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Israel Drazin
Israel Drazin

What we don’t know about God’s names

Most people do not attempt to define words, even words they use daily, such as religion, spirituality, and the various words used to describe God. As a result, they usually have only misconceptions about God. The following are some words used to describe God in Judaism.

  • God: The origin of the modern English word God is uncertain but many scholars think it is derived from an ancient word meaning to call or invoke. It focuses on human activity and indicates their desire to worship and to call for help. It doesn’t describe the essence of the deity. However, the ancient term for the deity used in many ancient cultures around Israel, before the birth of Abraham, focuses on the essence of the deity and is the basis for the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim understanding.
  • El and Elohim: Many ancients used El, which means “powerful”; the deity is a powerful force that can perform all kinds of good acts. Elohim is not a name. All the words in Hebrew for God denote God’s power. Abraham met with Melchizedek king of Salem in Genesis 14, who called his deity el elyon, the “highest power.” The Torah uses a similar term “Elohim,” a plural form of El indicating “the most powerful.” Elohim is also used for powerful humans. Genesis 6:2’s benei elohim is not “sons of God” but “sons of mighty (people).” Exodus 21:6 “bring the person to Elohim” does not suggests bringing him to God, but to judges. I understand the words in Genesis 1:2 ruach elohim, which is usually translated as “the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters,” which I think is an unnecessary anthropomorphism, as “a mighty wind,” Many ancient and modern Jews add el to their name, as in Israel. Since the English word “real’ is pronounced the same as the second part of Israel. Many people misspell Israel as Isreal.
  • Baal: The ancient Phoenicians and others called their deity Baal, which means lord, master, and possessor. The term is found frequently for idols in the Torah. It is not a name. There were many different Baals worshipped by the nations in the area. The most famous Baal was a storm god. Just as many ancient and modern Jews have el, God, added to their name, as in Israel, there were ancient Israelites such as the judge Gideon whose father named him Jerubaal. Baal is used in modern Hebrew, to indicate a husband (a custom frowned upon by many as demeaning to women since it means master) and possession, as in baal hachanut, store owner.
  • Y-h-v-h: People think that the biblical y-h-v-h is God’s name, as someone might call his son Joey. In fact, y-h-v-h is a word, like the other words used for God that describes God’s essence. In Exodus 3:13–15, Moses asks God what is God’s name. God replies e’ye asher e’ye. Rashi explains that God is revealing something about the divine essence, “I will be with them (the Israelites) in this trouble (their slavery) and with them in future troubles.” E’ye and y-h-v-h have the same root which means “being,” God is what was, is, and what will be. When the German Bible critics translated the Bible, they transliterated the Hebrew yud as a J. So y-h-v-h became Jehovah, Yerushalayim was changed to Jerusalem, Yehoshua was transformed to Joshua, Yehudi Jew, and many more. Fortunately, they did not tinker with all names beginning with a Yisrael was not changed to Jisroel, but Israel.
  • Yh: A shortened word for y-h-v-h is used often in the Bible and even in names today. According to a Midrash, Moses enlarged Joshua’s name from Hosea in Hebrew to Yehoshua, adding yh, God, at the front to protect his student when he sent him with the other eleven men to spy out the land of Canaan. The yh is found in the word Halleluyah, which means “praise God.”
  • Lord: When Jews translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek around 200 BCE in a book called the Septuagint, a name derived from the legend that there were some 70 translators involved (sept means seven as in September, which was once the seventh month). They felt that proper respect for God made it inappropriate to place y-h-v-h in the Greek document so they used curios, Lord. It is also possible that they simply couldn’t figure out how to render y-h-v-h in Greek. Lord is a synonym of Baal.
  • Adonai: This idea of respect for the use of y-h-v-h continued afterwards and explains why Jews say Adonai, Hebrew for Lord, instead of y-h-v-h. (Its synonym Baal was probably not selected because it was widely used by idol worshipers). When vowels were added to the Hebrew Bible, Jews felt that while they would retain the letters y-h-v-h in the Bibles, all of which are consonants, they should not reveal how the consonants are pronounced, so they placed the consonants of Adonai under y-h-v-h. As a result, we do not know today how to pronounce y-h-v-h, but we do know that it is not a name, but a description of divine acts.
  • Shaddai: As virtually all other words used for God, Shaddai, based on the Hebrew dai, enough, is understood to indicate that God is powerful and totally self-sufficient.
  • Other names: The Babylonian Talmud, Pessachim 50a, mandates that y-h-v-h should not be read as written but should be read as Adonai, even in solo prayer, synagogue services and the reading of the Torah. Many Jews have gone beyond this and even refuse to write God, substituting G-d, using Elokim for Elohim, keil for el, and Hashem for Adonai. They do not use the word
  • Hashem: The term Hashem is ubiquitous among Jews today who want to show respect for God. Ha means “the” and shem is usually rendered “name.” What does this word signify? While it is true that shem means name, I suggest another meaning, one that is consistent with all that was previously stated. The prophet Zechariah, in 14:9, states, that in the future “And y-h-v-h shall be king over all the earth: in that day y-h-v-h shall be one, and His shem” It is clear that the prophet is predicting that the day will come when all humanity will recognize that y-h-v-h is God. What is unclear is what he is telling us by saying “His shem one.” I suggest that the word “name” is often used in the Torah to denote essence. The prophet is telling us that in the future all people will recognize y-h-v-h and agree about the divine essence, that is how God functions in the universe.
  • On August 29, 2008, the Vatican issued a directive instructing Roman Catholics that, like the Jews, they should not pronounce y-h-v-h.
  • In summary: An examination of the “names” of the deity reveals that God has no “name,” and the so-called names are expressions that indicate that the deity, at least in the minds of those who developed the terms El, Baal, and y-h-v-h, is a powerful force.
About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 50 books on the Bible, philosophy, and other subjects.
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