Friday, October 3, 2008


One of the most beautiful things to me in studying Jewish culture and the Hebrew language has been learning the earliest names for God. Because I believe the meanings of these names are foundational to our understanding of God's nature, I'd like to share what I've learned with you. Most of this information comes from my Jewish studies professor, Dr. Frank Eakin, at the University of Richmond. He likely would not agree with much of what I've applied to these facts because of our differences in faith and theology, but I am indebted to this wise man, nevertheless!

The old Shakespearean "a rose by any other name" adage, would not have made sense in a Hebrew context. The Hebrew/Jewish people were pretty infatuated with names. I was just pointing this out in some youth curriculum I wrote for a friend's church. I shared with these students that, in Bible times, parents often waited to name their child until his or her personality was clear! In some cases, God would tell the family what to name a child (Isaac, Samson, John the Baptist, and Jesus all spring to mind). And so we see that names were of critical importance and had great meaning.

This principle is clear, too, in stories of spiritual transformation: Abram and Sarai became Abraham and Sarah. Jacob (which means "trickster") became Israel (meaning, "one who struggles with God") after he wrestled with God in the night. And this name, Israel, was passed on to the Hebrew people when God enacted His covenant with them, the implication being that although they would continue to struggle with Him, He would uphold His covenant faithfulness.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the Hebrew names for God are rich in meaning. The first name for God used in Hebrew scripture is found in Genesis 1:1, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." The word used is elohim, which is a plural word derived from other Near Eastern cultures and generally meaning "gods." Surprisingly, in the Tanak, it is used singularly. Here it is linked to the singular verb bara, meaning "he created." Bara is seldom used in scripture and is only attributed to God, so we know that the word elohim is being used singularly to speak of ONE God. Scholars have noted that the name probably refers to the "muchness of God." I love that! He is one, but He is much. Much, much more than we can ever comprehend, much in the sense that He is worthy of our praise. The fascinating thing is that, when we think about this name through the lens of Jesus, we can see that "the muchness of God" also refers to the Trinity. So right there, in the very first words of the Biblical text, we know that Jesus is one with the Father and the Spirit. (This idea is further affirmed in God's saying, "Let us..." throughout the story of creation. Either He is schizophrenic, or He is talking to Someone.)

The next crucial name in the Biblical narrative is found in Exodus 3:14, when God tells Moses "I AM who I AM...this is what you are to say to the Israelites, 'I AM has sent me to you.'" Further significance of the name "I AM" is found in the Exodus account of God's covenant with the Hebrews at Mt. Sinai (see Exodus 19-20). In Near Eastern culture, there were two types of covenant: 1.) a parity covenant, or one between two equals, and 2.) a suzerainty covenant, or one initiated by a king or army on behalf of a lesser power. The suzerain would enact a covenant based on the premise that the lesser power would uphold certain conditions. But at Sinai, God turns the Hebrew covenant understanding upside down: He promises to uphold His covenant with them regardless of adherence to the Law (we call this attribute God's chesed, or, "covenant fidelity"). It is in this spirit that He calls Himself "I AM," YHWH in Hebrew.

Scholars are unsure how the name for "I AM" was pronounced, but they have established that it sounded something like Yahweh (Jehovah was a mistranslation by early Germanic scholars). The reason for this uncertainty is that the Israelites were not allowed to say God's covenant name. Even the High Priest was only permitted to utter the sacred name once a year--on Yom Kippur, or, the Day of Atonement, which occurs next Thursday--in the Most Holy Place! Instead, the Israelites referred to God as HaShem, or "The Name." In other cases, they used the more general title adonai, meaning "my Lord."

comes from the Hebrew verb, yihiy, or "I will be." (A more accurate translation of Exodus 3:14 would be "I Will Be as I Will Be."") So God is literally telling His people that, at the crux of His nature, He is completely reliable, completely faithful, the same forever. Above all, He is consistent, even when His people are utterly inconsistent.

Whenever you see the word LORD (written in all caps) in the Old testament, the author is using the sacred name, YHWH. (In other words, you could translate "the LORD, God" to mean "YHWH, God.") I noted this fact in the Bible study I recently wrote and asked students why they thought the New Testament writers no longer used this construction. I directed them to Matthew 27:51 and Hebrew 1:1-9 for help. When Jesus died on the cross, the temple veil was torn in two, a literal reminder that all who are in Christ now have access to God.

Because there is no more Most Holy Place, and because the temple was destroyed by Roman soldiers in 70 A.D., the Jews no longer have a place to say HaShem. As they observe these High Holy Days and as they approach Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, there is a degree of uncertainty about the individual's standing with God. There is no longer a place to make the sin offering, and so the Jews wait in hope that they have achieved right standing with God through their works and repentance and not through blood atonement, as God has always required. But because of the work done on the Cross, atonement is finished once and for all. We need not be afraid to utter His name!

"Those who know your name will trust in you, for you LORD have never forsaken those who seek you." --Psalm 9:10

1 comment:

mowens said...

I didn't know what HaShem meant; That's interesting. Also interesting how well this post and the one I finished right before reading this supplement each other. I reference Matthew 27:51 as well.