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The "Names" of God
by Prof. Mordochai ben-Tziyyon, Universitah Ha'ivrit, Y'rushalayim


The two principal "Names": Elohim and Adonai

God is called by many "names" in the Scriptures. For example, throughout the "Creation" chapter of B'réshit, the Creator is called Elohim, usually translated as simply "God". Elohim is by far the most common "Name" used for God in the twenty-four Books of the Scriptures and occurs more than four times as frequently as the Four-Lettered "Name", often prefixed by the definite article: ha'elohim ("the God").

The word elohim is grammatically the plural form of elo'ah, a "god". It is also used in the sense of "gods", frequently with the adjective ahérim ("other"), i.e. elohim ahérim, "other gods"---that is to say, other false gods, or idols (and note that an "idol" does not have to be a sculpture or a statue---the English word idol is derived from the Latin idolum, itself borrowed from the Greek eidolon, a "phantom"). It is almost always immediately obvious from the context whether a specific instance of the word elohim is being used as a "Name" for God (treated grammatically as a singular "proper noun"), or as denoting "idols" (an ordinary plural "common noun").

The word elohim is also used in the Scriptures in a third sense: there are many examples of this, but I shall present just one here. Sh'mot 22:6-7 deals with the situation that arises if "A" gives money, or goods, to "B" for safe-keeping, and they are stolen while still in B's possession. The Torah prescribes that, if the thief is not caught, B must appear before the judges in a Court of Law, and must swear on oath that he has not misappropriated B's money or goods, as the case may be---

, ... , .
ki yittén ish el ré'éhu kesef o kélim lish'mor, v'gunnav mibeit ha'ish... im lo yimmatzé haganav, v'nikrav ba'al habayit el ha'elohim, im lo shalah yado bim'le'chet ré'éhu...
"If A gives money or goods to B for safe-keeping, and they are stolen from B's house... if the thief is not caught, then B shall appear before the judges [and swear an oath] that he has not laid his hand on A's property..."

In this connection, it is appropriate to mention one particular passage in B'réshit that has probably given rise to more misunderstandings than any other passage in that entire book, namely verses 1-4 of chapter 6---

, , . ', " , ; "... ( , )... : , .
vay'hi ki héhél ha'adam larov al p'nei ha'adamah uvanot yull'du lahem, vayir'u b'nei ha'elohim et b'not ha'adam ki tovot hénah, vayik'hu lahem nashim mikol asher baharu. vayo'mer adonai, "lo yadon ruhi ba'adam l'olam, b'shaggam hu basar---v'hayu yamav mé'ah v'esrim shanah". (han'filim hayu ba'aretz bayamim hahém, v'gam aharei-chen)... asher yavo'u b'nei ha'elohim el b'not ha'adam v'yal'du lahem, hémah hagiborim asher hayu mé'olam, anshei hashém.
When Mankind began to increase in numbers and spread throughout the World, daughters were born to them; and when the sons of the "elohim" saw that the daughters of the common people were real cute, they took [by force] whichever of them they wanted as their wives.
So Adonai said "I will not allow My Nature to struggle within Me indefinitely because of Mankind---after all, he is mortal---I will allow him another 120 years".
(There were n'filim in the world at that time, and also afterwards.)
So the sons of the "elohim" slept with with the daughters of the common people and they gave birth to their children---these were the famous mighty men of old.

The word elohim is being used here in a very similar way to the way it was used in the passage I mentioned previously, although here the intended meaning is probably somewhat wider, i.e. "princes" or "rulers" rather than merely "judges". But in any event the general sense is connected with rulership, authority and justice. The Divine "Name" Elohim also has the same connotation, because it is only used in contexts where God is exercising His "Attribute" of strict Justice.

It is worthy of note that in verse 3 of this passage, where God speaks, He is called by the Four-Lettered "Name" (usually read aloud as Adonai, or "my LORD"---see below for the question of whether it is permitted to actually use this "Name"), which is associated with God's Quality of "Attribute"---and in that verse, He decrees that Mankind is to be allowed a period of 120 years to renounce their wickedness and mend their ways. Similar usages of the two principal "Names" are found in the opening chapters of B'réshit, where it will be seen that the whole of Creation was performed by Elohim (strict Justice), whereas in chapter 2, where the Creator begins His dealings with human beings, He starts to be called by the Four-Lettered "Name" (Adonai) because His "Attribute" of Mercy now has to come into play (since Man, being by his nature imperfect, cannot exist under strict Justice alone).


Does God actually have a "Name"?

The answer to this question may surprise you---No, He doesn't! Think about it: we human beings need names to distinguish us from each other: a mother with several children needs to have a different name for each of them so if she calls one, the one being called knows he/she is wanted. But God is unique, the Only One of His "Kind", so He does not need a "Name" to distinguish Him from any "other"---there simply aren't any others.

Many christians will point to the conversation God had with Mosheh at the "Burning Bush", claiming that He stated His "Name" was "I AM"---and some even refer to Him as "THE I AM". This is totally absurd and shows a complete ignorance of Hebrew language and grammar, because Hebrew does not even have a word for "am". The passage (Sh'mot 3:13-14) reads as follows---

, " , , -- ?" , " "... : " , ".
vayo'mer mosheh el ha'elohim: "hinneh anochi ba el b'nei yisra'el v'amarti lahem elohei avoteichem sh'lahani aleichem v'am'ru li mah sh'mo---mah omar aléhem?" vayo'mer elohim el mosheh: "eh'yeh asher eh'yeh"... vayo'mer: "koh to'mar el b'nei yisra'el, eh'yeh sh'lahani aleichem".
...then Mosheh said to the Elohim, "When I come to the Yisraelites and I tell them 'Your ancestors' Elohim has sent me to you'---what should I tell them if they ask me 'What is His Name'?"
Elohim answered, "[Tell them I am the One who says] I shall be [with them when they need Me now,] just as I shall be [with them whenever they need Me in the future]";
and then He said: "Tell the Yisraelites '[the One who says] I shall be [with them when they need Me now] has sent me to you'."

In this passage, Mosheh does not ask the Elohim directly "What is Your Name?", and the Elohim does not say "My Name is... "; Mosheh seems to have known that the Elohim does not have a "Name", and merely asks what he is to say if he is asked what the Elohim's "Name" is---and the reply he receives is rather evasive: "Tell them I am the One who says 'I will be with them...'."

Nonetheless, the limitations of human language make it necessary for some kind of "designation" or "title" to be used in the written text of the Scriptures to refer to God where He features in the narrative, and it is for this purpose alone that the two principal "Names" I have been discussing here (and also several others that occur much less frequently) appear in the text.


Are we allowed to use the Four-Lettered "Name"?

This is a vexed and very contentious question: it is widely known that Hebrews never pronounce the Four-Lettered "Name", but many christians sneer at the Hebrew attitude and some (especially the members of one particular crackpot christian sect) make a point of insisting on using their own made-up versions of how they claim it "should" be pronounced.

One absurd assertion that is continually thrown at me is that "the ancient Hebrews used the 'Name' ALL THE TIME". To those who make this claim, I say: HOW DO YOU KNOW? Those who say this can never adduce one shred of evidence to support it, and yet they are so insistent about the matter; but it is not enough simply to repeat the claim ever more loudly: if they are so sure, let them demonstrate where they get this "knowledge" from, and what makes them so sure about it. I am constantly amazed by the arrogance of christians who think they know more about our culture and history than we do!

So, first of all, why don't Hebrews ever pronounce this most sacred of Divine "Names"? Contrary to popular belief, this is not connected in any way with the so-called "third commandment", which forbids "taking Adonai's 'Name' vainly". That commandment is actually a prohibition against swearing oaths falsely using Adonai's "Name", or swearing unnecessary or pointless oaths (such as swearing an oath to do something that you must do anyway, even without swearing an oath).

There are several reasons why Hebrews never attempt to pronounce the Four-Lettered "Name". The most obvious is that it is impossible to pronounce it, because it consists of four consonants only, without any vowels, and so any attempt at pronouncing it must of necessity be an incorrect pronunciation, and there is nothing more insulting than mispronouncing anyone's name---do you really want to insult God?

Another very good reason for not addressing God by His "Name" is the matter of simple respect: do you call your parents by their given names? Regardless of your political views, if you got to meet the President of the United States, would you walk up to him and say, "Hi there, George!"---or if you happened to be presented to the Queen of England, would you call her "Lizzie"? No you would not, that would be most impolite and disrespectful---the President of the U.S.A. is correctly addressed as "Mr President", and the Queen of England (or indeed any other King or Queen) should be addessed as "Your Majesty". So doesn't the Creator of the Universe deserve at least as much respect as you would show to your parents, a human president, a human king or a human queen?

There is more to this issue than just that, though. A most unfortunate incident is recorded in Vayikra 24:10-12---

, , ; . ; ... , '.
vayétzé ben ishah yis'r'élit---v'hu ben ish mitz'ri---b'toch b'nei yisra'el; vayinnatzu bamahaneh ben hayis'r'élit v'ish ayis'r'éli. vayikkov ben ishah hayis'r'élit et hashem vay'kallel, vayavi'u oto el mosheh... vayannihuhu bamish'mar, lif'rosh lahem al pi adonai.
The son of a certain Yisraelite woman (who was the son of an Egyptian man) went out among the Yisraelites; and this son of a Yisraelite woman got into a fight in the camp with a Yisraelite man. Then the son of the Yisraelite woman spoke "The Name", and cursed It---so they brought him to Mosheh... and he was confined in detention, until the matter could be clarified for them from Adonai's Mouth.

The sentence passed on the "son of the Yisraelite woman" was severe (Vayikra 24:13-16)---

' : , ; . : , , ' , , , .
vay'dabber adonai el mosheh lémor, "hotzé et ham'kallel el mihutz lamahaneh
v'sam'chu kol hashom'im et y'deihem al rosho, v'tagmu oto kol ha'édah; v'el b'nei yisra'el t'dabber lémor: ish ish ki y'kallel elohav v'nasa het'o, v'nokev shem XXXX mot yumat
---ragom yirg'mu bo kol ha'édah---kagér ka'ezrah---b'nok'vo shém yumat."
Adonai spoke to Mosheh and said, "Take the one who cursed outside the camp and have every one who heard him press their hands onto his head; then the entire community is to execute him. And tell the Yisraelites this: Any man who curses his Elohim commits an unforgivable sin; and anyone who speaks the Four-Lettered Name must be put to death---the entire community is to execute him---the same applies to a foreigner as to a citizen---he must die for speaking the Name."

The "son of the Yisraelite woman"---whose name is not recorded, although his mother's name (Sh'lomit daughter of Div'ri, from the tribe Dan) is---actually committed two offences: (1) he spoke the Four-Lettered "Name", and (2) he cursed it. He was executed for the first of these. The sin of "cursing God" (verse 15) is so serious that no "atonement" is possible for it: the person committing a sin of such seriousness must "bear his guilt", i.e. it remains with him for the remainder of his life, and is dealt with by God Himself after the person's death.

I should mention that those christians I referred to earlier, who think it is smart to be so disrespectful as to address or refer to God using His Four-Lettered "Name", argue about the meaning of the verb nakav that is used in verses 11 and 16 and claim it means to "blaspheme"---even though not one of them actually speaks any Hebrew. And their "bibles" translate it as "blaspheme", too---but only in this chapter. It's a very strange thing that they do not translate this verb as "blaspheme" in any of the other places where it is used in Scripture: for example, they do not have "And he said, Blaspheme to me thy wages, and I will give it" in B'réshit 30:28, or "And Moses and Aaron took these men which are blasphemed by their names" in B'midbar 1:17, or "And the gentiles shall see thy righteousness, and all kings thy glory: and thou shalt be called by a new name, which the mouth of the LORD shall blaspheme" in Y'shayahu 62:2, even though all three of those verses use exactly the SAME verb.

In the final analysis, when so much is at stake, is it really worth taking a chance of being wrong? Wouldn't it be the smarter course of action to err on the side of caution? Ah, those christians say, but God repeatedly talks about wanting His "Name" publicised and made known throughout the World! Well yes, He does say things like that---but what they are forgetting is that the word name has more than one meaning. When one speaks of a person "making a name for himself", name means fame, or a reputation, and the Hebrew word shém can also have this meaning too. Doesn't it make a lot more sense for God to want all people in the World to know about Him and all the amazing things He has done, rather than wanting them to know the group of four letters that is used as a "Name" for Him in the Hebrew Scriptures? I think it does.

The bottom line is this: is it really worth the risk of being wrong about this? There is no direct command anywhere that the "Name" must be used, so one loses nothing by not doing it. On the other hand, just suppose that we Hebrews have been right all along, and God really does not want any human being to ever speak His "Name"---why take the chance of committing such a grievous sin? The sensible man will always err on the side of caution, especially when infringement may lead to the Death Penalty. There are many examples of Hebrew Law erring on the side of caution, the most obvious being the times that shabbat and the holy days begin and end: the Torah says only that they are to be celebrated mé'erev ad erev, "from evening until evening" (Vayikra 23:32)---but does "evening" mean sunset (when twilight begins) or full darkness (when twilight ends)? The answer is that we just don't know, so we err on the side of caution and shabbat and the holy days begin at sunset, but do not end until full darkness arrives the following night.

One final word: it is only speaking the Four-Lettered "Name" that is forbidden by the Torah, but there are very good reasons for not writing it either. For one thing, a person who makes a habit of writing it freely will become so accustomed to using it that he may very well speak it without thinking, even if he doesn't mean to---and remember how serious a matter it is. But perhaps even more serious are the possible consequences of writing it... what will become the eventual fate of the piece of paper it is written on? Most likely, it will end up in the garbage---and what greater insult to God could there be than for His Sacred "Name" to be lying among all the refuse and the filth? If we truly honour and respect Him, we should want to take great care to make sure such a terrible thing does not ever happen, and cannot ever happen. We can make sure of this by never writing the Four-Lettered Name on any paper, for any reason.

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