Polytheists have many names for God because they have many Gods; just as every human has many names for his or her many relatives and friends. But how can monotheistic religions like Judaism, Christianity and Islam have many names for the One and only God in whom they deeply believe?
The explanation is that only one of the One God’s ‘names’, is an unique personal name; all the other ‘names’ are just appellations or titles that refer to one of One God’s many attributes or roles (creator, judge or redeemer); qualities (goodness, oneness, or awesome); or God’s character traits (demanding, merciful, loving or forgiving).
While each of the various names of God is only one of the many appellations of the One universal creator of space and time; Christianity, Islam and Judaism each have one Divine name that is always present in the believer’s heart and soul.
In English the word God is not the name of the one and only God. God is a generic term for any and every deity. This is why all the Biblical prophets felt they had to connect the generic name of God (Elohim) to the only religious community in Biblical days who worshipped the One God.
Although in every generation there were many individuals who worshipped the One God, who was indeed the God of all humans; prior to Abraham we know of no prophet who was able to establish a monotheistic community that survived for more than a few centuries, or even several generations.
Thus, Elohei Yisrael- the God of Israel, or Elohei-God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. So Ezra, the most narrowly focused of prophets, uses both Elah Yisrael-God of Israel (Ezra 5:1) and Elah Sh’maya V’Arah- God of Heaven and Earth (Ezra 5:11). The words El, Elah, Elohei and Elohim are all pre Abrahamic west Semitic generic terms for a God or for many Gods. In these various forms they appear almost 3,000 times in the Hebrew Bible.
But for Jews, the most important name of the one God, the name that God himself reveals to Moses at the burning bush, is YHVH: which appears more than 6,800 times in the Hebrew Bible.
In Exodus 3:13-15, Moses said to God, “If I go to the Israelites and tell them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’—what should I say to them?” And God said to Moses, “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh”. Now Ehyeh is the verb “to be” future tense singular and means I will/could/might/may be/become Who I may/could/will/might be/become i.e. Ehyeh is The God of Potentialities, The God of Possibilities, The Living God of Becoming and Transforming, the One who can liberate Israel from bondage in Egypt.
Unfortunately, the Greek and Latin translations of this verse were influenced by the Greek philosophical idea that God was similar to a permanent ideal form (like an equilateral triangle) or an unmoved mover, and is not like a living personality. Since they thought God must be a static unchanging being. they mistranslated “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh’ as ‘I am who I am’ rather than its plain meaning of ‘I can be whatever I should be to redeem you” i.e. God Almighty
The Torah continues, “And God said, “You must say this to the Israelites, “I am” (the usual false translation for God’s self revealed name) has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “You must say this to the Israelites, Ehyeh, 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 from generation to generation.’ (Exodus 3:13-15)
When Jews speak of God in the third person, God’s name is YHVH– “the One who causes being and becoming, the One who brings potentials into existence.” This name (YHVH) was spoken publicly from the time of Moses and throughout the 3½ centuries of the 1st Temple of Solomon. But during the period of the 2nd Temple it was pronounced as Adonai (Lord) because of the feeling that God’s actual Holy name was too holy to utter audibly.
In later centuries even the substitution Adonai was considered too holy to utter; and the custom among pious Jews till this day is not to speak any of the other names for God at all (except in traditional prayers); but to say HaShem–the name (of God) when speaking about God. Thus, while Christians love to say the name Jesus, and Muslims love to voice their special personal name Allah as God, Jews avoid voicing God’s name (YHVH) even in prayer.
For Christians the name Jesus is not just the name of a very wise Jewish rabbi; but the name of one who as Paul wrote is the Prince of Peace, who came to earth to unite Jews and Gentiles. “But now in Christ Jesus you (Gentiles) who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations.
“His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.” (Ephesians 2:13-18)
For Muslims that unique name is Allah: the universalistic generic Semitic name of God. In English, God is not a name of the one God like Allah, Jesus or YHVH. It is the generic term for any and every deity; similar to the West Semitic root word EL as it is found in Sumerian and Akkadian, Ellil-Enlil; in Hittite and Hurrian, Ellel; in Hebrew, El-Elohim; and in Arabic, Allat-a pre-Islamic goddess, who is one the three daughters of Al-Ilah. The Qur’an and its prophet thus use the most universalistic term/name for God as the one most suitable for Muslims
The name Jesus for Christians, Allah for Muslims and YHVH for Jews, differs from all the other names that are just philosophical terms for various universal aspects or roles of God. Their Divine name has a very intimate special meaning for each of the three religious communities of believers that is lacking in all the other names. This personal name is connected to the covenant the One God YHVH made with Moses (Exodus 3:13-15) with Jesus (Matthew 3:16-17), and with Muhammad (Qur’an 33:7)
Christians personalized the name of God by connecting it with the name of a very special person, whose message and passion inspired them to transform their lives. When Christian believers speak about Jesus they are referring to the “Divine Son of God” When Jews or Muslims speak about Jesus they are referring not to God, but to a man of God.
The Qur’an, true to its universalizing perspective uses the generic name Allah; but with such intense presence that Allah became personalized in the Muslim community’s experience. It would be impossible for a pious Muslim to use the word Allah to describe Zeus or Krishna.
The difference between all other names and the personal intimate name of God the believer uses in prayer and when reciting his or her holy scripture; is a measure of the believers personal piety and love for the God of his or her own unique religion. Each religion’s personal name for the One and only God who created the entire universe, comes from the profound and unique spiritual experience generated through our sacred scripture and our own inner prayer life.
And we should thank God for that.