Q&A: The Names for God in the Pentateuch

The Names for God in the Pentateuch

How do you explain the variation in the names for God in the Pentateuch?

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Answer

There are different ways to explain the variation of names in the Old Testament. Some traditions, more on the critical end of the spectrum, would argue that these names reflected local traditions or local ways of describing God. For instance, to use an analogy we might be familiar with, we might say, up in New York they have certain names for describing God; down here in Pennsylvania, or in another state, we have different names. I wouldn't approach the issue of the variation of names in that way. I would understand them in a theological frame of reference, because that's how Scripture contexualizes them. So, for instance, a name like Elohim, which is the dominant name God is described by in Genesis 1, would reflect, theologically, it would be teaching us that God is the creator of all humanity and that there's a fundamental relation between God and all creatures and human beings by virtue of his identity as creator. That's what a name like Elohim would teach us. A name like Yahweh, which we often translate in English as "Lord," would be stressing God's relationship to creatures more in a covenantal context, where his promises of redemption and salvation are in view. So, often this is the name he relates to Israel with in the Old Testament, especially in covenantal context where the promises of his salvation are in view.

Answer by Dr. Don Collett

Dr. Don Collett is Assistant Professor of Old Testament at Trinity School of Ministry