Biblical Studies Names of God in the Hebrew Bible
by
Heath D. Dewrell, Andrew M. Garbarino
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0318

Introduction

The Hebrew Bible presents Israel and Judah as having only one legitimate deity, a god whose proper name is Yahweh, but one also finds a variety of names and epithets for this deity within the Bible. The generic word Elohim, “god” or “gods” (Hebrew ʾĕlōhîm), comes to serve as something of an alternate name for Yahweh in its own right. In addition, the Hebrew word El (ʾēl) can be either the common noun “god” or the name of El/Ilu, a deity known from non-Israelite West Semitic sources—for instance as the head of the pantheon in the mythological texts from Ugarit. Each of these names may take further descriptors, such as “Yahweh of Hosts” (yhwh ṣəbāʾôt) or “El Shaddai” (ʾēl šadday). In the case of compound names that include El, such as the latter, it is possible that the name originally belonged to a local manifestation of El and was secondarily attached to Yahweh, either in the course of Israelite religious development or, more artificially, by the biblical authors (see Compound El Names). This ambiguity about the origins of compound El names occupies much of the literature on the names of God in the Hebrew Bible, implicating as it does larger issues relating to the historical origins of Yahweh religion, particularly whether Yahweh arose as an independent deity or developed from a manifestation of El. Here, the idea of a sort of “convergence” of two or more deities into a single deity has been a common model for explaining how the biblical Yahweh came to bear his various names. Since “origins” have long been inexorably attractive to antiquarians and philologists alike, the majority of work on these divine names and epithets has been devoted to etymological investigations. Such studies often operate under the assumption, whether implicit or explicit, that the linguistic significance of each divine name reveals something important about the original nature and provenance of the deity who bore it.

General Overviews

Anderson 2017 and Mettinger 1988 offer accessible summaries of the major issues. Day 2002, Smith 2002, Smith 2010, and Bembry 2011 propose methodological models and develop comprehensive historical reconstructions. Wilkinson 2015 situates the discussion within the intellectual history of the Christian West.

  • Anderson, James S. “El, Yahweh, and Elohim: The Evolution of God in Israel and Its Theological Implications.” Expository Times 128.6 (2017): 261–267.

    DOI: 10.1177/0014524616672624

    This brief article offers a popular-level overview of the main issues relating to the names of God in the Hebrew Bible and Israelite religion, citing the major scholarship on each key issue. Anderson ends with reflection on contemporary theological implications of the multiplicity of the Israelite God.

  • Bembry, Jason. Yahweh’s Coming of Age. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2011.

    DOI: 10.5325/j.ctv1bxh0pm

    Diachronically traces the development of Yahweh’s character, which represents a conflation of aspects of wise and elderly El with young and mighty Baal. While in earlier periods, the Baal aspect predominated, in late apocalyptic Daniel literature Yahweh’s El aspect comes to the fore in the form of the Ancient of Days.

  • Day, John. Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 265. London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002.

    This classic study explores the relationship between Yahweh and other Canaanite deities, with individual chapters on Yahweh’s relationship to El, Asherah, Baal, and others. Along the way, Day weighs in on major debates. Especially noteworthy are his arguments that “Yahweh” derives from a G-stem verb, “he is,” rather than a C-stem, “he will cause to be,” and that Yahweh and El were originally separate deities, later identified.

  • Mettinger, Tryggve N. D. In Search of God: The Meaning and Message of the Everlasting Names. Translated by Frederick H. Cryer. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988.

    A philologically and historically grounded exploration of the biblical names of God with an eye toward theological synthesis (from a Christian perspective).

  • Smith, Mark S. The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel. 2d ed. Biblical Resource Series. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002.

    Originally published in 1990, the book offers a perceptive reconstruction of the developing relationship between Yahweh and other native West Semitic (and Israelite) deities, from “the Period of the Judges” through the development of monotheism. In Smith’s model, some facets of later Israelite Yahwism represent “convergence” with other deities’ attributes (especially Yahweh’s assumption of El’s name and features), while others arose by “differentiation” from other gods (especially from Baal).

  • Smith, Mark S. God in Translation: Deities in Cross-Cultural Discourse in the Biblical World. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010.

    Explores the phenomenon of the “translatability” of divinity in antiquity, “which involves specific equations or identifications of deities across cultures and the larger recognition of deities of other cultures in connection to one’s own deities” (p. 6). Smith argues that Israelite religion was characterized by “translatability” between Yahwism and other local cults. Smith provides methodological tools to chart how divine names came to be shared between Israelite and non-Israelite sources.

  • Wilkinson, Robert J. Tetragrammaton: Western Christians and the Hebrew Name of God: From the Beginnings to the Seventeenth Century. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2015.

    DOI: 10.1163/9789004288171

    In addition to an exhaustive summary of the proposals for the etymology of Yahweh (pp. 1–37), Wilkinson offers a history of the reception of the primary Hebrew name of God in the Christian West.

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