Have you ever read the Bible, especially the Old Testament and thought God seems to be called by a lot of names? Who is this Yahweh, Elohim, El Roi, Adonai, Savior, Redeemer, and Angel of the Lord? What happened to the simple Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? There are in fact, dozens of ways in which the people of Israel referred to God. Many of these names are revealed to us in Genesis and the rest of the Torah. This multiplicity of names can be a little confusing for those who don’t know ancient Hebrew. So we thought we’d do our best to open up this fascinating can of worms and show you why it’s important to understand the many ancient names of God.
People, Place, and Time
Understanding the ancient cultural context of the people, places, and times of the Bible is important for grasping what is actually going on in a particular story within the Bible. In other words, when God reveals himself to people, he does so in exactly the language, concepts, and cultural context of those specific people. To understand the significance of the Bible for our time, we have to understand the ancient meaning of these texts within their own time. The various names of God in the book of Genesis are connected to the ways Ancient Near Eastern people thought about the gods. As we will see, the names given to God are a response to the religious ideas held by the Canaanites (an ancient people group) and an effort to redirect their attention to the God of Israel.
El or Elohim
Among ancient Israel’s neighbors, people referred to the most powerful god as “El,” which is not actually a name, but an ancient Semitic title, “god.” It could refer to many gods, but the chief deity of all the other gods was simply titled “El,” meaning “THE god.” In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for God is most often Elohim, which is used over 2,000 times to refer to the God of Israel and a few dozen times in reference to other gods. You can see by the shape of the word that “El-ohim” is a longer form of “El.” The Israelites also used the short form “El,” though it’s found mainly in the poetry of the Old Testament. Because both of the words El and Elohim are translated into English as “God,” you won’t notice the difference unless you read in Hebrew.
There are other variations of El, like “Elo’ah” (an Aramaic variation) or “El Elyon,” which means “God Most High” (see Genesis 14:18), or “El Shaddai,” which most likely means “God of power” (see Genesis 17:1). But while the Israelites used the various titles of their Canaanite neighbors, they did not believe the gods of their neighbors were the one true God. They actually believed that all these words pointed to the God who revealed himself to Abraham and Moses—and this God had a name.
Remember, in English and in Hebrew, the word “God” (or El, or Elohim) is not a name, but a generic title for a deity that could be applied to other, lesser, spiritual beings. Neither the ancient Israelites, Jesus, nor the early Christians believed that their God was the only spiritual being that existed. There were many such beings who were lesser than the one true God because they were created, not the Creator. But they were real beings nonetheless, so they are called “Elohim,” or “gods” in the Old Testament (see some examples in Genesis 35:2; Joshua 24:2; Psalm 136:2). For example, to the north of Israel lived the ancient Syrians, and their chief god was called “Baal” (familiar from the stories about Elijah, see 1 Kings 18. The Moabites to the east worshipped Chemosh (see 1 Kings 11).
Yet the Israelites were unique in that they gave their allegiance to a deity that was not named or worshipped anywhere else in the ancient world. This God’s name was “Yahweh” (perhaps originally “Yahuwah”). The name was first revealed to Moses according to Exodus 3:12-15. The stories about Abraham in Genesis make it clear that this was the God Abraham related to as “El” or “El-Elyon,” and so on. “Yahweh” means “He will be,” which will spin your brain a bit. It’s a fitting name for the eternal Creator of all things, a profound statement that this God is the ultimate author of all reality, the one without beginning or end.
Much later in Israel’s history (around the 3rd or 2nd century B.C.E.), people stopped pronouncing Yahweh’s name aloud, likely as a form of reverence. When they came across the letters for “Yahweh” in the Bible, they would not say “Yahweh,” but replaced it with the Hebrew word for “Lord,” pronounced adonai.
Much later, in the 6th and 7th centuries C.E., Jewish scribes made a really cool manuscript reminder for readers to not pronounce the name. They left the letters of Yahweh’s name in the biblical text (YHWH), but inserted the vowel sounds of the word “Lord,” or adonai. The result in the Hebrew text was a hybrid word yehovah, that corresponded to no actual Hebrew word that any Israelite ever said aloud.
The irony of course, is that later European Christians who tried to learn Hebrew didn’t know this wasn’t the real, divine name. The name “Jehovah” entered Christian history and has remained ever since.
What About the Rest?
The God you find in the Old Testament is not different from the God revealed through Jesus Christ in the Gospels, nor the God that Paul spoke about in the New Testament. However, the Greeks and Romans they spoke to had many different ideas about the gods, which is why you find many various titles and names for God in the New Testament (pronounced in Greek as theos).
Just like the Old Testament authors claimed that their various titles for “God” all referred to the one true God known as “Yahweh,” the apostles who wrote the New Testament believed that Jesus was the physical embodiment of Yahweh himself. This is why they speak about Jesus so much. Their conviction was that the God who revealed himself to Abraham and Moses, the God known from many titles in the Old Testament, was most perfectly revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. For them, there was no God knowable to us apart from Jesus. In him, the love and mercy and justice of Yahweh the Creator God became human so we could hear and touch him, and know him by name.