Q&A: Making Sense of the Different Names for God in the Pentateuch

Making Sense of the Different 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 several different names for God used in the Pentateuch. And I think it's actually a wonderful, rich way to look at the character of God. Sometimes a name is given to God by someone and it relates to something to do with his characteristic. We have, for example, God names like El Roi, "the God who sees." And so, this is using the term "El" which is a term for God, and then it's giving some other characteristic about God, that he's a God who sees, or we might have El Shaddai, and so forth, so "God Almighty." So, there are some variations used, but really, the two most important names for God would be Elohim, which is used in Genesis 1, and then Yahweh, which is the personal name of God, or what we call the tetragrammaton used in chapter 2.

So, in Genesis 1, you have the name Elohim, which is a common name for God in the ancient world. It's also a plural, it has a plural ending on it, and that doesn't mean that we have a multiplicity of gods, because all the verbs in Genesis 1 are singular. So, when the "and he said" is singular, and so some scholars have suggested that the plural ending is an honorific way of referring to God. But the term Elohim is Genesis 1 begins with the creation of the world, so it's this kind of cosmic view in chapter 1. And so you have this common term for God. But what is interesting then, in Genesis 2:4, you are then told that the Lord God is the creator God. Well, why is that important? Because the term "Yahweh" is used in Genesis 2 and 3, and this name of God is what we call the tetragrammaton, and it gets picked up when God comes to Moses and says, you know, Moses says, "Well, who will I say, you know, has come to me," and he says, "I AM." Now, "I am" is a form of the same verb "to be," and it's either "I will be" or "I am." And that then gets picked up in Exodus 3234.

Now, here's what I just want to underscore with the divine name: in Exodus 3234, this is really where God reveals his name. And what the context of it is that here you have the Israelites. Moses is up on the mountain receiving God's law, and the Israelites build an idol, and God wants to destroy them because they have just broken the covenant and disobeyed his commandments. Moses pleads on their behalf, and then God says to Moses, "I'm going to show you, let all my goodness pass before you." And he proclaims the divine name in Exodus 34:6. And this is really the heart of the Old Testament theology, the divine name, where he says, the Lord God who is slow to anger, abounding in loving-kindness. And what it means is that this name Yahweh and the character of his name is that he is gracious and compassionate. And, in fact, I think that's the character of God that is seen throughout all the pages of the Old Testament. Nehemiah 9 appeals to it in many places.

So, now think about the character of God in Exodus 3234, now Moses, who's writing Genesis 2 and 3. So when God comes to Adam, and especially in Genesis 3 in the Fall, it's the Lord God who comes because he's the God who is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger. And you know the story with the Fall, that they eat from the fruit, they disobey the command, and yet God in his grace doesn't destroy them. And so, Genesis 3 focuses on the Lord God, I think, to underscore his grace and his mercy. And notably, the serpent doesn't use Yahweh Elohim, he just uses Elohim. So, you can see the contrast even within the narrative that they have theological significance, most importantly the divine name, Yahweh, Yahweh Elohim.

Answer by Dr. Carol Kaminski

Dr. Kaminski teaches Old Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Boston MA.