What’s in a Name?

The first two verses of Psalm 91 address God by four different names; he is the Most High and the Almighty in verse one, and MY God in verse two. The Hebrew text uses four different names, Elyon, Shaddai, Yahweh and Elohim.

In the testing of Abraham (Genesis 22) Elohim is used in the first ten verses, but from verse eleven it becomes YHWH. Why? Elohim is a harsh, demanding figure, whereas YHWH is more forgiving.

Non-documentary hypothesis

A rabbinic commentary on Jonah explains the different names for God:

1 As judge of creation, my name is Elohim;

2 In battle with the wicked, I am Sabbaoth;

3 When refusing to judge, I am El Shaddai;

4 As the compassionate God, I am YHWH.

So he is Elohim in the early verses of Genesis 22 but in the sacrifice of Isaac YHWH is used when God, having successfully tested Abraham’s allegiance, accepted the sacrifice of the ram. Clearly, God has many faces. Elohim is plural in Hebrew and is not meant to be here, although sometimes it can be polytheistic. It is a ‘kingly’ plural like the royal ‘we’. Elohim is the original Creator in Genesis 1.1; YHWH is the timeless ‘I AM’ who speaks to Moses in Exodus 3, and is connected with the verb ‘to be’ – ‘He whose essence is to exist’, wrote Thomas Aquinas.

The unspoken name

YHWH, found shortened to YH in some Psalms, was considered so holy that the High Priest on the Day of Atonement only uttered it. As Christians use the milder O Lord than O God in a crisis, so Jews used the word Adonai, meaning Lord, as in the Advent hymn. They also used the consonants YHWH, ‘pointed’ with the vowels of Adonai to produce a composite word Yahowaih, which after many mutations appeared in the Tyndale Bible of 1530 as JEHOVAH (and with the J pronounced as a Y as in German is recognizable as the same word).

Elohim (a plural of Eloi), to whom Jesus called on the cross and assumed to be a cry for Elijah, is itself a lordly name combining Eli and Yah. A shortened form El had been a senior deity in the Ugaritic pantheon and is a cognate of Allah, Arabic being a Semitic language. Elyon is a Canaanite variant, translated in Psalm 91 as ‘The Most High’, and combined with Shaddai is translated as ‘The Almighty’, although in trinitarian terms it is most akin to the Holy Spirit. It is found in the speeches of Elihu in Job as the divine inspiration.

Discriminate syncretism

Some syncretism is at work here: in the Promised Land the Jews, led by Yahweh, encountered the Canaanite God Elyon. Rather than dispute it, they identified Yahweh with Elyon in a way that was not uncommon in the ancient world. Jupiter was originally, Deuspiter, which is God the Father. Piter is an older form of the word pater. It is proto-Indo-European and is found in the form of Pita, the word father in Sanskrit.

This does not mean we all worship the same God; indisriminate syncretism is a danger, but we lose nothing by recognizing common elements in differing theologies. Linguistics can assist multi-faith dialogue in recognizing similarities, unlike the Jews who emphasized the differences that separated.

A lasting symbol of the Hebrew/Christian heritage is our liturgical chanting of Jewish songs, rounding them off with a Trinitarian doxology, as in Compline, when we reach the Gloria in Psalm 91. This was the song that begins in the Jerusalem version:

If you live in the shelter of Elyon
and make your home in the shadow of shaddai,
you can say to Yahweh, my refuge, my fortress,
my God (Elohim) in whom I trust.

That is a very positive and discriminate syncretism.

John Higginbotham is a member of the General Synod of the Church of England.