Open the Bible to just about any page and chances are pretty good that you’ll see the word “God” or “Lord.” That’s because the Bible is a collection of writings by ancient Hebrews and early Christians about God’s involvement in their lives and world.
Some believe the stories of the Bible are simply legends; others believe they are true tales of testimony and history. Whatever your religious persuasion, there is no doubt that the Bible is primarily about God and his relationship with people.
But the writers of the Bible—there were many from diverse backgrounds—often used different names for God. The Old Testament books were originally written in Hebrew (with some Aramaic) and the New Testament books were written in Greek. In these books, authors utilized many different words and phrases as names of God.
Let’s survey a few of the most important names of God in the Bible.
For starters, two words commonly used for God in the Bible are el (Hebrew) and theos (Greek). In their simplest usage, these two words refer to a divine being or god. Neither is exclusive to the Bible. Many other ancient Near Eastern texts and classical Greek writings used these two words to refer to divine beings. Indeed the word “el” is found in various other Semitic languages—such as Canaanite and Ugaritic—to refer to local deities.1
New Testament writers typically used the word “theos” for the name of God. For example, the Apostle John wrote: “Whoever does not love does not know God [theos], because God [theos] is love.”2
Old Testament writers often distinguished the God they worshiped from other gods by adding a descriptor. Thus we find terms like:
- El Shaddai, meaning “God Almighty”: “When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, ‘I am God Almighty.’”3
- El Elyon, meaning “the Most High God”: “Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High.”4
- El Roi, meaning “the God Who Sees”: "[Hagar] gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: ‘You are the God who sees me.’”5
- El Yisrael, meaning “the God of Israel”: “Now Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the prophet, a descendant of Iddo, prophesied . . . in the name of the God of Israel.”6
Old Testament authors also used the word elohim, which is simply the plural form of the word “el.” Taken literally, it can be translated “gods.” From time to time it is used that way in the Bible, such as in the famous commandment given to Moses by God: “You shall have no other gods [elohim] before me.”7
But more often than not, the Israelites referred to the one, true God as “elohim.” Scholars and theologians refer to this usage as a “plural of majesty” or “intensive plural,” because Semitic languages often employed a plural form to intensify a word.8 In this case, “elohim” refers to a divine being who is grand and majestic, “the sovereign creator of the whole universe.”9
This provides an important insight into how Israelites most often perceived the God they worshipped. Indeed, “elohim” is the first name used of God in the Bible: “In the beginning God [elohim] created the heavens and the earth.”10 The word occurs more than two thousand more times in the Old Testament.
In addition to the general names for God in the Old Testament, one much more personal name stands out above all others: Yahweh.
The background on this name is complex. The book of Exodus records that when God called Moses to return to Egypt and lead the Israelites out of slavery, Moses asked God a question. “Moses said to God, ‘Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your fathers has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is his name?” Then what shall I tell them?’”11
It was a good question. Until that time, the descendants of Abraham had usually referred to God as simply “el” or “elohim,” as we discussed earlier. Moses wanted to trust God would save his people, but he needed a name—a personal name.
The narrative continues: “God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: “I AM has sent me to you.”’”12
The phrase translated as “I am who I am” could also mean, “I cause to be because I cause to be.”13 And, when used as a title, the English words “I am” are one word in Hebrew: Yahweh. Technically, the vowels were not included in ancient Hebrew, so some scholars write the word as “YHWH.” This became the personal name of God for the Hebrew people.
“Yahweh” could refer to God’s self-existence, that he is not dependent or contingent on anyone or anything else for life, as humans are. It could also refer to the deliverance from slavery God was about to provide for Israel.
No matter the details, this name for God—Yahweh—became so sacred to Israelites that they ceased saying it out loud to ensure they did not use it in a profane way. As a result, the Hebrew words hashem—meaning “the name”—or adonai—meaning “lord”—were substituted in public reading and speech.
Most English Bibles continue that practice of reverence for God’s name when translating the word “Yahweh.” They use the word “Lord” in all capital letters—LORD—to distinguish the times when “Yahweh” is used from the times when “adonai,” the actual Hebrew word for lord (as in “master”) is used.
For example, the Ten Commandments begin with this introduction: ““I am the LORD [Yahweh] your God [elohim], who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.”14 Thus, whenever you see LORD in all capitals in the Old Testament, it refers to the personal name the Israelites used for their God.
God the Father
Jesus personalized God’s name even further. When talking about God, he often used the general term “theos” and the more specific term kurios, which is Greek for “lord” and presumably referred to God as Yahweh.
But perhaps more importantly, Jesus also called God pater, meaning “Father.” Indeed, Jesus taught his followers to pray to God by addressing him as “our Father in heaven.”15
This is arguably the most personal of the names for God in the Bible. It illustrates that God—the same God who created the heavens and the earth, who saved the nation of Israel, who is “Most High” among all other objects of worship—is also a personal, caring Father to all who trust him.
There are many other variations of names used for God in the Bible and countless more metaphors to describe what he is like. Whichever names from the Bible are most helpful for you, be encouraged by the words of the Apostle Paul: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”16
- Robert J. Wyatt, “God, Names of,” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 2, ed. by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982), 505.
- The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, 1 John 4:8.
- Ibid., Genesis 17:1.
- Ibid., Genesis 14:18.
- Ibid., Genesis 16:13.
- Ibid., Ezra 5:1.
- Ibid., Exodus 20:3.
- Wyatt, 505.
- Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15 in Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1987), 15.
- The Holy Bible, Genesis 1:1.
- Ibid., Exodus 3:13.
- Ibid., Exodus 3:14.
- Douglas K. Stuart, “Exodus” in New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2006), 121.
- The Holy Bible, Exodus 20:2.
- Ibid., Matthew 6:9.
- Ibid., Romans 10:13.
- Photo Credit: Caleb Thal / Stocksy.com.