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Names of God

The Hebrew word "YHWH" (read from right to left)
This past Sunday I gave a talk on the Names of God, the beginning of a series on this topic. This first talk was to be a gentle introduction so I thought it wouldn't take too many hours of preparation. Well, I quickly discovered that the research is almost bottomless; every time I thought I had a somewhat definitive list of names, I found another source which added a few more or gave a different twist on some of the names I had already come across. After several hours I was getting overwhelmed by the sheer amount of data (and that was only looking at the Hebrew Bible). I wondered how I could present this to people in an orderly and accessible fashion and within a reasonable time frame. Not everyone is up for a 3-hour lecture crammed full of detail on a Sunday morning.

So I took a break and spent a bit of time meditating on this problem and asking the Spirit for guidance. And then I thought that being overwhelmed by God was perhaps a good thing. In the English language, we have quite a thin concept of God, something like this: "a superhuman being or spirit worshiped as having power over nature or human fortunes." In our culture, a name is mostly a means of identification, but in biblical times, a name told you something about a person's identity. So when we come across the many different names of God in scripture, they tell us who God is, what God does, and how this God is different from all other gods. These names paint a sort of multi-dimensional portrait which lets us see God from many angles and in many situations. And the names are not just a list of descriptors; behind every name is a story, a living example of God acting and relating to people and the world.

The four basic names used for God in the Hebrew Bible are:
1. YHWH (translated as Yahweh, Jehovah, LORD). This word is used over 6500 times and means "Existing One" or "Eternal One." It is derived from the verb "to be" or "to exist." In Hebrew tradition, it is the holy name of God, too holy to speak except by the high priest in the temple (this is why the pronunciation of it is unclear). Because this is the name introduced in the second creation story in Genesis 2, it speaks of the closeness of God to humanity (forming humans, breathing life into them).
2. Elohim. This name is used about 2600 times, is in plural form (which gives space for trinitarian interpretations), and basically means "god," inferring Strong One, Judge of the Universe, Creator. This is the name found in Genesis 1 in the first creation story.
3. Adonai. This word is used just over 430 times and means "lord" or "master." It is mostly found in plural form when referring to God. The singular (adon) is used mostly for human males. David calls Saul adon and Sarah calls her husband adon. It always infers the possessive and should be translated "my lord."
4. Immanuel. This name is only used twice and refers to the Messiah. It means "God with us" and speaks of a tribe, people, and togetherness.

An interesting side note here is that in Hebrew the verb "to be" is not used very often. When used, it indicates that the subject is doing something which defines it. For instance, if I were to say "Dean is in the kitchen," I would not merely be telling you where he is, but telling you that cooking for guests and enjoying good food IS what Dean is about. It is who Dean is. It is Dean-like behaviour. So when God says to Moses, "I am who I am," in part it refers to knowing God by his actions.

What we find throughout the Hebrew Bible are many names of God, many of them linking YHWH with Elohim (usually translated as LORD God). As well, both of these names are often linked to descriptors. It is actually quite eye-opening to read the Names of God Bible (2011) which includes transliterations of the ancient names. It gives the reader a sense of richness when it comes to knowing who God is, much more than is evident in English. The names reveal who this God is both through word (the descriptive names) and action (the accompanying stories).

I came across something a few weeks ago which talked about God having an identity that sought not simply to achieve tangible results, but to "forge inexhaustible relationships."[1] I like that and I believe looking at the different God-names is a step in this direction. Below is a list of compound names of God found in the Hebrew Bible. It is not exhaustive but a pretty good start. Some of these names are only used once, some make more frequent appearances, but I invite you to read through this list and let yourself be overwhelmed. Let yourself by mystified. Let yourself be undone. And if a name jumps out at you, perhaps you want to ask God to reveal that aspect of his character to you in a deeper way. Let us bring ourselves into this inexhaustible relationship.

El-Elyon: God Most High
El-Haggadol: The Great God
El-Gibbor: Mighty God, warrior, champion
El-De'ot: God of knowledge
El-Yeshurun: God of a righteous people
El-Hakkavod: God of Glory
El-Hakkadosh: Holy God
El-Hashamayim: God of the heavens
El-Chaiyai: God of my Life
El-Channun: Gracious God
El-Yisrael: God of Israel
El-Sali: God of my strength
El-Rachum: God of compassion (womb)
El-malei Rachamim: All merciful God
El-Yeshuati: God of salvation
El-Yeshuatenu: God of our salvation
El-Kanno: Jealous God
El-Olam: Eternal God
El-Roi: God who sees
El-Shaddai: Lord God Almighty, God the all-sufficient One
El-Hannora: the Awesome God
YHWH Nissi: The Lord my Banner
YHWH Rapha: The Lord Heals
YHWH Shammah: The Lord is There
YHWH Tsidkenu: The Lord our Righteousness
YHWH Mekoddishkem: The Lord who Sanctifies you
YHWH Jireh: The Lord will Provide
YHWH Shalom: The Lord is Peace
YHWH Sabaoth: Lord of Hosts, Armies
YHWH Adon Kal Ha'arets: Lord of Earth
YHWH Bara: Lord Creator
YHWH Chatsahi: Lord my Strength
YHWH Chereb: Lord the Sword
YHWH Eli: Lord my God
YHWH Elyon: Lord Most High
YHWH Gador Milchamah: Lord mighty in battle
YHWH Ganan: Lord our Defense
YHWH Go'el: Lord my Redeemer
YHWH Hamalech: Lord King
YHWH Hashopet: Lord my Judge
YHWH Helech 'Olam: Lord King Forever
YHWH Hoshe'ah: Lord Saves
YHWH Kabodhi: Lord my Glory
YHWH Kanna: Lord Jealous
YHWH Keren Yish'i: Lord Horn of Salvation
YHWH M'Kaddesh: Lord Sanctifier
YHWH Machsi: Lord my Refuge
YHWH Magen: Lord my Shield
YHWH Ma'oz: Lord my Fortress
YHWH Mephalti: Lord my Deliverer
YHWH Metshodhathi: Lord my Fortress
YHWH Misqabbi: Lord my High Tower
YHWH Naheh: Lord who Smites
YHWH Rohi: Lord Shepherd
YHWH Sel'i: Lord my Rock
YHWH Tsori: Lord my Strength
YHWH Yasha: Lord my Savior
YHWH 'Ez-Lami: Lord my Strength
YHWH 'Immeku: Lord is with you
YHWH 'Izoa Hakaboth: Lord Strong Mighty
YHWH 'Ori: Lord my Light
YHWH 'Uzam: Lord Strength in Trouble

[1] Living Without Enemies by Samuel Wells and Marcia A. Owen.

Comments

rdflores said…
Hi Matte,

Just wanted to point out that the oldest Hebrew vocalized codices (The Aleppo and Leningrad codices) give the pronunciation to be Yehovah. Here is some more information from Karaite Jew who worked on the translation Dead Sea Scrolls http://karaite-korner.org/yhwh_2.pdf.

A big hug!
Ricardo
Matte Downey said…
Thanks, Ricardo!
Shelley said…
love this Matte, thanks for overwhelming me with God today. I'm breathing a little more deeply now.

these days when most people think God is whoever you think he is, it is often on my heart to define him and distinguish him from other gods. They are not all the same god. And knowing who we worship is very important.

so thanks.

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