The Name of GOD used most often in the Hebrew Bible is the Tetragrammaton YHWH (Hebrew: יהוה). It is frequently anglicized as Jehovah and Yahweh and written in most English editions of the Bible as “the LORD” owing to the Jewish tradition of reading it as ADONAI (“My LORD” even if the form is plural “LORDS” according to the semitic languages this structure is used to show respect in the Scriptures called “Plural of Majesty”) out of respect.
Rabbinic Judaism describes seven names which are so Holy that, once written, should not be erased: YHWH, EL(“GOD“), ElOHIM (“GODS”), ELOAH (“GOD”), ELOHAI or ELOHEI (“My GOD”), EL Shaddai (“GOD Almighty”), and YHWH Tzevaot or Sabaoth (“of Hosts”). Other Names are considered mere epithets or titles reflecting different aspects of GOD, but chumrah sometimes dictates especial care such as the writing of “G-D” instead of “GOD” in English or saying Ṭēt-Vav (טו, lit. “9-6”) instead of Yōd-Hē (יה, lit. “10-5” but also “Jah”) for the number fifteen in Hebrew.
The documentary hypothesis proposes that the Torah was compiled from various original sources, two of which (the Jahwist and the Elohist) are named for their usual names for GOD (YHWH and ELOHIM respectively).
Seven Names of GOD
The seven names of GOD that, once written, cannot be erased because of their Holiness are the Tetragrammaton, EL, ELOHIM, ELOHA, ELOHAI, EL Shaddai, and YHWH Tzevarot. In addition, the Name JaAH—because it forms part of the Tetragrammaton—is similarly protected. Rabbi Jose considered “Tzevaot” a common Name and Rabbi Ishmael that “ELOHIM” was. All other Names, such as “Merciful”, “Gracious” and “Faithful”, merely represent attributes that are also common to human beings.
The name of GOD used most often in the Bible is YHWH (יהוה), also known as the Tetragrammaton (Greek for “Four-Letter Word”). Hebrew is a right-to-left abjad, so the word’s letters Yōd, Hē, Vav, Hē are usually taken for consonants and expanded to YAHWEH or JEHOVAH in English.
The exact pronunciation is uncertain because—although there is nothing in the Torah to prohibit the saying of the name and Ruth shows it was being pronounced as late as the 5th century bce—it had ceased to be spoken aloud by at least the 3rd century bce during Second Temple Judaism and vowel points were not written until the early medieval period. The Masoretic Text uses vowel points marking the pronunciation as Yəhōwāh (יְהֹוָה): whether this represents the original pronunciation, the period pronunciation, or the pronunciation of ADONAI remains an unresolved matter of scholarly debate. (For a discussion of subtle pronunciation changes between what is preserved in the Hebrew Scriptures and what is read, see Qere and Ketiv.)
The Tetragrammaton first appears in Genesis and occurs 6828 times in total in the Stuttgart edition of the Masoretic Text. It is thought to be an archaic third-person singular imperfect tense of the verb “to be” (i.e., “[He] was being”). This agrees with the passage in Exodus where GOD names Himself as “I Will Be What I Will Be” using the first-person singular imperfect tense.
Rabbinical Judaism teaches that the Name is forbidden to all except the High Priest, who should only speak it in the Holy of Holies of the Temple in Jerusalem on Yom Kippur. He then pronounces the name “just as it is written”. As each blessing was made, the people in the courtyard were to prostrate themselves completely as they heard it spoken aloud. As the Temple has been destroyed since ce 70, most modern Jews never pronounce YHWH but instead read ADONAI (“My LORD”) during prayer and while reading the Torah and as HaShem (“The Name”) at other times. Similarly, the Vulgate used DOMINUS (“The LORD”) and most English translations of the Bible write “the LORD” for YHWH and “the LORD GOD” for Adonai YHWH instead of transcribing the Name. (The Septuagint apparently originally used the Hebrew letters themselves amid its Greek text but all surviving editions instead write either KYRIOS [Κυριος, “LORD”) or THEOS [Θεος, “GOD”] for occurrences of the name.)
ADONAI (אֲדֹנָי, lit. “My LORDS”) is the plural form of ADON (“LORD”) along with the first-person singular pronoun enclitic. As with ELOHIM, ADONAI’s grammatical form is usually explained as a plural of majesty. In the Hebrew Bible, it is only used to refer to GOD. As the pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton came to be avoided in the Hellenistic period, Jews began to read “ADONAI” at its appearances in scripture and to say “ADONAI” in its place in prayer. Owing to the expansion of chumra (the idea of “building a fence around the Torah”), ADONAI itself has come to be too Holy to say for Orthodox Jews, leading to its replacement by HaShem (“The Name”).
The singular forms ADON and ADONI (“my LORD”) are used in Scripture as royal titles, as in the First Book of Samuel, and for distinguished persons.
Deuteronomy 10:17 has uses the proper name YAHWEH alongside the superlative constructions “GOD[s] of gods” elōhê ha-elōhîm and “LORD of lords” adōnê ha-adōnîm (כִּי יְהוָה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶם הוּא אֱלֹהֵי הָֽאֱלֹהִים וַאֲדֹנֵי הָאֲדֹנִים ; KJV: “For the LORD your GOD is God of gods, and LORD of Lords”).
EL appears in Ugaritic, Phoenician and other 2nd and 1st millennium bce texts both as generic “god” and as the head of the divine pantheon. In the Hebrew Bible EL (Hebrew: אל) appears very occasionally alone (e.g. Genesis 33:20, EL ELOHE yisrael, “El the GOD of Israel”, and Genesis 46:3, ha’EL ELOHE abika, “EL the GOD of thy father”), but usually with some epithet or attribute attached (e.g. EL Elyon, “Most High EL”, EL Shaddai, “EL of Shaddai“, EL `Olam “Everlasting EL”, EL Hai, “Living EL”, EL Ro’i “EL my Shepherd”, and EL Gibbor “EL of Strength”), in which cases it can be understood as the generic “god”. In theophoric names such as Gabriel (“Strength of GOD”), Michael (“Who is like GOD?”), Raphael (“GOD’s medicine”), Ariel (“GOD’s lion”), Daniel (“GOD’s Judgment”), Israel (“one who has struggled with GOD”), Immanuel (“GOD is with us”), and Ishmael (“GOD Hears”/”GOD Listens”) it usually interpreted and translated as “GOD”.
A common name of GOD in the Hebrew Bible is ELOHIM (Hebrew: אלהים). Despite the -im ending common to many plural nouns in Hebrew, the word ELOHIM when referring to GOD is grammatically singular, and takes a singular verb in the Bible. The word is identical to the usual plural of EL meaning GODS or magistrates, and is cognate to the ‘lhm found in Ugaritic, where it is used for the pantheon of Canaanite gods, the children of EL and conventionally vocalized as “ELOHIM” although the original Ugaritic vowels are unknown. When the Bible uses ELOHIM not in reference to GOD, it is plural (for example, Exodus 20:2). There are a few other such uses in Hebrew, for example Behemoth. In Modern Hebrew, the singular word ba’alim (“owner”, “lord”, or “husband”) looks plural, but likewise takes a singular verb.
A number of scholars have traced the etymology to the Semitic root *yl, “to be first, powerful”, despite some difficulties with this view. ELOHIM is thus the plural construct “powers”. Hebrew grammar allows for this form to mean “He is the Power (singular) over powers (plural)”, just as the word Ba’alim means “owner” (see above). “He is Lord (singular) even over any of those things that he owns that are lordly (plural).”
Theologians who dispute this claim cite the hypothesis that plurals of majesty came about in more modern times. Richard Toporoski, a classics scholar, asserts that plurals of majesty first appeared in the reign of Diocletian (ce 284–305). Indeed, Gesenius states in his book Hebrew Grammar the following:
The Jewish grammarians call such plurals … plur. virium or virtutum; later grammarians call them plur. excellentiae, magnitudinis, or plur. maiestaticus. This last name may have been suggested by the we used by kings when speaking of themselves (compare 1 Maccabees 10:19 and 11:31); and the plural used by GOD in Genesis 1:26 and 11:7; Isaiah 6:8 has been incorrectly explained in this way). It is, however, either communicative (including the attendant Angels: so at all events in Isaiah 6:8 and Genesis 3:22), or according to others, an indication of the fullness of power and might implied. It is best explained as a plural of self-deliberation. The use of the plural as a form of respectful address is quite foreign to Hebrew.
Mark S. Smith has cited the use of plural as possible evidence to suggest an evolution in the formation of early Jewish conceptions of monotheism, wherein references to “the gods” (plural) in earlier accounts of verbal tradition became either interpreted as multiple aspects of a single monotheistic GOD at the time of writing, or subsumed under a form of monolatry, wherein the GOD(s) of a certain city would be accepted after the fact as a reference to the GOD of Israel and the plural deliberately dropped.
The plural form ending in -im can also be understood as denoting abstraction, as in the Hebrew words chayyim (“life”) or betulim (“virginity”). If understood this way, ELOHIM means “divinity” or “deity”. The word chayyim is similarly syntactically singular when used as a name but syntactically plural otherwise.
In many of the passages in which ELOHIM occurs in the Bible it refers to non-Israelite deities, or in some instances to powerful men or judges, and even angels (Exodus 21:6, Psalms 8:5) as a simple plural in those instances.
ELOHAI or ELOHEI (“My GOD”) is a form of ELOHIM along with the first-person singular pronoun enclitic. It appears in the names “GOD of Abraham” (ELOHAI Avraham); “GOD of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (ELOHAI Avraham, ELOHAI Yitzchak ve ELOHAI Yaʿaqov); and “GOD of Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel” (ELOHAI Sara, ELOHAI Rivka, ELOHAI Leah ve ELOHAI Rakhel).
El Shaddai (Hebrew: אל שדי) is one of the names of GOD in Judaism, with its etymology coming from the influence of the Ugaritic religion on modern Judaism. El Shaddai is conventionally translated as “GOD Almighty”. While the translation of EL as “GOD” in Ugarit/Canaanite language is straightforward, the literal meaning of Shaddai is the subject of debate.
ADONAI Tzevaot or Sabaoth (Hebrew: צבאות lit. “Armies”) appears in reference to armies or armed hosts of men in Exodus but is not used as a divine epithet in the Torah, Joshua, or Judges. In the First Book of Samuel, David uses the name YHWH Tzavaot and immediately glosses it as “the GOD of the armies of Israel”. The same name appears in the prophets along with YHWH ELOHE Tzevaot, ELOHEY Tzevaot, and ADONAI YHWH Tzevaot. These are usually translated in the King James Version as the “LORD of Hosts” or “LORD GOD of Hosts”. In its later uses, however, it often denotes GOD in His role as leader of the heavenly hosts.
The abbreviated form JAH (/dʒɑː/) or YAH appears in the Psalms and Isaiah. It is a common element in Hebrew theophoric names such as Elijah and also appears in the forms yahu (“Jeremiah“), yeho (“Joshua“), and YO (“John”, ultimately from the biblical “Yohanan“). It also appears 24 times in the Psalms as a part of Hallelujah (“Praise JAH”).
In Jewish tradition the sacredness of the divine Name or titles must be recognized by the professional sofer (scribe) who writes Torah scrolls, or tefillin and mezuzah. Before transcribing any of the divine titles or Name he prepares mentally to sanctify them. Once he begins a Name he does not stop until it is finished, and he must not be interrupted while writing it, even to greet a king. If an error is made in writing it may not be erased, but a line must be drawn round it to show that it is canceled, and the whole page must be put in a genizah (burial place for Scripture) and a new page begun.
One of the most important names is that of the Ein Sof (אין סוף “Endless”), which first came into use after ce 1300.The forty-two-lettered name contains the combined names אהיה יהוה אדוני הויה, that when spelled out contains 42 letters. The equivalent in value of YHWH (spelled הא יוד הא וו = 45) is the forty-five-lettered name.
The seventy-two-lettered name is derived from three verses in Exodus (14:19–21) beginning with “Vayyissa”, “Vayyabo” and “Vayyet” respectively. Each of the verses contains 72 letters, and when combined they form 72 names, known collectively as the Shemhamphorasch. The kabbalistic book Sefer Yetzirah explains that the creation of the World was achieved by the manipulation of these Sacred Letters that form the Names of GOD.
The words “GOD” and “LORD” are written by some Jews as “G-D” and “L-RD” as a way of avoiding writing any name of GOD in full out of respect. Deuteronomy 12:3–4 reads, “And ye shall overthrow their altars, and break their pillars, and burn their groves with fire; and ye shall hew down the graven images of their gods, and destroy the names of them out of that place. Ye shall not do so unto the LORD your GOD.” From this it is understood that one should not erase or blot out the Name of GOD. The general halachic opinion is that this only applies to the sacred Hebrew Names of GOD, but not to other euphemistic references; there is a dispute whether the word “GOD” in English or other languages may be erased.