoided its usage for fear of descrating the holy name (cf. Exod. 20:7). In OT times the name was pronounced and was at times used in theophoric names, which can be recognized in our Bibles by the prefixes Jo- or Jeho- (cf. Jonathan and Jehoiada) and the suffix -jah (Adonijah). The pronunciation fell into disuse after the Exile when the Jews began to pay careful attention to the practice of the law.

The translators of the Septuagint consistently avoided the name and substituted the title Kyrios ("Lord"). This reflects the Jewish practice of reading Adonai (Heb. adonay) "Lord" for yhwh or reading Elohim (Heb. elohim) in place of the Hebrew compound yhwh adonay to avoid the duplication of adonay. The vowels of adonay (a-o-a) were placed under the tetragrammaton to remind the reader that he was not to pronounce yhwh but instead was to read the word as adonay. Christians who were unaware of this substitution read the vowels as if they actually belonged to yhwh, which resulted in the English form "YeHoWaH" or JeHoVaH" (the a of adonay having been reduced to e under the y of yhwh).

The ASV of 1901 adopted the practice of using the name "Jehovah", whereas most English versions continued the established practice of translating the tetragrammaton by LORD (capital letters) to distinguish it from "Lord" (Adonai). Many scholars accept the widely held opinion that the tetragrammaton is a form of the root hyh ("be") and should be pronounced as "Yahweh" ("He who brings into being"; cf. Exod. 3:12, "I will be with you" and "I will be who I will be", vs. 14). Regardless of the editorial decision of substituting LORD for yhwh or of using the divine name "Yahweh," the reader must keep in mind that LORD, Yahweh, or yhwh is the name of God that he revealed to his ancient people. In reading the text of the OT, one should develop a feeling for the usage of the name itself over against such usages as "God" or "Lord" (Exod. 3:15; 6:3; Pss. 102:16, 22; 113:1-3; 135:1-6; 148:5, 13). The Messiah has a name, Jesus, so the God of the OT has revealed himself by a name yhwh and a blessing is lost when no attention is paid to the difference in usage of a title and the actual name of the God of Israel.

Let them praise the name of the LORD, for his name alone is exalted; his splendor is above the earth and the heavens.

W A Van Gemeren
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

Also, see:
Arguments for the Existence of God

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in December 1997.

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