Old Testament Understand of the Names of God


Mary Barnum

When my friends call me, "Mary," they don't mean to describe me as "bitter" although at times this may be most fitting. In fact, many probably do not even know that "Mary" means "bitter." Such is typical of the etymological importance that we in the modern western world place on a name. Rather than a name being used or chosen to describe what someone is like, a name is chosen or used so that others know what to call someone; it identifes an individual with regard to family and provides a way to address them. If I had a name that was descriptive in some way of my character, I'm sure it would be something that means, "wildly generous;" "sacrificial," or the like!

My friend from Viet Nam has been given the name, Coung Cam Cao. This means "tall, strong one" and was chosen for him as a reflection of his parent's goals and dreams for him. So it is true that in other cultures, a name has deeper significance. The Hebrew culture was one such culture during the early times of the Old Testament. In this paper, we will look at the names used for God in the Old Testament. The question to be considered is whether or not the name/names used for God were intended to have a material effect on the theological content of the scripture? Or, are they, generally speaking, arbitrary, interchangeable, and a simple reflection of author preference?

Ancient Understanding of a Name

The Hebrew word which is translated, "name" is shem. The etymology of this word is little help in understanding the significance of a name.1  However, throughout the Old Testament we are given many indications that personal name meant much more than a means of identification. "In the modern world, a person's name is merely an identifying label, like a number, which could be changed without loss. Bible names, however, have their background in the widespread tradition that personal names give information, describing in some way who people are."2  To explain and give one's name was to reveal the central aspect of one's personality and character. Consider the following examples:

  1. 1 Samuel 25:23-25, the name of Nabal is equated with his existence, character and reputation:
    23 When Abigail saw David, she hurried and dismounted from her donkey, and fell on her face before David and bowed herself to the ground. 24 She fell at his feet and said, "On me alone, my lord, be the blame. And please let your maidservant speak to you, and listen to the words of your maidservant. 25 "Please do not let my lord pay attention to this worthless man, Nabal, for as his name is, so is he. Nabal is his name and folly is with him; but I your maidservant did not see the young men of my lord whom you sent. (boldface, mine)
  2. 1 Samuel 24:21: To destroy a name is equivalent to destroying the person. 
    21 "So now swear to me by the LORD that you will not cut off my descendants after me and that you will not destroy my name from my father's household."
  3. Names used for the devil are descriptive of his character, personality and deeds. The personal name, Satan, means adversary, opposer, and was consistently used by the Hebrews to refer to the devil.3 
  4. Names like Esau (which means, red), and Laban (which means, blond), were descriptive of physical appearance.
  5. Scripture reveals God as a God who placed special significance on names. His vision for Abraham is evident in renaming him from Abram, in Genesis 17:4,5:
    4 "As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you, And you will be the father of a multitude of nations. 5 "No longer shall your name be called Abram, But your name shall be Abraham; For I will make you the father of a multitude of nations.
    Abram means, exalted father, while Abraham means, father of a multitude.
  6. Likewise, Jacob, is renamed, Israel, in Genesis 35:9,10. 
    9 Then God appeared to Jacob again when he came from Paddan-aram, and He blessed him. 10 God said to him, "Your name is Jacob; You shall no longer be called Jacob, But Israel shall be your name." Thus He called him Israel. 11 God also said to him, "I am God Almighty; Be fruitful and multiply; A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, And kings shall come forth from you.
    The name, Jacob, means cheat, supplanter, while the name, Israel, means prince with God.

The names that we read in our English Bibles, God and Lord, reveal little to us in terms of God's character, nature and personality. Much of the understanding is lost in the translation, and, if we are to understand their fullness, we must understand them in their original language. There are many names used for God in Scripture.4  The great difficulty arises in the ability to describe an infinite Being, in finite terms. Nathan Stone makes the point in his book, Names of God, that one needs many words to describe the character and personality of human beings like Moses and David, let alone the Supreme God of the Universe! No one name, he suggests, is sufficient to accomplish this purpose.5

We will look at the most prevalent and some of the rarer names used by the biblical authors. One thing we must keep in mind is that Scripture is the revelation of God to man. As such, the ultimate authority and control of these names as they are used, is God's. The individual authors may have had a unique purpose and contribution, or preference, but that purpose must ultimately be attributed to God (2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20,21). The biblical author viewed the events he recorded as unique, historical events in which a speaking and acting God revealed His will to, and through mankind. "These events were the initial patterns for all subsequent encounters of God with men. They were not simply events, but they were unique events."6

Walter Kaiser, in his incisive work, Toward an Old Testament Theology, has identified this unfolding purpose in the Old Testament, as God's revelation of Himself as the God of Promise. He argues inductively that,

Such a category was sufficient to encompass a great variety of biblical books, themes and concepts. In spite of an almost universal chorus to the contrary, the mass of data is neither intractable nor impossible. It does yield up a single theology with a deliberate plan of God. Furthermore, Scripture presents its own key of organization. The OT does possess its own canonical inner unity which binds together the various emphases and longitudinal themes. This is not a hidden inner unity. It lies open and ready for all: The Promise of God.7

Throughout the course of our study we will seek to determine to what extent, if any, these names contribute to understanding the immediate context and the broader unfolding of God's purpose and plan of Promise.


The place to start in order to understand the names for God is in the powerful way that God revealed Himself to Moses. In the event where God speaks to Moses in the Burning Bush (Exodus 3), He identifies Himself as the God of the patriarchal covenant:

5 Then He said, "Do not come near here; remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground." 6 He said also, "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." Then Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God (vs. 5,6).

This is no small claim. The covenant with Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3; 15:1-21, 17:1-14), reaffirmed with Isaac (Genesis 26:23-25), and to Jacob (Genesis 28:3-19; 35:9-14), included the promise of : a great name, a great nation, a blessing to all the nations, an everlasting kingdom, and a land to possess forever. Abraham received this promise by faith (Genesis 15:6), at which point God cut the covenant with Abraham by Himself (Genesis 15:9-19). In doing this He demonstrated His everlasting commitment to upholding His own promise!

As He appears in the Burning Bush, God continues by expressing His concern for the nation of Israel and tells Moses He has heard their "cry" (Exodus 3:9). Moses' mission is to go and bring His people out of their oppression in Egypt; this in keeping with the covenant that God has already made. Moses responds:

11 "Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt?" 12 And He said, "Certainly I will be with you, and this shall be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain." 13 Then Moses said to God, "Behold, I am going to the sons of Israel, and I will say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you.' Now they may say to me, 'What is His name?' What shall I say to them?" 14 God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM"; and He said, "Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, 'I AM has sent me to you.'" 15 God, furthermore, said to Moses, "Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, 'The LORD (Yahweh), 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, and this is My memorial-name to all generations.

God is placing incomparable significance on His own name. He identifies Himself as Yhvh, or Yahweh which becomes the proper name of the God of Israel. It is used 6824 times in the Old Testament as God's name.8  Little can be determined as to the meaning of this name from the etymology, therefore we must look to God's character through word and deed in order to understand it.9

"God's immediately preceeding promise to Moses had been, "Certainly I will be with you" (Exodus 3:12). So his assertion in verse 14 would seem to be saying, "I am present is what I am." Indeed the fundamental promise of his testament is, "I will be their God and they will be My people" (Exodus 6:7, etc.; contrast Hos. 1:9); thus "Yahweh," "faithful presence," is God's testamentary nature, or name (Exodus 6:2,4; Deutoronomy 7:9; Isa. 26:4)."10

It is of no small significance that God declares, "This is My name forever, and this is My memorial-name to all generations" (vs. 15). Yahweh is instructing Moses that He is to be known in the context of His everlasting covenant promise, forever. A memorial-name (zeker) is a name which recalls God's great deeds.11  Several psalms use this word and demonstrate that the name, Yahweh, had indeed become synonymous with His covenant actions toward Israel.12

Psalm 145:7
7 They shall eagerly utter the memory (zeker) of Your abundant goodness
And will shout joyfully of Your righteousness.

Psalm 111:4
4 He has made His wonders to be remembered (zeker); The LORD is gracious and compassionate.

The point of all this lies in the incomprehensible fact that God has disclosed to Moses His very nature. His name proclaimed Him as eternal, self-sustaining, self-determining, ever-faithful, sovereign reality in an everlasting covenant relationship with Israel. This was the starting point for Moses who was about to lead them on a journey of faith and deliverance. We can be sure that Moses understood Yahweh to mean more than an identifying label for God, just as God disclosed it as more than a label.

Some have had problems with the use of Yahweh as God's name occuring before the time of the exodus, when, as we just discussed, God revealed Himself as Yahweh. Exodus 6:2 is an interesting verse in this regard.

2 God spoke further to Moses and said to him, "I am the LORD (Yahweh); 3 and I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as God Almighty (El-Shaddai), but by My name, LORD (Yahweh), I did not make Myself known to them. 4 "I also established My covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they sojourned.

The patriarchs knew God as El-Shaddai but now God was making known His name, Yahweh. This indicates that God was at work progressively revealing His own character through His name. He was unfolding His plan.

God invited Moses to observe history in the making as He disclosed His plans and actions. Moses not only received the revelation from God but was prepared to recognize God's power in events about to occur. God rehearsed with Moses a history of His revelation to the forefathers, reminding Moses that He was the same God whose plans had been developing for generations. He was known historically by different names, but He remained the same Divine Presence who gave purpose to earlier Israelite leaders. . . . God's revelation builds off past revelations, prepares His chosen leader to interpret present actions, and builds a path to future revelations. God reveals Himself when His people need Him. . . . Moses had a dimension of what he knew about God that Abraham did not have. . . . That is not to say that earlier information was wrong. It is only saying that earlier information was not as complete as later information.13 

This idea of a progressive unfolding of God's character through His name is overwhelmingly apparent in Moses' writings. In addition to Exodus 6:2, He uses several combined names for God in the context of specific events where a new aspect of God's character is illustrated.

For example, in Genesis 22 when Abraham is told to sacrifice Isaac, God reveals Himself as Yahweh-raah (or Jehovah-jireh). In verse 8, Abraham said to Isaac, "God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son." When God did provide a ram for the burnt offering, "Abraham called the name of that place The LORD Will Provide (Yahweh-raah), as it is said to this day, "In the mount of the LORD it will be provided" (vs. 14). The place was called Yahweh-raah but Yahweh revealed Himself as God who provides what he asks for in return.

Likewise, in Exodus 17, Israel waged war against the Amalekites. As long as Moses held up the staff of God, Israel prevailed. When Moses' arms were lowered, the enemy prevailed. Soon Aaron and Hur supported Moses' arms so that the Amalekites were utterly defeated (see vs. 8-13). "Then the LORD said to Moses, "Write this in a book as a memorial and recite it to Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven." Moses built an altar and named it The LORD is My Banner; and he said, "The LORD has sworn; the LORD will have war against Amalek from generation to generation" (vs. 14-16). The altar was named Yahweh-nes because God fought the war for Israel and prevailed.

The Banner was Moses' rod and was a symbol of Yahweh's faithful, powerful presence and working. It was God's signal to rally to Him and among Jews it is also a word for "miracle." The lesson here is that Israel could not wage warfare alone; Yahweh is My Banner!14

In another situation, God reveals a broader moral aspect of Yahweh. When Moses is leading Israel in the wilderness, his discouragement brings about a fascinating discussion between he and Yahweh in Exodus 33 & 34. Moses' real need is for God to show him His glory. This will encourage him to complete the mission that God has given him.

17 The LORD said to Moses, "I will also do this thing of which you have spoken; for you have found favor in My sight and I have known you by name." 18 Then Moses said, "I pray You, show me Your glory!" 19 And He said, "I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the LORD before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion." 20 But He said, "You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!" (boldface, underline, mine)

God reveals that His goodness, graciousness and compassion are all wrapped up and defined by His name, Yahweh. J.I. Packer asserts this as the "foundational announcement of his moral character" and something that is echoed later in Scripture (Psalm 86:15; Joel 2:13).15  This is in answer to Moses' request of God to show His glory. It is clear by the fact that Moses could only glimpse at the back of God that His amazing and incomprehensible goodness is but a glimpse of the glorious, perfect nature of Yahweh.

Not long after this incident Yahweh reveals more depth as to His moral character, desire for intimacy, and covenant longing by announcing Himself as "the LORD whose name is Jealous (Exodus 34:14). The word qanna, is only used 5 times in Scripture and solely of God in the context of idolatry.16  As a name for God, Jealous gives power to the second commandment (Ex. 20:5) which commands Israel not to make and worship idols, "for I am a jealous God." This of course, is not an unrighteous jealousy. Instead, it "is covenantal: it is the virtue of the committed lover, who wants total loyalty of the one he has bound himself to honor and serve."17

Although it is beyond the scope of this paper to look at even hundreds of occurances of Yahweh, it is clear from what we have seen that both God and Moses placed tremendous importance on names. God's names progressively reveal His character. Once understanding the full power of them, as Moses did in the incident of the Burning Bush, it would be inconceivable to use them without meaning. In addition, the name Yahweh is so intrinsically tied to covenant promise that the theological meaning and practical significance for Israel during the most desperate times of nationhood and in the most fruitful times, is inescapable (compare Jeremiah's trust in Yahweh, expressed during national exile, with David's overwhelmed response to blessing in 2 Samuel 7)!


In Genesis 1:1-2:4, Moses describes the activity of the creation and uses the Hebrew name, Elohim 35 times in 35 verses as the agent of that creation. Elohim is the plural form of eloah, and is translated as a name for God 257018  times in the Old Testament. It is also used to identify "other gods" in the OT Scripture.

"Albright has suggested that the use of this majestic plural comes from the tendency in the ancient near east toward a universalism: "We find in Canaanite an increasing tendency to employ the plural Ashtorot `Astartes', and Anatot `Anaths', in the clear sense of totality of manifestations of a deity." But a better reason can be seen in Scripture itself where, in the very first chapter of Gen., the necessity of a term conveying both the unity of the one God and yet allowing for a plurality of persons is found (Genesis 1:2,26). This is further born out by the fact that the form elohim occurs only in Hebrew and in no other Semitic language, not even Biblical Aramaic."19

Elohim is a word that describes the divine activity. In contrast to Yahweh as the immanent and personal covenant God, Elohim is the Transcendent; the Mighty Creator to be feared and awed by men. Elohim expresses greatness, glory, and inherently contains the ideas of "creative and governing power, omnipotence and sovereignty."20  When Elohim creates, the special verb bara' is used. God is always the subject of this verb and it separates God's creative acts from all human comparison. The creation of Elohim is unique.21  Genesis 1, then, reveals a unique, purposeful, intelligent Creator God who authors the universe as He pleases.

Elohim is often associated with titles by which the people of Israel came to know Him. All of His titles are related to His nature, deeds, and or personality. These are examples of titles related to22 :

Work of Creation:
Isaiah 45:18; Jonah 1:9 *

God's Sovereignty: 
Genesis 24:3,7 (see Deutoronomy 4:39, Joshua 2:11); Isaiah 37:16, 54:5; 1 Kings 20:28; Jeremiah 32:27; Nehemiah 2:4,20; Deutoronomy 10:17** *


    Psalms 50:6, 58:11, 75:7 *

    Savior God: (God linked to individuals whom He has called)

    Genesis 17:8; 26:24; 28:13;

    Exodus 3:6 - There are more than 100 of these formulaic expressions.

        6 He said also, "I am the God (Elohim) of your father, the God (Elohim) of Abraham, the God (Elohim) of Isaac, and the God (Elohim) of Jacob." Then Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God (Elohim). *

    God's Majesty or Glory:
    Isaiah 40:28; 30:18; 65:15; Jerermiah 10:10; 1 Samuel 6:7 *

    God as linked to Israel (whole or part)

    God of the Armies of Israel (1 Samuel 17:45)

    God of Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 32:19) *

    God of Salvation
    1 Chronicles 16:35; Psalms 18:46 cf. 88:1 *

    Expressing Intimacy With His People
    Jeremiah 23:23; 2 Kings 19:10; Deutoronomy 8:5; Genesis 48:15; Psalms 4:1; 59:17; 43:2; 116:5

Often the name, Elohim, is accompanied by the name, Yahweh. In the first passage below, Moses has cause to combine the names because of the context of creation as well as the initial intimate blessings from God to man. In the second passage below, the context is the covenant obligations of Israel; therefore the use of Yahweh, and the more general Elohim as the transcendent deity. Indeed, for Moses, it seems that the two names appear together as "LORD God" so many times, it becomes almost formulaic but not meaningless..

Genesis 2:4-9
4This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD (Yahweh) God (Elohim) made earth and heaven. 5 Now no shrub of the field was yet in the earth, and no plant of the field had yet sprouted, for the LORD (Yahweh) God (Elohim) had not sent rain upon the earth, and there was no man to cultivate the ground. 6 But a mist used to rise from the earth and water the whole surface of the ground. 7 Then the LORD (Yahweh) God (Elohim) formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. 8 The LORD (Yahweh) God (Elohim) planted a garden toward the east, in Eden; and there He placed the man whom He had formed. 9 Out of the ground the LORD (Yahweh) God (Elohim) caused to grow every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Exodus 34:22-24
22"You shall celebrate the Feast of Weeks, that is, the first fruits of the wheat harvest, and the Feast of Ingathering at the turn of the year. 23 "Three times a year all your males are to appear before the Lord (Adonai) GOD (Yahweh), the God (Elohim) of Israel. 24 "For I will drive out nations before you and enlarge your borders, and no man shall covet your land when you go up three times a year to appear before the LORD (Yahweh) your God (Elohim).

In the following passage in Deuteronomy 10, Moses is defining Yahweh's name (see vs. 20), by making use of other names in conjunction with Yahweh. He seems to be stretching the limits of his own vocabulary in describing their awesome Yahweh. Moses is staggered by His God!

Deuteronomy 10:16-20
16"So circumcise your heart, and stiffen your neck no longer. 17 "For the LORD (Yahweh) your God (Elohim) is the God (Elohim) of gods (elohim) and the Lord (Adonai) of lords (adon), the great, the mighty, and the awesome God (El) who does not show partiality nor take a bribe. 18 "He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing. 19 "So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. 20 "You shall fear the LORD (Yahweh) your God (Elohim); you shall serve Him and cling to Him, and you shall swear by His name.

Like Yahweh, there is a covenant aspect to Elohim as well. The prophet Jeremiah directly connects the covenant with David to Elohim.

Jeremiah 31:33
33 "But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days," declares the LORD (Yahweh), "I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God (Elohim), and they shall be My people.

Isaiah 40:1
1 "Comfort, O comfort My people," says your God (Elohim)

The interplay of these names is powerful suggestion that they are often carefully and meaningfully chosen to fit the context of the passage. As such, they contribute to the theological content of the Scripture and are part of God's self-disclosure to mankind. However, the significance of the use of Elohim is not a pervasive pattern in Old Testament Scripture; the Psalms being a prime example. Psalms 14 and 53 are almost identical and yet the psalter in 14 employs both Yahweh and Elohim as names for God, and in 53, the psalter uses Elohim exclusively.23  Indeed, Books I, III, V prefer the name Yahweh over Elohim, Book II prefers Elohim, and Book IV uses Yahweh exclusively.24  This appears to be largely attributable to author preference.25

Elohim, then is the Mighty God; powerful and transcendent. He is a covenant God, "Elohim of Israel." His titles link Him to God's sovereign actions in Israel's history, filling out their understanding of the One God. Elohim figures significantly in the unfolding plan of promise in His participation as God of salvation (Psalm 18:46; 1 Chronicles 16:35), among other roles (see titles, previous page).


The "emphatic" name, Adonai is translated Lord in our bibles and is only used some 300 times in the Old Testament, almost always in the plural possessive. Most of these occurrences are found in Psalms, Lamentations, and the latter prophets.26  It is also used 215 times of men and translated, "sir," "lord," and "master."27  In situations where it refers to men (as in Gen. 24, where Eliezer speaks of "my master, Abraham"), it is always in the singular, adon.28

The name, Adonai, signifies ownership or mastership. Used of God, it is best understood that He is our master and therefore fully deserving of all rights as the owner and master of our lives. He has the right to our unrestricted obedience.29

Genesis 15:2
2 Abram said, "O Lord (Adonai) GOD (Yahweh), what will You give me, since I am childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?" 3 And Abram said, "Since You have given no offspring to me, one born in my house is my heir."

Abram addressed God as his Master.

Certainly Abram understood what this relationship meant; perhaps better than we nowadays understand it, for those were days of slavery. Lordship meant complete possession on the one hand, and complete submission on the other. As already seen, Abraham himself sustained the relationship of master and lord over a very considerable number of souls; therefore in addressing Jehovah as Adonai he acknowledged God's complete possession of and perfect right to all that he was and had. . . . The purchased slave stood in a much nearer relationship to his lord than a hired servant. . . . In Israel, the hired servant who was a stranger might not eat of the Passover or the holy things of the master's house, but the purchased slave, as belonging to his master, and so a member of the family, possessed this privilege (see Exodus 12:43-45; Leviticus 22:10,11). The slave had the right of the master's protection and help and direction.30

This aspect of the meaning of Adonai is remarkably similar to the ancient Hebrew concept of go'el. Abram knew the weightiness of his own role as the go'el, or "kinsman redeemer." This idea was commonly understood in ancient family law whereby the patriarch was responsible for the family in a wide variety of duties. For instance, the kinsman redeemer was responsible to buy back a family member who had been sold into slavery (Leviticus 25:48ff.), or to buy back a family field which had been lost (Leviticus 25:25). In addressing God as Adonai, Abram is recognizing God as his Go'el. God is his Master and Abram will look to Him as such.31

When Moses spoke to God in the Burning Bush, he understood that God, Adonai, held the rights even to his gifts (or lack thereof) of speech.

Exodus 4:10-14
10Then Moses said to the LORD, "Please, Lord (Adonai), I have never been eloquent, neither recently nor in time past, nor since You have spoken to Your servant; for I am slow of speech and slow of tongue." 11 The LORD said to him, "Who has made man's mouth? Or who makes him mute or deaf, or seeing or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? 12 "Now then go, and I, even I, will be with your mouth, and teach you what you are to say." 13 But he said, "Please, Lord (Adonai), now send the message by whomever You will." 14 Then the anger of the LORD burned against Moses, and He said, "Is there not your brother Aaron the Levite? I know that he speaks fluently. And moreover, behold, he is coming out to meet you; when he sees you, he will be glad in his heart.

Moses uses the term again in Exodus 34:23 in the context the renewal of the covenant and of Yahweh's proclamation that His name is Jealous. In this passage Moses combines 3 names for God stressing His character, His ownership, His self-sustaining, everlasting covenant relationship, and His ultimate supremacy: The Hebrew transliteration reads, "ha'adon yhwh elohe yisra el".32

As noted previously, the psalmists use Adonai as a name for God. Psalm 8 begins with, "O, Yahweh, our Adonai . . ." and proceeds to recognize God's majestic work of creation; including the sobering responsibility of man in governing the creation.

Psalm 110 uses the name Adonai to refer to the Messiah. The psalm stresses God's ultimate and sovereign control over the events of history; master over the dealings of mankind.

1 The LORD (Yahweh) says to my Lord (Adonai):
"Sit at My right hand
Until I make Your enemies a footstool for Your feet."
2 The LORD (Yahweh) will stretch forth Your strong scepter from Zion, saying,
"Rule in the midst of Your enemies."
3 Your people will volunteer freely in the day of Your power;
In holy array, from the womb of the dawn,
Your youth are to You as the dew.
4 The LORD (Yahweh) has sworn and will not change His mind,
"You are a priest forever
According to the order of Melchizedek."
5 The Lord (Adonai) is at Your right hand;
He will shatter kings in the day of His wrath.
6 He will judge among the nations,
He will fill them with corpses,
He will shatter the chief men over a broad country.
7 He will drink from the brook by the wayside;
Therefore He will lift up His head.

David's response to God after He makes His covenant with him is the response of a servant to his Adonai. He is full of the recognition that he is unworthy and that his Master is also the ever-faithful and ever-present God of covenant, Yahweh. He also recognizes the supreme transcendence of Elohim (vs. 22).

2 Samuel 7:18-22
18 Then David the king went in and sat before the LORD (Yahweh), and he said, "Who am I, O Lord (Adonai) GOD (Yahweh), and what is my house, that You have brought me this far? 19 "And yet this was insignificant in Your eyes, O Lord (Adonai) GOD (Yahweh), for You have spoken also of the house of Your servant concerning the distant future. And this is the custom of man, O Lord (Adonai) GOD (Yahweh). 20 "Again what more can David say to You? For You know Your servant, O Lord (Adonai) GOD (Yahweh)! 21 "For the sake of Your word, and according to Your own heart, You have done all this greatness to let Your servant know. 22 "For this reason You are great, O Lord (Adonai) GOD (Yahweh); for there is none like You, and there is no God (Elohim) besides You, according to all that we have heard with our ears.

Throughout Lamentations, Jeremiah uses both Adonai and Yahweh. It appears as if maybe these two names are used interchangeably and without much deliberateness in context. However, one of the principal roles of the adon; master is the protection of, and provision for the slave as a member of his own family. Likewise, the role of Yahweh of covenant promised them everlasting nationhood, land, etc. Jeremiah writes to a nation in the desperate throws of exile; a nation that had great cause to wonder where Adonai and Yahweh have gone.

Lamentations 2:1-9
1 How the Lord (Adonai) has covered the daughter of Zion
With a cloud in His anger!
He has cast from heaven to earth
The glory of Israel,
And has not remembered His footstool
In the day of His anger.
2 The Lord (Adonai) has swallowed up; He has not spared
All the habitations of Jacob.
In His wrath He has thrown down
The strongholds of the daughter of Judah;
He has brought them down to the ground;
He has profaned the kingdom and its princes.
3 In fierce anger He has cut off
All the strength of Israel;
He has drawn back His right hand
From before the enemy.
And He has burned in Jacob like a flaming fire
Consuming round about.
4 He has bent His bow like an enemy;
He has set His right hand like an adversary
And slain all that were pleasant to the eye;
In the tent of the daughter of Zion
He has poured out His wrath like fire.
5 The Lord (Adonai) has become like an enemy.
He has swallowed up Israel;
He has swallowed up all its palaces,
He has destroyed its strongholds
And multiplied in the daughter of Judah
Mourning and moaning.
6 And He has violently treated His tabernacle like a garden booth;
He has destroyed His appointed meeting place.
The LORD (Yahweh) has caused to be forgotten
The appointed feast and sabbath in Zion,
And He has despised king and priest
In the indignation of His anger.
7 The Lord (Adoani) has rejected His altar,
He has abandoned His sanctuary;
He has delivered into the hand of the enemy
The walls of her palaces.
They have made a noise in the house of the LORD (Yahweh)
As in the day of an appointed feast.
8 The LORD (Yahweh) determined to destroy
The wall of the daughter of Zion.
He has stretched out a line,
He has not restrained His hand from destroying,
And He has caused rampart and wall to lament;
They have languished together.
9 Her gates have sunk into the ground,
He has destroyed and broken her bars.
Her king and her princes are among the nations;
The law is no more.
Also, her prophets find
No vision from the LORD (Yahweh).

The fact that Jeremiah only uses Elohim, a couple of times in Lamentations only serves to strengthen the argument that he was quite intentional about his choice of Yahweh/Adonai. Indeed, Jeremiah's point seems to be that God appears to have broken His covenant relationship with Israel. This would be to act against Yahweh/Adonai's own character!

The master-slave relationship endemic in the name Adonai makes this name material to our understanding of the Scriptures. It illustrates both the rights and obligations of the master and the obedience of the slave.


God first revealed Himself as El-Shaddai at the time of the covenant with Abram and in connection with the promise of progeny:

Genesis 17:1,2
1 Now when Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, "I am God Almighty (El-Shaddai); Walk before Me, and be blameless. 2 "I will establish My covenant between Me and you, And I will multiply you exceedingly."

This promise by El-Shaddai is given on the heels of promise to make Abraham's descendants innumerable (see Gen. 12,13, 15). The context immediately following this passage is the renaming of Abram, thus God's covenant promise to him became part of Abraham's identity. Is there significance to Moses' choice of the name, El-Shaddai?

The word, El is the word from which the name Elohim is derived. It is translated "God" over 200 times in Scripture with the general significance of might, power, and omnipotence.33  For example, "You are the God who works wonders; You have made known Your strength among the peoples" (Ps. 77:14; see also Ps. 68:35).34  The name, El, is also used by Isaiah and Nehemiah in reference to His mighty deeds (Is. 40; Neh. 9:32). The word el is also a more generally understood term for "power" (Gen. 31:29; Micah 2:1). What about Shaddai? This name is used 48 times in the Old Testament, most often in Job (31 times). Only seven of its occurances is it prefaced by el. Usually Shaddai is translated "Almighty".35  Reasonable suggestion for the meaning of this word are:36

  1. It is connected to the Hebrew verb shadad, which means "to destroy" and therefore the name for God would mean, "my destroyer."
  2. It is connected with the Akkadian, sadu, which means "mountain" and therefore El-Shaddai would mean "God of the mountain;" or God's abode. This is the "most widely accepted" view, championed by W. F. Albright, among others.

Leon Morris draws the conclusion after a survey of the various possibilities regarding the meaning of sadday, that etymology yields nothing! He cites S. R. Driver in saying that neither Hebrew nor any other of the cognate Semitic languages offer any sufficient explanation of it. In a general sense, he sees this name as communicating the thought of God's power either in blessing, protection, or punishment.37

In light of the lack of information provided by etymology, we can look to helpful clues from the context. The context for the use of the name Shaddai outside of Job, is the covenant. First, to Abraham (as we have seen in Genesis 17:1), then to Isaac (Genesis 28:3), and finally to Jacob (Genesis 35:11; 43:14; 48:3).

Genesis 28:3
3"May God Almighty (El-Shaddai) bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you, that you may become a company of peoples

Genesis 35:11
11God also said to him,
"I am God Almighty (El-Shaddai);
Be fruitful and multiply;
A nation and a company of nations shall come from you,
And kings shall come forth from you.

Stone suggests that Shaddai is derived from the similar word, shad, which the Bible translates, "breast."38  This occurs 21 times in the Old Testament, some of which are found in Song of Solomon and Hosea, referring to sensual situations, in the prophecies of Isaiah and Ezekial as gestures of mourning and arrival at the maturity of young adulthood (see Isaiah 32:12; Ezekiel 23:34, "he smote upon his breast"; Isaiah 28:9; Ezekiel 16:7, "Those just weaned . . . taken from the breast"). Where is Stone's argument for the name Shaddai being derived from "breast"? There is an interesting verse in Genesis 49:

From the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob
(From there is the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel),
25 From the God (El) of your father who helps you,
And by the Almighty (Shaddai) who blesses you
With blessings of heaven above,
Blessings of the deep that lies beneath,
Blessings of the breasts (shad) and of the womb.
26 "The blessings of your father
Have surpassed the blessings of my ancestors
Up to the utmost bound of the everlasting hills;
May they be on the head of Joseph,
And on the crown of the head of the one distinguished among his brothers (24b-26).

Victor P. Hamilton connects the word shad to the blessing of fertility and progeny in this verse (Genesis 49:25).39  Stone connects the name, Shaddai with shad, and suggests that "Shaddai signifies one who nourishes, supplies and satisfies. Connected with the word for God, El, it then becomes the "One mighty to nourish, satisfy, supply." El-Shaddai then, is the God "who abundantly blesses with all manner of blessings".40

Stone supports his argument with some passages from Isaiah which reinforce the connections between the promise of blessing to Israel and the illustration of nourishment and blessings of the breast.41

Isaiah 60:15,16
15 "Whereas you have been forsaken and hated
With no one passing through,
I will make you an everlasting pride,
A joy from generation to generation.
16 "You will also suck the milk of nations
And suck the breast of kings;
Then you will know that I, the LORD, am your Savior
And your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.

Isaiah 66:10-13
10 "Be joyful with Jerusalem and rejoice for her, all you who love her;
Be exceedingly glad with her, all you who mourn over her,
11 That you may nurse and be satisfied with her comforting breasts,
That you may suck and be delighted with her bountiful bosom."
12 For thus says the LORD, "Behold, I extend peace to her like a river,
And the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream;
And you will be nursed, you will be carried on the hip and fondled on the knees.
13 "As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you;
And you will be comforted in Jerusalem."

Stone also argues that many ancient near eastern cultures worshipped idols that incorporated breasted female images in order to bring forth blessings of rain which would yield the fruit of the field necessary to sustain and nourish life. He also notes that the "common Hebrew word for field, (sadeh) . . . is simply another form of the word shaddai. It is the field as cultivated earth which nourishes and sustains life."42

"From all this it is felt that the name El-Shaddai or God Almighty is much better understood as that El who is all sufficient and all bountiful, the source of all blessing and fullness and fruitfulness."43

With this in view, it makes sense that the God who will bless Abraham with a son in fulfillment of His promise, would be El-Shaddai, source of all blessing. It is also not surprising that the other instances of this name occur in the context of the promise of progeny and the command to "be fruitful and multiply" to Isaac and Jacob as well. Shaddai blesses, nourishes and sustains the progeny of promise.

Walter Kaiser identifies the "blessing" motif as the earliest expression of the promise. He says:

For men, it involved more than the divine gift of proliferation and "dominion having." The same word also marked the immediacy whereby all the nations of the earth could prosper spiritually through the mediatorship of Abraham and his seed: this too, was part of the "blessing." Obviously, pride of place must be given to this term as the first to signify the plan of God.44

The argument that the name El-Shaddai is properly and fully understood in terms of blessing, specifically blessing of progeny in the covenant to the patriarchs appears reasonable. But what are we to make of the majority of occurrences of El-Shaddai in the book of Job? In light of the probable early origins of Job (quite possibly during the patriarchal period), and the fact that the book is about the removal of blessing from Job in order to test his faith, the choice of El-Shaddai as God's name seems most appropriate if understood as the God of blessing, nourishment and sustenance!

In support of this, there are other passages in which El-Shaddai is used in connection with suffering. Consider Naomi's words in 1:20, 21: "She said to them, "Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty (Shaddai) has dealt very bitterly with me. 21"I went out full, but the LORD (Yahweh) has brought me back empty. Why do you call me Naomi, since the LORD (Yahweh) has witnessed against me and the Almighty (Shaddai) has afflicted me?"

Could it be true that El-Shaddai, the God of blessing, is the same God who afflicts her? The lesson here is the same as it was for Job and Abraham (in his inability to conceive a child), that being that in order to experience God's sufficiency and receive His blessing, we must understand our insufficiency. Stone comments, "The less empty of self we are, the less of blessing God can pour into us; the more of pride and self-sufficiency, the less fruit we can bear. Sometimes only chastening can make us realize this." We have to understand that God's ultimate purpose is that we know God and His great love for us.45


Our original questions considered whether or not the name/names used for God were intended to have a material effect on the theological content of the scripture? Or, are they, generally speaking, arbitrary, interchangeable, and a simple reflection of author preference?

There is little doubt that God fully intended His name/names to be full of meaning regarding His nature and character. His character is incontrovertibly tied up in His covenant with the nation of Israel and therefore, so is His name. There is no way to divorce the name of the meaning it possesses. We have seen examples from Moses' writings, David's, other psalmists, Jeremiah, Ruth, Isaiah, and Job. All of them seem to carry an awareness of the meanings of names for God and use them appropriately. The fact that often the names are used together gives the reader insight into the frustration of the author to communicate the whole character of Israel's God. The most important aspect of these names for God, and the element that connects them to the unfolding of the Promise plan, is the aspect of covenant which we find in varying degrees and with varied richness in all of them. God wants Israel to know and understand Him this way. He wants them to understand His ever-faithful longsuffering, and their required response of obedience and faith.

Our answer has to be yes. The names for God do have a material effect on the theological content of Scripture. Yahweh stands out as the name by which God reveals His own nature, but the others aid in filling the vaccuum of our finite minds. There are, no doubt, places where the names used are due to author preference, but even there, we will not find an inappropriate name used. God is in control.

The most significant lesson learned from this is how much God wants us to know Him. He was continually at work expanding and revealing Israel's knowledge of Him through the circumstances in their lives. He is at work expanding and revealing Himself to us as well . God will show us His glory as He did for Moses, because His covenant with us is part of who He is; His commitment is everlasting.


1.  No certain etymology has been established for this word. Many scholars prefer the view of W. R. Smith who derives it from the Arabic root wsm "to mark or brand." This view renders it merely an external mark that distinguishes one person or thing from another (Theological Word Book of the Old Testament, Vol. 2, R. Laird Harris, Ed., (Moody Press, Chicago, IL, 1980), pg. 934. 

2.  J.I. Packer, Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs, (Tyndale House, Wheaton, Ill.), "Self-Disclosure." 

3.  J.O. Sanders, Satan is No Myth, (Moody Press, Chicago, 1975), p. 24, 25. Sanders states that while the word, satan, is used of human adversaries (see 1 Ki. 11:14,23), in 56 instances it is a personal name reserved for the devil and represented as the "implacable adversary of God and man." Sanders has an excellent chapter in this book devoted to exposing the rich content behind the names chosen for the devil throughout the Scripture. 

4.  Ibid., p. 25. Sanders cites a work by T.C. Horton (The Wonderful Names of Our Wonderful Lord), which identifies 365 names for the persons of the Trinity. I was unable to find this work. 

5.  Nathan Stone, Names of God, (Moody Press, Chicago, 1944), p. 9. 

6.  G. Herbert Livingston, The Pentateuch in its Cultural Environment, (Baker, Grand Rapids, MI, 1974), p. 149. 

7.  Walter Kaiser Jr., Toward and Old Testament Theology, (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 1978), p. 69. 

8.  New American Standard Exhaustive Concordance, Robert L. Thomas, Th.D. Gen. Ed., updated by W. Don Wilkins, Th.D., Ph.D., (Parsons Technology, Cedar Rapids, IA, Electronic Edition, STEP Files, 1998). 

9.  Theological Word Book of The Old Testament, Vol. 1, R. Laird Harris, Ed., (Moody Press, Chicago, IL, 1980), p. 210,211. God's name represents the simple (Qal) imperfect of hawa "to be," I am is what I am. 

10.  Ibid., p. 212. "More than anything perhaps, the "is-ness" of God is expressive both of his presence and his existence. Neither concept can be said to be more important than the other," p.214. 

11.  Ibid., p. 242. 

12.  In each of these psalms, the underlined word is the Hebrew word, zeker. This is the same word used in Ex. 3:15 referring to the personal name, Yahweh.

13.  Disciples Study Bible, Holmann Bible Publishers, 1988, (Parsons Technology, Cedar Rapids, IA, Electronic Edition STEP Files, 1998), "Exodus 6:1-5," "Exodus 6:2,3." 

14.  Stone, pg. 86-91. 

15.  Packer, "Self-Disclosure." 

16.  TWBOT, Vol. 2, pg. 803. 

17.  Packer, "Self-Disclosure." 

18.  TWBOT, Vol. 1, pg. 44.

19.  Ibid., pg. 44. The plural ending is usually descried as one of majesty and not intended as true plural when used of God. The noun, elohim, is consistently used with singular verb forms, adjectives and pronouns. This objection to the Trinity in the name Elohim is rejected by conservative scholars like Nathan Stone who also cites John Calvin. They argue that the majestic plural (ie: that used of kings) was not known then. The plural form with the singular pronoun, etc. is fully consistent with the doctrine of the Trinity. (See Nathan Stone, Names of God, pg. 16,17) 

20.  Stone, pg. 12. 

21.  Disciples Study Bible, "Genesis 1:1." 

22.  Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Vol. 1, pg. 44-45. Elohim is usually attached in titles by means of a construct, relative clause, or participle phrase. 

23.  TWBOT, Vol. 1, pg. 212. 

24.  Lee Campbell's notes. 

25.  This deserves more careful consideration.

26.  TWBOT, Vol. 1, pg. 13. 

27.  Ibid. It occurs when Sarah speaks to Abraham (Gen. 18:12), Lot to the angels (19:2), Joseph was called Lord (42:10); Ruth called Boaz (Ru. 2:13); Hannah to Eli (1 Sam. 1:15). 

28.  Stone, pg. 43. 

29.  Ibid., pg. 44. 

30.  Ibid., pg. 46. 

31.  Arthur Cundall & Leon Morris, Judges & Ruth: An Introduction and Commentary, (Inter-Varsity Press: Leicester, England / Downers Grove, Illinois, 1968), ppg. 282,283. 

32.  TWBOT, Vol. 1, ppg. 12,13. This is one of numerous situations where the singular suffix is used in reference to God (see also Deut. 10:17). There is never a case when adon appears in the "special plural form with a first common pronominal suffix" that does not refer to God. 

33.  Stone, pg. 32. 

34.  This psalmist makes use of the names, Elohim, Adonay, Yahweh, as well as the general, El. As we have seen, the use of many names is not uncommon and, either the psalmist is using the names interchangeably, or, he is exploring and exposing the whole character and nature of God? In the following exerpt from the same psalm, we can see the reason for the psalmist to be questioning God's whole character. 3 When I remember God (Elohim), then I am disturbed; When I sigh, then my spirit grows faint. Selah. 4 You have held my eyelids open; I am so troubled that I cannot speak. 5 I have considered the days of old, The years of long ago. 6 I will remember my song in the night; I will meditate with my heart, And my spirit ponders: 7 Will the Lord (Adonai) reject forever? And will He never be favorable again? 8 Has His lovingkindness ceased forever? Has His promise come to an end forever? 9 Has God (El) forgotten to be gracious, Or has He in anger withdrawn His compassion? 

35.  TWBOT, Vol., 2, pg. 907. It is interesting that this translation dates back to the LXX which translates it pantokrator, meaning "all-powerful". The Vulgate translates it omnipotens, for the same general meaning. The Babylonian Talmud (Hagigah 12a) understands it as derived from she-day, which means "the one who is (self)sufficient". 

36.  Ibid.

37.  Cundall & Morris, ppg. 264-267. 

38.  Stone, pg. 34. 

39.  TWBOT, Vol., 2, pg. 907. 

40.  Stone, pg. 34. 

41.  Ibid., pgs. 34,35. 

42.  Ibid., pg. 36. 

43.  Ibid., pg. 37. 

44.  Kaiser, Toward An Old Testament Theology, pg. 33. 

45.  Stone., pg. 40-42.