Sunday, January 22, 2023

The many names of God


The many names of God

Video Link:



I open my discussion with a question of how many names Jews would normally carry: The Hebrew name, for religious services, the common local language name ( English, Persian, Arabic, etc), the common Jewish-language name( Yiddish or Ladino, such as Vulf for Zeev, Fortuna for Mazal), and then a nickname- Vulf becomes Velvel. To add to it, a slogan name, as was suggested-der Litvak- the Lithuanian, or der Shtarker- the Tough One.


Why is it that God tells Moses his name, in the opening of the portion of Vaera, even though he already heard it a few chapters before?

The question is ancient, made critical in modern times over a century ago by Julius Wellhausen.

Documentary hypothesis-Julius Wellhausen

Not original, but he gave it his most famous form. Key element- the choice of names of God-

J- Jawvist   - those traditions that used YHWH( formally termed Tetragrammaton-the Four-Letter Name)  in the Bible texts, from the Kingdom of Judea

E=Elohist - those traditions that used Elohim in the Bible texts, from the Kingdom of Israel

JE- A merger of the two documents, merging the two names together, YHWH Elohim.

D- Deuternomist- mainly, Deuteronomy

P- Priestly- mainly Leviticus

It am not going into a critique or defense-Wellhausen has been dismissed as a theological anti-Semite, but many scholars think there is still merit to his approach.

But it gives rise to the question, as in Shakespeare Romeo and Juliet- “What ‘s in a Name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”


But knowing names is critical to Biblical thought

God starts by naming names Yom, Laylah etc

Adam’s 1st task- naming animals. He takes over a divine prerogative.

Jacob struggles with angel

: וַיִּשְׁאַ֣ל יַעֲקֹ֗ב וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ הַגִּֽידָה־נָּ֣א שְׁמֶ֔ךָ וַיֹּ֕אמֶר לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה תִּשְׁאַ֣ל לִשְׁמִ֑י וַיְבָ֥רֶךְ אֹת֖וֹ שָֽׁם

׃ Jacob asked, “Pray tell me your name.” But he said, “You must not ask my name!” And he took leave of him there. Gen 32:30

The angel comes to Manoah and his wife to announce the birth of Samson:

וַיֹּ֧אמֶר מָנ֛וֹחַ אֶל־מַלְאַ֥ךְ ה" מִ֣י שְׁמֶ֑ךָ כִּֽי־יָבֹ֥א  


So Manoah said to the angel of the LORD, “What is your name? We should like to honor you when your words come true.”

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר לוֹ֙ מַלְאַ֣ךְ ה” לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה תִּשְׁאַ֣ל לִשְׁמִ֑י וְהוּא־פֶֽלִאי׃ {פ}

The angel said to him, “You must not ask for my name; it is unknowable!”(Judges 13)


The Power of Names in Classical Greek Religion

(Note-The use of "superstition" to describe Jewish practice is long-standing in Christian discourse, from the time of the early Church fathers)

So, we can ask, what is God’s name:

Moses asks at burning bush

( This is a real burning bush shrub in fall foliage)

וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ כִּֽי־אֶֽהְיֶ֣ה עִמָּ֔ךְ וְזֶה־לְּךָ֣ הָא֔וֹת כִּ֥י אָנֹכִ֖י שְׁלַחְתִּ֑יךָ בְּהוֹצִֽיאֲךָ֤ אֶת־הָעָם֙ מִמִּצְרַ֔יִם תַּֽעַבְדוּן֙ אֶת־הָ֣אֱלֹהִ֔ים עַ֖ל הָהָ֥ר הַזֶּֽה׃

And [God] said, “I will be with you; that shall be your sign that it was I who sent you. And when you have freed the people from Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain.”

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֜ה אֶל־הָֽאֱלֹהִ֗ים הִנֵּ֨ה אָנֹכִ֣י בָא֮ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵל֒ וְאָמַרְתִּ֣י לָהֶ֔ם אֱלֹהֵ֥י אֲבוֹתֵיכֶ֖ם שְׁלָחַ֣נִי אֲלֵיכֶ֑ם וְאָֽמְרוּ־לִ֣י מַה־שְּׁמ֔וֹ מָ֥ה אֹמַ֖ר אֲלֵהֶֽם׃  

Moses said to God, “When I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers’ [house] has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is [God’s] name?’ what shall I say to them?”

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה וַיֹּ֗אמֶר כֹּ֤ה תֹאמַר֙ לִבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה שְׁלָחַ֥נִי אֲלֵיכֶֽם׃

And God said to Moses, “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, “Thus shall you say to the Israelites, ‘Ehyeh.” sent me to you.’”

וַיֹּ֩אמֶר֩ ע֨וֹד אֱלֹהִ֜ים אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה כֹּֽה־תֹאמַר֮ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵל֒ ה" אֱלֹהֵ֣י אֲבֹתֵיכֶ֗ם אֱלֹהֵ֨י אַבְרָהָ֜ם אֱלֹהֵ֥י יִצְחָ֛ק וֵאלֹהֵ֥י יַעֲקֹ֖ב שְׁלָחַ֣נִי אֲלֵיכֶ֑ם זֶה־שְּׁמִ֣י לְעֹלָ֔ם וְזֶ֥ה זִכְרִ֖י לְדֹ֥ר דֹּֽר׃  

 God said further to Moses, “Thus shall you speak to the Israelites: ה

the God of your fathers’ [house]—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you:This shall be My name forever,This My appellation for all eternity.

Ehyeh- is an odd name-literally- I will be. It sound like an avoidance- I am what I am-I will be what I  will be.



אהיה אשר אהיה. אֶהְיֶה עִמָּם בְּצָרָה זוֹ אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה עִמָּם בְּשִׁעְבּוּד שְׁאָר מַלְכֻיּוֹת.


I shall be with them in this trouble as I will be with them in future subjugation to other kingdoms!

(Taken from Talmud 9b)

Rashi’s instinct here is good. Ehyeh It indicates God as a presence with in the suffering people of Israel. Ehyeh is what God tells Moses a line before” Ehyeh” I will be with you. For that reason, he follows up with the YHWH and a definition: ה” the God of your fathers’ [house]—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you:This shall be My name forever,This My appellation for all eternity. The historic . not abstract, connection.

Going back to the idea of naming names as a way of control- God’s name is very evasive, unclear, intentionally-there is no control over God by use of the name.


We follow our narrative:

Moshe goes to Pharaoh the first time, with this name of God:


וְאַחַ֗ר בָּ֚אוּ מֹשֶׁ֣ה וְאַהֲרֹ֔ן וַיֹּאמְר֖וּ אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֑ה כֹּֽה־אָמַ֤ר ה” אֱלֹהֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל שַׁלַּח֙ אֶת־עַמִּ֔י וְיָחֹ֥גּוּ לִ֖י בַּמִּדְבָּֽר׃

Afterward Moses and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh, “Thus says ה, the God of Israel: Let My people go that they may celebrate a festival for Me in the wilderness.”

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר פַּרְעֹ֔ה מִ֤י ה” אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶשְׁמַ֣ע בְּקֹל֔וֹ לְשַׁלַּ֖ח אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל לֹ֤א יָדַ֙עְתִּי֙ אֶת־יה" וְגַ֥ם אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לֹ֥א אֲשַׁלֵּֽחַ׃

But Pharaoh said, “Who is ה” that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know ה”, nor will I let Israel go.”

Everything goes downhill from here, and Moses goes back to the desert to complain:

וַיָּ֧שׇׁב מֹשֶׁ֛ה אֶל־יְהֹוָ֖ה וַיֹּאמַ֑ר אֲדֹנָ֗י לָמָ֤ה הֲרֵעֹ֙תָה֙ לָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֔ה לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה שְׁלַחְתָּֽנִי׃

Then Moses returned to ה” and said, “O my lord, why did You bring harm upon this people? Why did You send me?

וּמֵאָ֞ז בָּ֤אתִי אֶל־פַּרְעֹה֙ לְדַבֵּ֣ר בִּשְׁמֶ֔ךָ הֵרַ֖ע לָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֑ה וְהַצֵּ֥ל לֹא־הִצַּ֖לְתָּ אֶת־עַמֶּֽךָ׃

Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has dealt worse with this people; and still You have not delivered Your people.”


וַיֹּ֤אמֶר ה” אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה עַתָּ֣ה תִרְאֶ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֶֽעֱשֶׂ֖ה לְפַרְעֹ֑ה כִּ֣י בְיָ֤ד חֲזָקָה֙ יְשַׁלְּחֵ֔ם וּבְיָ֣ד חֲזָקָ֔ה יְגָרְשֵׁ֖ם מֵאַרְצֽוֹ׃ {ס}      

   Then ה” said to Moses, “You shall soon see what I will do to Pharaoh: he shall let them go because of a greater might; indeed, because of a greater might he shall drive them from his land.”

Now comes the news, which does not seem to be news:

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֵלָ֖יו אֲנִ֥י ה”׃

God spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am ה”.

וָאֵרָ֗א אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֛ם אֶל־יִצְחָ֥ק וְאֶֽל־יַעֲקֹ֖ב בְּאֵ֣ל שַׁדָּ֑י וּשְׁמִ֣י יה" לֹ֥א נוֹדַ֖עְתִּי לָהֶֽם׃

I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name ה”.


However, in Genesis, God often introduces Himself as “YHWH”, so what’s new?

Again, Rashi

ושמי ה׳ לא נודעתי להם

BUT BY MY NAME THE LORD WAS I NOT KNOWN TO THEM — It is not written here לא הודעתי [My name the Lord] I did not make known to them, but לא נודעתי [by My name, the Lord], was I not known [unto them] — i. e. I was not recognised by them in My attribute of “keeping faith”, by reason of which My name is called ה׳, which denotes that I am certain to substantiate My promise, for, indeed, I made promises to them but did not fulfill them [during their lifetime].

In other words, they heard the name- but they did not understand what it meant! Keeping faith. Now, in your generation, you will see YHWH as the fulfillment of the promise. Again, tying in very well with the concept of “ Ehyeh”, being with.


So what is this YHWH- very similar to EHYH- variation on “ to be”.

He shall be- I shall be. A philosophical concept of being and becoming. Hu hayah- hu-hoveh- hu yihyeh-He was-is-will be.

Variation- Yah- and Yahoo, as parts of personal names-Eliyahu, Jehu, or words: Hallelujah-Praise Yah ( Rastafarians love Yah).

Under the influence of the Canaanites, Baal often appeared in names, only to be removed, as Yerubaal , May Baal  contend, became Gideon,the one who cuts down Baal,,and Ishbaal , A man of Baal, Saul’s son became Ishboshet, a man of shame.

By the way, what happens when you reverse the names, Hananiah or Azaria. They are the Carthaginian Hannibal and Hasdrubaal.


Alternate approach, one which works well with Rashi’s choice of ”being with.”

(Santa Katarina monastery, next to Jebel Musa. In the heart of Sinai. Midianites territory.)

In 1956, Shelomo Dov Goitein (1900-1985), a scholar of both Jewish and Arabic studies,[16] suggested that the name derives from the Arabic root h.w.y (هوى), and the word hawaya (هوايا), which means “love, affection, passion, desire.”[17] He connected this suggestion with the passage in Exodus 34, in a set of laws known by scholars as the Ritual Decalogue. One of the laws, which forbids Israel to worship other gods, reads:

שמות לד:יד כִּי לֹא תִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה לְאֵל אַחֵר כִּי יְ־הוָה קַנָּא שְׁמוֹ אֵל קַנָּא הוּא.


Exod 34:14 For you must not worship any other god, because YHWH, whose name is Impassioned, is an impassioned God.

Goitein suggests that “YHWH whose name is Impassioned” refers to the deity’s personal name YHWH, which means “the Impassioned One,” and that this name derives from that (proto)Arabic term for passion. This reflects the idea that YHWH’s bond with his worshipers is one of passionate love, and YHWH is upset if the worshipers “cheat” by worshipping other gods.

In other words, the worshippers’ relationship with YHWH must be exclusive.


This goes very well with the understanding of the Prophets, such as Hosea, who see the relation between God and the People of Israel as a lover's quarrel, as well as the Rabbis, who see the Song of Songs as a love story between God and the people of Israel.

Again, as a corollary- God is unseen. When Moses asks to see God, he is given a rear view mirror .Ex 34:6

!ה”! ה” a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness,

נֹצֵ֥ר*(בספרי תימן נֹצֵ֥ר בנו״ן רגילה) חֶ֙סֶד֙ לָאֲלָפִ֔ים נֹשֵׂ֥א עָוֺ֛ן וָפֶ֖שַׁע וְחַטָּאָ֑ה וְנַקֵּה֙ לֹ֣א יְנַקֶּ֔ה פֹּקֵ֣ד׀ עֲוֺ֣ן אָב֗וֹת עַל־בָּנִים֙ וְעַל־בְּנֵ֣י בָנִ֔ים עַל־שִׁלֵּשִׁ֖ים וְעַל־רִבֵּעִֽים׃  extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin—yet not remitting all punishment, but visiting the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.”



So , going back to Wellhausen- what is the argument against his claim that Elohim is northern, YHWH is southern?

The difference is , by many commentators, a matter of who is speaking to whom:

Elohim- El-Eloah-singular-Elohim-plural- is equivalent to the old antiquities term” The Gods”-generic. When is it used? When Hebrews speak to Gentiles:

Gen 20 Avimelech thinks Sarah is Abraham’s sister. Abraham says” There is no fear of Elohim.” Then Abraham prays to Elohim to make Avimelech’s wife fertile, “for YHVH had closed fast every womb of the household of Abimelech because of Sarah, the wife of Abraham.Note the switch in use of names.

And in the very next line:

   ה"פקַ֥ד אֶת־שָׂרָ֖ה כַּאֲשֶׁ֣ר אָמָ֑ר וַיַּ֧עַשׂ ה" לְשָׂרָ֖ה כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר דִּבֵּֽר׃ took note of Sarah as promised, and YHWH did for Sarah what had been announced.

A second context to Elohim- it is associated with the word” judges” and judgement. Thus, Rabbis understood “Elohim” as attribute of justice, YHWH as attribute of Mercy.

ופירש כי לפי הענין שאני עושה בעולמי זה הוא שמי אם במדת הדין נקרא שמי אלהים, ואם במדת רחמים נקרא שמי ה׳, ואם במלחמה נקרא שמי צבאות, ואם לעזרה נקרא שמי שדי, בכל אלו הדברים לא נודעתי להם, ולא נגליתי להם בלבת אש, כי אם במראה ובהירות, אבל אליך פה אל פה כאשר ידבר איש אל רעהו.

Midrash Lekah Tov 6 :3

My name is as I act in the world: With justice, then My name is Elohim. With Mercy, my name is YHWH.In war, then Tsevaot( the armies, the  hosts of heavens). In help, Shadai ( powerful).To you, Moses, I speak, directly, person to person, not in riddles and dreams.

Actually, we are told, there are multiple names for God in the Bible.

Avot D'Rabbi Natan 34:2

The Holy Blessed One is praised with ten names. They are as follows: A-D-O-N-A-I, E-L-O-H-I-M, E-L-O-A-H, E-L-O-H-E-Kh-A, E-L-O-H-E-Kh-E-M, E-L, E-H-I-Y-E-H A-S-H-E-R E-H-I-Y-E-H, Sh-A-D-A-I, and Tzevaot. Rabbi Yosei disagreed that Tzevaot was one of them, for it says (Deuteronomy 20:9), “Appoint generals for the armies (tzevaot) to head the people.”

To this, the Rabbis added

Shekhinah, presence-The noun form of a verb used in the Torah to describe God’s in-dwelling in the midst of his people.

Makom, the Place of the Universe, as in “ The universe is not the place of God, but God is the place of the universe.”

Then, Kinuyei Hashem. Hashem, hakadosh Baruch hu, Atik Yomin.

Kabbalah adds

Ein Sof

Then, there are in Kabbalistic lore,12 letter name, 22 letter name, 72 letter name.

This enters Christian texts as well. What is called Shem Hamephorash in Hebrew sources becomes Semamphoras in European texts.

The Renaissance philosopher, Reuchlin, identified 72 different names.

Here is the list from Reuchlin



Reuchlin’s research on Hebrew sources was a factor in the Protestant Reformation, which ushered in age of Revolution, now going full circle. It goes from Moses and the liberation from Egypt to the liberation of the beginnings of modern history with the revolutions against the rule of Churches and Kings.


.Note: Bible text and translation from modified as needed.

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