The Name of God

God’s name is singular: he only has one: Yahweh. All the other words are designations or descriptions, like referring to myself as “theologian” or “author” or “annoying.” But neither of those is my name.

Some people have nick names. And in some respect, God’s name is a nick name. How so?

The reason we have names is because there are a lot of human beings. We need something to call each other by besides “hey you.” But there is only one God. He does not need a name, therefore.

But Moses was steeped in polytheism, as were the Israelites (and their ancestors); thus, the question Moses asks of God in Exodus is in the context of that polytheistic setting and mindset. He wants to know which God he’s talking to, so he can let the people know, since they will be curious about that.

The foundational passage for God’s name occurs in Exodus, at the burning bush, when God asks Moses to go back to Israel to lead his people to the Promised Land.

Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”
14 God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ ”
15 God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.’
“This is my name forever,
the name you shall call me
from generation to generation. (Exodus 3:13-15)

God’s name is written with four letters (yod, he, vav, he) and thus God’s name is sometimes referred to as the tetragramaton (a four letter word).

His name is a third person imperfect of the verb to be; I AM in verse 14 is the same verb, to be, but it is the first person imperfect form.

The form of the third person imperfect used for God’s name is the archaic form, with a vav instead of what was used later (and is used elsewhere throughout the Bible), a yod.

In the ten commandments, in Exodus 20:7, God tells the people not to “misuse” his name (or to “use it in vain”). The Jewish people developed the habit of building hedges around the law; that is, in order to avoid breaking one of God’s commands, they added other commands that if followed, would prevent you from even getting in a position to violate God’s commandment. So for instance the command in Exodus 23:19, 34:26 and Deuteronomy 14:21 to not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk is the basis for the kosher regulations that milk and meat products can never be mixed; some even use separate dishes, cooking pots, and utensils for milk and meat products and some even go the extreme of having entirely separate kitchens for the two products.

Thus, the Jewish people built a hedge around the commandment not to misuse God’s name by deciding that God’s name must never be pronounced.

Thus, whenever his name was seen in the biblical text, instead of saying God’s name, Yahweh, they said the word adonai, which in Hebrew meant “lord” or “master”. That then became a synonym for God and eventually came to be used exclusively for him; in Jewish thinking, that word was the same as the word “God.”

In the 600s AD, when the vowel system was developed in Tiberias by the Masoretes, they enshrined the no pronunciation rule by “mispointing” the divine name by putting the vowels for adonai in place of the vowels for Yahweh and putting two vowels upon one consonant, an impossibility by the rules of vowel pointing laid down by the Masoretes. Thus, not only was the rule that God’s name was not to be spoken, by doing this they made the name unpronounceable in fact.

But…

When gentiles first learned to read Hebrew, the rules for God’s name didn’t initially stick and so God’s name was transliterated, which is how the word “Jehovah” came to exist. It is a misreading by early translators, but it has stuck. And the tradition of never saying God’s name has passed on to gentile students of Hebrew in every seminary and Bible college in the United States. When I took Hebrew, I was taught—at a Baptist school—not to pronounce God’s name, but instead to say “adonai.”

And you’ll notice that all English translations, instead of putting God’s name in the OT, put the word LORD, all in capitals. Or, sometimes, the word GOD all in capitals, to signify that it is God’s name there.

When the Bible was translated into Greek in the 200s BC, the tradition was already firmly in place, so that every time God’s name appeared, it was transformed into the Greek word for Lord: kurios.

Some bad theology has grown from this. Although this word is a word that normally in Greek would mean “lord” or “boss” or “master”, when it is used in place of God’s name by Jewish people, it loses that sense and simply means “God”, just as for most English speakers it is simply another word for God. In New Testament usage, it has become a technical term with a specialized meaning: it just means “God.” Just as the Greek word “ecclesia” developed a technical meaning for Christians; although in Greek it meant a political assembly, among Christians it took on the meaning “church.”

Thus, by the time of the NT, Jewish people (and then Christians) refused the annual oath to Caesar, when all Romans were required to utter the phrase “Caesar is Lord.” Which, for Jews and Christians was the same as saying “Caesar is God.” They refused and the Roman Empire had given Jewish people an exemption (since the Romans didn’t want never ending rioting).

Thus, in the NT when Jesus is called “Lord” he is not being called master, or boss, he is simply being called God. The odd concept of “lordship salvation” is based on a misunderstanding of the Bible’s use of the term.

* * *

After Moses gets to Egypt and performs his first two signs, Pharoah rejects him and adds more work on the people, so that now the people are mad at him too. Moses complains to God about the situation and then God reassures Moses that everything will work out. During the comforting process, God comments:

In Exodus 6:2-3:

God also said to Moses, “I am the LORD. 3 I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty, l but by my name the LORD n I did not make myself fully known to them.

At first glance, this seems very odd, since we find God’s name appearing repeatedly in the book of Genesis from its first appearance at Genesis 2:4—and then on and on; Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all use the word. But in Exodus 6:2-3, we are told they didn’t know the name.

What gives?

The author of Genesis, writing after the time of Exodus 6:2-3, wanted his readers to know that the God of their forefathers, the patriarchs, were worshipping the same God that had rescued them from Egypt. The God who created the world was the same God that had parted the Red Sea and fed them mana for 40 years. The God in whose image they had been created was the same God that the Levitical priests sacrificed their sin offerings to in the Tabernacle and then the Temple.

It is anachronistic and not “literal” in the mouths of the patriarchs; but putting the name back upon their lips serves and important theological purpose.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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