The Names of God

The God of the Hebrew Bible has many names, one of which is never pronounced.

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The Canaanite word for god was El. This is not used often in the Bible except when it is coupled with another title. God is sometimes called El Elyon, literally God Most High. So the Psalmist declares, "I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart…I will sing praises to Thy name O Most High" (Psalm 9:1‑2) and "Let them know that Thou alone whose name is JHWH art the Most High over all the world" (Psalm 83:18). Like the term Elohim, this title was taken over from the Canaanites who traditionally described El Elyon as the lord of all the gods. When the Jews took possession of the Promised Land, it was natural enough for them also to adopt this title for their One God.

Similar borrowings occurred with El Olam (the Everlasting God) and El Shaddai (the Almighty God). The book of Genesis describes the patriarch Abraham calling God El Olam at the shrine of Beersheba: "Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba and called there on the name of JHWH, the Everlasting God" (21:3). Similarly, when Abraham attained the age of ninety‑nine, JHWH appeared to him and said, "I am God Almighty, walk with me and be blameless" (17:1). In both instances there are clear Canaanite connections. Beersheba was almost certainly an old pagan shrine and, when God revealed Himself as El Shaddai, He was promising the patriarch that the land of Canaan (the Promised Land) was to be given to his descendants forever.

It is notable that even today many Hebrew personal names incorporate the names of God. Daniel, Michael, Elisha, Israel, and Ezekiel are all built round El. Elijah uses both El and JHWH while Adonijah grows from JHWH and Adonai. The same is true of many modern Israeli surnames, as in that of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, which is clearly derived from the proper name of God.

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Lavinia Cohn-Sherbok

Lavinia Cohn-Sherbok is a writer and a teacher.