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The Name Game

September 8, 2006
They make impressive banners. They’re good for a heat-n-serve devotional, or better yet a series. In the Christian bookstores, there is bound to be at least one of those “books that would make a good article” on the subject. And as always a splattering of Hebrew or at-least pseudo-Hebrew makes you look erudite. I’m talking about “The names of God” so called. There is a fairly standard list of Hebrew names that makes the rounds. Nothing earth shattering here. Just in my obsessive compulsive way, I wish to clarify a few points.

There are of course legitimate names and titles by which God is known in the Hebrew Old Testament. The main ones are those translated God, the LORD and the Lord in most English translations. I will review these later in this post. To really qualify as one of God’s names, first it probably should be a reference to God and not to something or someone else. Second, it should have some kind of regular use, not just appear in one or maybe two verses of the Bible. In fact though many of the really popular banner-grade “names” are not in fact “names of God,” but something else, as I will now show.

Jehovah-Jireh: This comes from the following verse. Now read it carefully; this is not a name of God. It is the name of a place! It is an important place, to be sure, and it tells us something wonderful about God, but it is not one of God’s names.

So Abraham called the name of that place, “The LORD will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.” (Genesis 22:14)
This is actually a sentence: YHWH yireh. This raises another point: why transliterate this verb “will provide” as if it were a proper noun? By the way it is pronounced more like yee-ray than jie-ruh, just in case you wanted to do a little Hebrew dropping. (For “Jehovah” see below.)

Jehovah-Nissi: This is the name of an altar to God, not of God himself, if we are to believe the text. It makes a statement about God, another sentence: “The LORD is my banner.”

“And Moses built an altar and called the name of it, The LORD is my banner.” (Exodus 17:15)

Jehovah-Shalom: Another instance of an altar to the LORD, named with a statement about God: “The LORD is peace.”

“Then Gideon built an altar there to the LORD and called it, The LORD is Peace.” To this day it still stands at Ophrah, which belongs to the Abiezrites. (Judges 6:24)

Jehovah-Shammah: Once again, read the text: this is a prophetic and spiritual name for the heavenly Jerusalem. In this case it is not really saying something about the nature of God, but about the future condition of the holy city. It is named with this sentence because of the LORD’s special presence there. So there is no point in saying, as one devotional I have seen does, that this “name of God” indicates God’s nearness His omnipresence.

“And the name of the city from that time on shall be, The LORD is there.” (Ezekiel 48:35)

Jehovah-Rohi: Someone must have been running short of pseudo-names with this one. It is not the name of anything. It is a sentence about God. In fact it simply is the first sentence of the 23rd psalm:

“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.” (Psalm 23:1)

Jehovah-Tsidkenu: This one is getting closer. Clearly, this is the name of an individual, and specifically it refers to “the Branch.” It is a prophecy of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, God the Son. In some ways it is similar to another prophetic name for the Messiah, Immanuel. However, this latter is clearly a proper noun, composed of elements that together have the meaning “God with us.” But “Jehovah-Tsidkenu” is again a sentence that can be translated. So why cite it in Hebrew when speaking English?

“In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The LORD is our righteousness.’” (Jeremiah 23:6)

Jehovah-Ropheka (AKA “Jehovah-Rapha”): I’m not sure where the “Rapha” version came from, unless due to the familiarity of the counseling ministry. It is the third person form of the verb, and so“YHWH rapha” would mean “The LORD heals.” This is not what we find in the text, however. That form is a participle rophe plus an object pronoun particle -ka, which means “you” (singular). In this case the phrase does refer to God, but it is the proper noun “YHWH” followed by an attributive participle modifying YHWH or possibly a substantive participle in apposition. The fact that this expression is in second person is another indication that it is not a name. It is part of a statement by God to His people. At any rate it is a phrase that should be translated, not treated like an untranslatable name, as in the ESV below:

“If you will diligently listen to the voice of the LORD your God, and do that which is right in his eyes, and give ear to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD, your healer.”(Exodus 15:26).

Jehovah-Mekaddishkem: This one is essentially the same type as the preceding case, with a piel participle plus a plural second person object pronoun particle. Some citations have the second element as “M’kaddishkem.”

“You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, ‘Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the LORD, sanctify you. (Exodus 31:13).

And now, a look at legitimate Old Testament names for God.

Yahweh/YHWH/Jehovah: This is God’s own proper name, the name God gives for Himself. This is the most holy word in the Hebrew language. Etymologially, it comes from the Hebrew verb for “to be.” God himself gave Moses the name “I am.” “God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3:14). Now Yahweh is not “I am” but looks more like “He is,” and may in fact simply represent an older form of this verb. It makes sense that if God refers to Himself as “I am,” we would call Him “He is.”

However, at some point in history somewhere between 300 BC and AD 200, the Jews decided that since the third commandment forbade taking the Lord’s name in vain, prudence dictated never saying it at all. Accordingly it is frequently written with just its consonants, the Hebrew equivalents of YHWH. This four letter combination is frequently called the “tetragrammaton” (Greek for “four-letter thing”). We don’t really know for certain what the vowels were or how to pronounce it. “Yahweh” is an educated guess based on transliterations from other languages. Even in English today, it is frequently written YHWH, particularly by pious Jews (who similarly write G_d in imitation of the Hebrew practice.) In many manuscripts the tetragrammaton is written in archaic forms of Hebrew letters while the rest of the text is in the contemporary forms of the times.

When the tetragrammaton had to be pronounced (after it became unpronounceable), such as when reading the Scriptures, either “the name” or the word Adonai “Lord” (see below) was substituted. Now, Hebrew has a few habits that are a bit quirky from our point of view. Hebrew properly speaking only uses consonants in its writing system (a slight oversimplification).In the middle ages a system of dots and dashes basically was written around the consonants to indicate pronunciation of vowel sounds. For centuries Hebrew Old Testament manuscripts, written in consonants, were scrupulously copied to avoid any transcription errors. At the same time the pronunciation of the Hebrew Scriptures was also handed down in oral tradition. During the middle ages, the pronunciation tradition began to be marked on the consonantal manuscripts by a system of tiny marks, like dots and dashes, which included the vowel sounds to go with the consonants. Occasionally, despite the care given to copying, the two traditions would vary slightly. Now, the written consonants were sacred, and in no case could they be changed, even if they were thought to contain a copyists error. So the way the pronunciation of such a word was indicated was the vowels were put under the existing consonants, but the consonants thought to be correct and that went with the indicated vowels were written in the margin.

Now the tetragrammaton was handled much the same way. One would read YHWH, but would say “Adonai.” They did not need to put the consonants of adonai in the margin at each instance, but they did put its vowels under the letters of the tetragrammaton. Without going into the technicalities of Hebrew writing, the a of Adonai more or less becomes an e after the Y. Also the last i of adonai is in fact a consonant (y) in Hebrew and not a vowel. So putting the vowels with the tetragrammaton looks something like YeHoWaH. Latinized this becomes Iehova, (which starts with an i as any Indiana Jones fan will tell you) and in early English Iehovah. The i, when it functions as a consonant (pronounced like y) as it is here, came to be distinguished from the vowel i by a tail, hence the letter j, which later changed its sound to its modern value. Hence the modern English name Jehovah, which never really existed in the ancient Hebrew world. For simplicity I will use in with the familiar compound terms below.

There is also a shortened form of Yahweh, YH “yah,” which occurs in the familiar phrase Hallelu-yah, “Praise Yah” (or “Praise the Lord”). This particle also occurs in many hebrew names such as yesha’yah Isaiah (salvation of YHWH). In fact several short forms exist and occur in familiar Hebrew names YHW (yeho) in yehoshua’ Joshua (and eventually Jesus) (“YHWH is salvation”), YW (yo) in yonatan Jonathan (“YHWH has given”), even YHW (yahu) in ‘eliyahu, Elijah (“YHWH is God”). ‘

The tradition of using “the Lord” to speak of YHWH is carried over in many modern English Bible translations, where the convention is YHWH is translated “LORD” in all capitals, while “Lord” indicates the actual use of Hebrew adonai.

One fun fact: the Hebrew system of numerals was a simple one in which the first letter aleph indicated one, the second letter beth was two, and so on until the letter yodh (y) which was the tenth letter and indicated 10. So to say eleven, one would write yodh aleph, for twelve, yodh beth and so on. Problem is when you get to 15 and 16, by this system they ought to be yodh he and yodh waw respectively (i.e. 10+5 and 10+6). Unfortunately, this would make YH and YW, two of the short forms of YHWH, and the sacred name was too holy to be used as common numerals. So instead, for these two numerals, one would write instead heth waw (9+6) and heth zayin (9+7).

Elohim (Eloah): the common word for God or even false gods. Eloah is the singular form, though it occurs much less frequently. Elohim is far more common, and in form is plural, though when referring to the true God, it is used with a singular verb and so obviously means God. Concept is frequently known as the plural of majesty. The exact same word could be used as a real plural and denote the false gods.

El is apparently a shorter form of the above, or else the earlier singular of Elohim. Exact understanding of the relationship of what would seem to be clearly related words is nevertheless difficult. This word appears to be from a root meaning strength. In the Old Testament it is mostly used in compound forms (see below). The word also exists in Canaanite (i.e. Phoenician), which is a language virtually identical with Hebrew. It was used as a proper name for one of their main gods El, who was the father of Baal (which is a word for “lord” in both Canaanite and Hebrew. (Though ba’al was a common word for lord or master its association with the Canaanite god meant it came to be avoided as an indication of the true Lord.

In Aramaic, a language closely related to Hebrew, and in which a small part of the Old Testament is written (parts of Daniel and Ezra) the form is Elah. In Arabic, another related though more distant language it takes the form al-Ilah, which is contracted to Allah “God.”

El: a shorter form related to Eloah/Elohim. This is a very basic word for “God” or for “god” of course. In fact a main Canaanite god is simply known as “El,” despite the fact that Yahweh, or false gods other than El can be designated by this word.

Adonai: “my Lord.” Or actually “my Lords.” The normal word for lord is ‘adon. To say “my lord” is ‘adoni. Plural “my lords” is ‘adonai. So here again when used of God we have a plural of majesty: Adonai. In English translations it has generally been translated “Lord,” while YHWH is translated LORD. It is used in some compound forms such as Adonai YHWH, which presents a problem in English translation since Lord LORD would sound awkward. Accordingly the phrase in this instance becomes “the LORD God.”

Adon is used in related languages as titles for other gods. It can be seen in the Greco-Roman deity Adonis, which has Semitic origins.

Compounds of El:

El Shaddai: usual translation: “God almighty,” though it is not clear that Shaddai means anything like “almighty.” It is frequently pointed out that it would appear to be related to the word shad, meaning “breast.” Another etymology may connect it with a word for mountain.

When Abram was ninety-nine years old the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. (Genesis 17:1)

El Elyon: “God most high” is more straightforward. The adjective high is derived from the verb ‘alah, meaning “to go up.”

“Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!” (Genesis 14:19-20)

El Olam: “Eternal God” or “Everlasting God.” The word ‘olam means eternity. Sometimes translated as “God of the universe”

“Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.” (Isaiah 40:28)

Compound of Jehovah:

Jehovah-Sabaoth: Traditionally “LORD of hosts.” Sometimes “LORD Almighty.” “Hosts” (saba’oth) here of course means armies (nothing to do with hospitality; quite the opposite). So it means YHWH of armies, a reference to his supreme power, with innumerable powerful angels at His command. This name occurs at least 270 times in the Old Testament, especially in the prophets, for example:

And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5).

And it occurs twice in the New Testament in Greek as kyrios sabaoth:
Once as a citation from Isaiah:
And as Isaiah predicted, “If the Lord of hosts had not left us offspring, we would have been like Sodom and become like Gomorrah.” (Romans 9:29)
Once otherwise:
“Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.” (James 5:4)
For comparison with the ESV, the NIV translates “Lord Almighty,” the NASB, KJV, NKJV “Lord of Sabaoth.”
5 Comments leave one →
  1. Brian permalink
    September 13, 2006 7:59 am

    Thank you for this post. Until now I had been sucked in to all the belief that what were thought to be names of God are really descriptors of places or of God but not names per se. Your post has helped open my eyes to be more discerning in the future.

    Also I came here by way of the ESV website’s blog.

  2. Anonymous permalink
    September 13, 2006 8:03 am

    Helpful post; concerning the naming of altars and places however do you think that the name which is concerning the Lord is not accepted by him? It seems to me that the reason why we have considered these names of God for so long is due to such an idea. God does not reject these names which speak of his character, so does he not therefore accept them? This is what I am thinking to try to resolve the issue.

  3. marv permalink
    September 18, 2006 6:34 am

    Nothing wrong with these altar/place names. They are brimming with truth about God. YHWH-yireh is of course an amazing prophecy of the atonement. Just being a bit obsessive compulsive perhaps. There is no great untruth here, I suppose, just an inaccuracy that gives me the fingernails on chalkboard effect, personally. I almost don’t expect anyone to really see these posts on my obscure little blog.

  4. Brian permalink
    September 24, 2006 10:10 am

    well I think you have some good things to say so keep it up. I might link you on my own little obsure little blog.

  5. Anonymous permalink
    February 7, 2007 5:19 pm

    What do you mean by:

    “This is actually a sentence: YHWH yireh.”

    What is the sentence? What’s the proper translation?

    “This raises another point: why transliterate this verb “will provide” as if it were a proper noun?”

    What is the point you are making? Again, what is the incorrect and correct translation?

    Please email me the answer

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