The names of God and the words used for God found in the Old Testament reflect a Semitic world’s commitment to the relationship between the nature of anything and the name of that thing. The name could not be divorced from the nature of the actual being of the thing. The revelation of God belongs to the divine freedom of the Self-Naming God. The various names of God in his acts with his people in the world cannot be divorced from his actual nature and being. All the names of God must refer to who he truly is with Israel and the world.
The most common name of God found in the Old Testament – YHWH (used 6823 times) – refers to the great I-AM of God, established in his divine freedom to be present with Israel in the Exodus tradition. The fundamental assertion of the five books of Moses or the Pentateuch is that YHWH is none other than the Elohim (used 2550 times) of the world.
It is the nature and being of this one that would establish both the redemption of his people and the creation of the world. Deuteronomy 32:3, in the Song of Moses, the poet declares that he will proclaim the name of YHWH, he will praise the greatness of “our” Elohim. There is a strong polemic inherent in the use of these names that demythologizes the world of the ancient deities. With the use of these names, Israel confessed the unique power of the oneness of the “Lord our God” (Deuteronomy 6:4).
The names YHWH and Elohim are usually translated by the English words LORD and GOD. We should understand these names as referring at once both to the Deliverer of Israel and the Creator of the universe – the heavens and the earth.
In a few places, the King James Version translated the consonants YHWH with the vowels from the word Adonai; the resulting hybrid was “Jehovah.” The four consonants of the name that the Jews would not pronounce in the synagogues of Judaism were read aloud as “Adonai,” and the scribes recorded the practice in a conflation of the consonants from YHWH and the vowels of Adonai. Transliterated in the King James Bible, the word Jehovah was produced.
Modern scholars believe that in some sense YHWH is to be associated with the verb “to be” in Hebrew, and may have been pronounced something like “Yahweh.” That is the way the name is sounded among most scholars today. Many Jews cling to their reverence for the name and in their congregations, when they see the Tetragrammaton (YHWH) in the texts, they say, “Ha Shem,” meaning “the Name.”
The important thing to understand is that “Lord God” refers us to the actual nature and being of the actual existence of his deity with us in the world. Because of his actions in delivering Israel from Egypt, YHWH is the name confessed by the people of God, and Elohim, the name associated with his creation in the beginning of the world, is affirmed as being none other than YHWH. We do not exhaust the ways the Lord God in his divine freedom chose to interact in covenant with his people. There are many other names of God in the Old Testament.
Associated directly with the Lord God (YHWH Elohim) is the name Elohim in construct form with the fathers of Israel. He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob/Israel (Exodus 3:13-15). Other forms of YHWH may be observed: YHWH Yireh (Genesis 22:14, “He sees”), YHWH Rophekah (Exodus 15:26, “He heals”), YHWH Nissiy (Exodus 17:15, “My Banner”), YHWH Meqaddishkem (Exodus 31:13, “He makes you holy”), YHWH Shalom (Judges 6:24, “Lord of peace”), YHWH Tseba’oth (1 Samuel 1:3, “Lord of hosts”), YHWH Tsidqenuh (Jeremiah 23:6, “Lord, our righteousness”), YHWH Shammah (Ezekiel 48:35, “He is there”), YHWH Elyon (Psalm 7:17, “He is most high”), YHWH Ro’iy (Psalm 23:1, “He is my shepherd”), and others.
The book of Ezekiel may be understood as a prophecy that shows that God does not name himself in vain: “I am YHWH” is announced over and over again throughout the book. The rhetoric is clearly that, when the prophecy is fulfilled, the whole world will know him for who he truly is.
Combinations of terms with El or Elohim are also frequent in the Old Testament. Genesis 14:18-22 possesses a play on the names for the Lord God, and it claims the El Elyon (God Most High) as the begetter (Qoneh) of the heavens and the earth is the one who is Abram’s Shield or Protector. El Shadday (God of Provision, Genesis 17:1) was known among the ancestors of Israel (Exodus 6:3), long before the great I-AM had given Moses the name YHWH, with which Moses could confront Pharaoh.
El in certain combinations can refer to angels, mighty heroes or humans, as well as the supreme God. El Olam (God of Forever, Genesis 21:33) bears the interaction of God’s eternity with created time. El Rachum (God of Compassion, Exodus 34:6) signifies the way God is in the conception of Israel, even in spite of Israel’s opposition to who he truly is. El Emunah (God of Faithfulness, Deuteronomy 32:4) refers to the God whom Israel can trust with her future.
The confession in Exodus 34:6-7 shapes a “credo” that forms much of Israel’s understanding of the Lord God in covenant with her and the development of her history in the world. Here YHWH is the El of that compassion, favor, patience, and great grace and truth that is inherent in the way the great I-AM has chosen in his divine freedom to be present with Israel’s past, present and future.
Besides these combinations of names with YHWH and El or Elohim, the term Adonay can be employed in the superlative to refer to the Lord of Lords (Deuteronomy 10:17). In Genesis 15:1, the Word of YHWH calls himself for Abram a Megen (Shield). In Exodus 31:13, YHWH calls himself the one who makes Israel holy (Meqadish), a name especially important in the Levitical law (Leviticus 20:8; 21:8; 22:32). In his interaction with his people, he is of a dynamic nature and being.
YH and a shortened form YHu can be found throughout the ancient Near East to signify a deity in the pantheons of some city-states as well as the God of the Old Testament (Exodus 15:2 and with many names of places and people). El and Elohim are commonly found among the mythologies and cosmogonies of the ancient civilizations. These names for the gods of the temples and palaces in the city-states of the ancient civilizations are also reflected in the pantheons of the Greek gods. The Canaanite Baal, Mesopotamia’s Marduk, and the Greek Zeus may all be understood as storm-gods bound up with the fertility myths of these peoples.
These gods are the background for the names of the Lord God that we find in use in ancient Israel. But Israel employs what was common in this background with unique significance. The names of the Lord God in the biblical usage could never be understood free from the actual being and nature of the one true Creator and Redeemer of the world in opposition to the other gods. He is to be known in Israel as the great I-AM, the one who makes Israel the people of God (cf. Hosea 1:9). She is to know this one for who he truly is in the world (cf. the “I am YHWH” of the book of Ezekiel). This is the prophetic power of the self-revelation of the self-naming God that lies behind the use of the divine names and titles in the Old Testament.
Thus, the use of the words Greek Kyrios and Theos in the New Testament resounds in the Greco-Roman world the names of YHWH and Elohim in the Old Testament.