What’s God’s Name?

What is God’s real name? The names of God are many in the Bible and understanding what we know of the answer isn’t nearly as easy as The 700 Club makes it seem. Is it Yahweh, Elohim, YHWH or El? Something else entirely? Why is the Scripture so confusing? If you want to see Pat Robertson’s simple answer, click here. If you’re ready for a deeper dive into the merging of language, history and religion, read on.

What is the correct name of our Lord, untranslated? Also, who are the “24 elders?” -Samuel

Samuel,

As with most questions, this one is far more complicated than Robertson let’s on. In fact, it’s so complicated and there are so many theories, that it’s taken me a long time to try to sort through them enough to make sense and the name of God is intrinsically tied up with the archeological history of God. But that doesn’t fit into the narrative that questions have simple, black and white answers.

24 Elders Of What?

First off, the “four and twenty elders” mentioned in Revelations aren’t the 12 disciples and “whatever.” Robertson laughed it off because he doesn’t know, but rather than admit that, he just made it seem like you were asking a silly, unimportant question. And Robertson doesn’t know because it’s a topic that’s been under debate for some time.

Perhaps they’re the heads of the 24 divisions of priests as listed in 1 Chronicles 24. Perhaps they’re meant to represent the 12 apostles and the 12 Tribes of Israel, meaning 12 saints from the New Testament and 12 from the Old Testament. Or the elders could be representative of Israel. Or they could be meant to represent the redeemed of this church age.

Actually, 12 disciples and 12 whatever may be as accurate an answer as any. Because honestly? We just don’t know who the 24 elders are.

The History Of YHWH

In truth, we also aren’t completely sure what God’s name is supposed to be. Yahweh is our best guest thanks to language cues that we won’t get into of how the Tetragrammaton, YHWH, should be pronounced since. But in the oldest texts we have of the Torah and most of the rest of the Hebrew Bible, that’s how God’s name was written in Biblical Hebrew (in Hebrew text it’s, יהוה‬) — a language in which vowels were often not written and the occasional consonant could double as a vowel.

The oldest reference we have, though, may be in Egyptian hieroglyphics from around the 14th century BCE, which mentions the “Shasu of YHW.” The Shasu were an early Semitic semi-nomadic Canaanite tribe, though it’s not certain what, if any tie they had to the Israelites, but it suggests that the Shasu people worshipped YHWH before the people of Israel did. We’ll get back to that in a bit.

You see, the reason we don’t know how YHWH was pronounced in the Hebrew language, is that it wasn’t passed down through oral history. Somewhere around the 2nd or 3rd century BCE, Jewish tradition dictated that YHWH was too sacred to read or say out loud, so upon coming upon the name, adherents would replace it with “Adonai,” meaning “My Lord.”

After a generation or two of this going on in Judaism, the actual knowledge of its pronunciation was lost to time, and Yahweh became the closest approximation we could contextualize.

It might be interesting to note, but in a similar way, YHWH was replaced in English translations of the Bible with LORD. In this case, though, it’s not because it was too sacred for Christians to say the name. YHWH is only used in the Hebrew of the Old Testament texts and Jewish texts. In the Greek New Testament and the Septuagint (which is the oldest Greek translations of the Hebrew scriptures), God is referred to as Kyrios, or Lord.

As for the name being the hiphil form of the Hebrew word “to be,” that’s debatable. As any scholar could tell you, translating ancient Hebrew is not easy and there’s a lot we aren’t entirely sure of. The word for “to be” in Hebrew is hyh or hwh, which in this theory is the root of YHWH.

Since few of us are linguists, let alone Hebrew scholars, someone should probably explain that the “hiphil” is the active causative verb tense in Hebrew. That means it’s a tense that causes action, which is how you get “caused to be,” as in God caused existence to be.

The problem with this, though, is that the rule was kind of assumed into existence because of YHWH. It doesn’t really have parallels in Semitic languages where YHWH isn’t held as sacred. So it’s kind of a circular reason to explain how it works.

The History Of El

Often going along with the above theory (though not always) is the idea that this root is then the abbreviated form of a cultic name for God like ˀel ḏū yahwī ṣabaˀô — El who creates the heavenly hosts. But then doesn’t that suggest that the name of god is actually El, with yahwi or YHWH simply being His action?

Well, good news! Because now we’re getting into another complication. In the Bible, God is referred to often as Elohim, which was the plural of el, which was the ancient Semitic word for god. Notice, that’s small ‘g’ god, not big ‘g’ God. El was the generic term for a deity, while elohim meant multiple deities.

Except in the Bible, Elohim is mostly accompanied by the Hebrew singular, marking it as a unique way to, essentially, refer to God. So obviously Elohim took on a different meaning over time.

But then there are passages like Genesis 33: 20, which talks about Jacob settling in the Canaanite city of Shechem, which reads “There he set up an altar and called it El Elohe Israel,” which is translated as “God, the God of Israel.” Here, El is not a generic term for god, while Elohe, a version of Elohim is. In this case, El is God’s name used to denote which god Jacob was referring to.

While the switching of proper and generic names is confusing, the identifier used for Jacob’s god makes a bit of sense, since back then, the Canaanites believed in a whole pantheon of gods. That’s not to say they were real, but at the time this was written, it helped to point out which one you meant.

And at the head of that pantheon? It was El. Before it came to be used as a way to reference the Judeo-Christian God, and before it came to be the generic Semitic way to say ‘god’, El was the name of the supreme god of the Canaanite pantheon. Also historically, the original god of Israel was not Yahweh, but El. You can see that in its very name: Isra-el.

So again, does that mean that El is God’s correct name?

The History Of The Bible

There are some who believe that El and YHWH came to be conflated into the same being. Others that YHWH supplanted El. Further muddying the waters between the two are archaeological references from around the 8th century BCE found at Kuntillet ‘Arjud to “YHWH of Samaria and Asherah” and “YHWH of Teman and Asherah.”

Asherah was, at one point, the consort of the Canaanite supreme god, El, yet these inscriptions imply that she came to be associated with YHWH. Also at the site were references to other gods such as Ba’al, suggesting that at the time, YHWH wasn’t always the god of the Israelites, but was once just one god worshipped out of many. 

This obviously isn’t real, because it’s not in the Bible right? Well, no, but it may once been a part of the tradition. Before the Hebrew and Christian Bibles came to their final form that we know today, they were mostly a collection of oral traditions written down and gathered together.

They came from a variety of sources over the span of nearly a millennium and weren’t even written in the order that we’re familiar with. In order to get the Bible into its final, canonical form, stories had to be culled and edited to unify often differing source material into a cohesive whole.

Deuteronomy 32:8-9 is a great example of this. Some English Bibles, like the NIV, are translated from the Masoretic texts, which say, “8 When the Most High (in this case the name used in Hebrew was elyowin, meaning El) gave the nations their inheritance, when he divided all mankind, he set up boundaries for the peoples according to the number of the sons of Israel (b’nei yisrael). 9 For the LORD’s (YHWH)’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted inheritance.” 

But then the Dead Sea Scrolls were found and scholars realized that at some point some over-zealous scribe had changed b’nei ha-elohim to b’nei yisrael as he copied the text.The original meaning is translated as anything from “the sons of God” in the English Standard Version, to “heavenly court,” “heavenly assembly,” or “heavenly beings,” in other versions.

Presumably, this anonymous scribe did this to defend against any thoughts of polytheism, or that YHWH and El were two different beings. The original translation with b’nei ha-elohim might make it sound like El set the boundaries of mankind based on the number in his divine family, or pantheon, and one of those family members (or even sons), YHWH, received the descendants of Jacob.

So What Is God’s Real Name?

These varying sources and time periods and references may account for the variety of names used in the Bible — El, Elohim, Eloah, YHWH, El Shaddai. Sometimes it even combines them, such as in Genesis 2: 16 which refers to God as YHWH Elohim, which we translate as The LORD God (or perhaps it could be the LORD of gods?) as if it’s a title.

But it’s not.

LORD is just a word translators put in for YHWH, so in the original Hebrew, it’s more of an identifier as to which god or elohim the authors were referring to, than a title. And it’s noticeably different from Genesis 1’s more general “elohim,” which is more like saying “A god” created the heavens an the earth.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not referring to the same God in the two sections of Genesis. The Abrahamic religions all make clear that there is only one, so perhaps Genesis 2 is just where they start getting specific as to which one they were referring to. Remember our discussion of Adam and Eve and how there are two different creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2? It’s concievable that not all the wrinkles were ironed out in putting the different stories together into the Bible’s final form.

Confused? Yeah, don’t worry, so am I. And there is so much more we can get into. But probably the best thing would be to start conducting your own research into God’s different names, what they may mean, where they may have come from and how they may be pronounced.

In the end, perhaps you should just refer to Exodus, as the Biblical authors seem to have understood this confusion and the shifting from El to YHWH. It’s somewhat addressed in Exodus 6: 2-3 with, 2 God also said to Moses, ‘I am the LORD (YHWH). 3 I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty (El Shaddai or el sadday), but by my name the LORD (YHWH) I did not make myself fully known to them.”

But that still leaves so many rich questions to dig into.

One Comment Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s