THE ALLAH CONTROVERSY series...
(in chronological descending order)
1. Be Strong and Courageous
2. The Allah Issue: Round 2
3. The Allah Debate: Moderating Principles
4. The Debate: Allah or Are There Alternatives?
5. Names of God in the Bible
6. A Brief Survey of Views Expressed in the Allah Controversy
7. Testing Times
NAMES OF GOD IN THE BIBLE
There are three main words, possibly from the same root, used of God in the Old Testament: ël, elôah and elöhîm. These are not proper nouns per se, but generic terms for god or gods or the mighty one. Pagans used these words to denote their gods inasmuch as the Old Testament writers used them of the one God they believed in.
There is a proper name for God in the Old Testament, though. It is Yahweh (or, Jehovah), from the unvocalized tetragrammaton, YHWH. In the NIV it is typically rendered as LORD; but when it is linked with ädôn (lord) it becomes God: thus, the LORD God.
ël is a basic Semitic word for god, true or false. It can also be used of an image or idol (e.g., Gen. 35:2). But in Canaanite religion, it is the proper name of the Canaanite god, El, whose son is Baal. The patriarchs of the Old Testament recognized ël as not the highest god in a pantheon, but the only God. It is usually used in association with other words descriptively (e.g., ël elyôn, God Most High, Gen. 14:18-22; ël röi, God of seeing, Gen. 16:13; ël ëlöhe yisräël, God, the God of Israel (Gen. 33:20); ël sadday God Almighty, Gen. 17:1).
elöhîm is the plural of ël; but it can also be treated as a singular, in which case, it suggests a fuller manifestation of a deity; or, it can mean a supreme deity. In the Old Testament, it is rendered as God as in Genesis 1:1. In this passage elöhîm is the Creator God, the cosmic and supreme Person, and thus the word takes on the characteristic of a proper noun, yet maintaining its abstract conception.
elôah, the least used of the three in the Old Testament, occurs primarily in the book of Job. Outside Job, the word is linked with other descriptive words of God to convey the idea of strength (e.g., Deut. 32:15 - Rock and Saviour; Prov. 30:5 - shield; and Ps. 50:22 - destroyer of sinners). In Aramaic, the word takes the form elah.
Yahweh is preferred by many today over the older form Jehovah in the English rendition of YHWH. The pious Jews of old were reluctant to pronounce the divine name. Instead they would say adönäy, my Lord, whenever they came across YHWH in the texts. Later, the vowels of adönäy were combined with the consonants YHWH in the Masoretic Text (MT) to form yehöwâh, which became Jehovah in English as in the KJV. But Jehovah is considered to be a malformation of a transliteration of a word in the Hebrew OT, but which was never used as a word (Colin Brown, DNTT, Vol. 2); thus, the preference for Yahweh, which more conforms to the pronunciation indicated by the transliterations of the name in early Greek literature (e.g., iaoue, by Clement of Alexandria; or, iabe, by Theodoret - the Greek b pronounced as v).
Yahweh can be considered as the only name of God and when thus considered, it is a proper noun. In Genesis, wherever the Hebrew sëm (name) is used in connection with God, that name is Yahweh (e.g., Gen. 12:8 - called on the name of the LORD, NIV). As with ël, Yahweh (or, Jehovah) is linked with other words to form descriptive names of God: Yahweh yireh, the LORD provides, Gen. 22:8, 14; Yahweh nissî, the LORD is my banner, Ex. 17:15; Yahweh sälôm, the LORD is peace, Jdg. 6:24), etc.).
A possible interpretation of the name Yahweh is provided in the encounter of Moses with God in the burning bush (Ex. 3:13ff.). Anxious that the Israelite people might ask him, What is his name that has sent you to us? Moses asked of God: Then what shall I tell them? God answered Moses in this manner: I AM WHO I AM [MT: ehyeh aser ehyeh]. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: I AM [ehyeh] has sent me to you. Though there is some considerable debate on the translation and meaning of ehyeh aser ehyeh, there is general agreement that the words point to God as the eternally self-existent one.
In Deuteronomy 5:9, we have a conjunction of the three terms, ël, elöhîm, and Yahweh: I, the LORD (Yahweh) your God (elöhîm), am a jealous God (ël).
In the New Testament, the Greek theos is the most common designation for God. The Greeks had many gods and goddesses and theos was used equally of these diversity of deities in their many shapes and forms. The translators of the Septuagint (LXX) and the writers of the NT employed theos to denote the one and only Sovereign God of the universe; but it was shorn of all its Greek notions and mythologies associated with the deities.
As a rule theos would be used to translate ël and elöhîm; but sometimes kyrios (Lord) or other expressions are used. Yahweh or Yah is mostly translated by kyrios, but also by theos in about 330 instances.
Significance of Names and Naming
Names are more than just labels. They have significances of their own other than to identify and to distinguish one object or one idea or one person from others of similar or even different kinds. They tell more than just the letters or the sounds that go into their composition. There is purpose, power and dominion involved in the process of naming. Adam was able to give names to the birds of the air and the beasts of the field (Gen. 2:19-20) because he was granted dominion (or, rule) over them (Gen. 1:28). Or, he was able to name the one that God had created from out of his rib woman because he preceded her; but in thus naming her as woman Adam was purposefully granting co-equal status with him for she was taken out of man (Gen. 2:23).
The process of naming can predicate on a number of reasons or occasions. No name is plucked off from thin air for no reason or rhyme. Eve gave her first born son the name Cain (qayin) because she gained possession (qänâ) of a child with the help of God (Gen. 4:1). Babel (confusion) is precisely that because the place was where God confused the tongues of the people (Gen. 11:9). Isaac (he laughs) was so named because his parents laughed at being told that they would have a child despite their advanced age (Gen. 17:17, 18:12, 21:3-7). Abram (exalted father) became Abraham (father of many) (Gen. 17:5) because it marked the beginning of a new chapter in the life of the great patriarch. Names sometimes have predictive/prophetic purposes: Hosea was asked to name his daughter Lo-Ruhamah (not loved) because God will no longer show love to the house of Israel and son Lo-Ammi (not my people) because there would come a time when God would refuse to acknowledge Israel as his people and he their God (Hosea 1:6-9).
The above short discussion applies at the human level. However, at the divine-to-human level, the concept of the name of God takes on a different tone. It is not so much as man having power over God but man receiving the power/privilege from God to know him and to enter into a relationship with him. This power or privilege to know and to relate to God comes precisely because God has revealed his person, his nature and his will to humankind. It is because God has entered into the human world and shown himself through his actions, words and promises. Thus, human beings ascribe to this God certain designations or descriptive words because they know him through and in certain described characteristics or events. If he is Yahweh sidqënû (e.g., Jer. 23:6) it is because his people had known and tasted of his righteousness; and if he is Yahweh, it is because he has revealed himself by that name to his people.
To know God by name is the beginning of a long and eternal walk with him. It means to be possessed by him for we are called by his name (Isa. 43:7; Amos 9:12) and are saved through the name of his Son Jesus Christ (Acts 4:10-12). To be saved is predicated on a personal belief of the name Jesus Christ (1 Jn. 3:23) and of all that the name stands for and what and who lies behind the name. Those who are called by Gods name (e.g., as in Gods children) come under the powerful protective arms of God (Jn. 17:11; Mt. 23:37). There is special blessing for those who come in the name of the Lord (Mt. 23:39).
The presence of God is secured when his name dwells among his people (Dt. 12:5, 11). This means that the people not only verbalized the name of God but conduct themselves in such a manner as to bring glory to God (e.g., see Mt. 6:13-16). Gods name is holy; but this is not the reason to refrain from using or uttering the name of God. Rather, we should ever be so careful and so reverent with the name as to not abuse it or take the name of God in vain (Dt. 5:11). Gods name should never be confused with any magical power to control him or to call upon him to perform any deeds outside of his own will. Instead, his name should prompt us to put ourselves in his service since he is the LORD our God.
For you are a people holy to the LORD your God.
The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples
on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.
- Deuteronomy 7:6