23 August 2021

God’s names. (And a bunch of his adjectives.)

New Christians—and a bunch of us older ones too—tend to be fascinated by the fact God has a lot of different names.

No, I’m not talking about the different words for “God” in other languages: Theos, Deus, Dios, Diyos, Dieu, Dia, Dio, Zeu, Gott, Gud, Hudaý, Bog, Buh, Elohim, Allah, Ulah, Dev, Ram, Atua, Kami, Haneunim, and so forth. Those are neat too, as are the different ways humanity has rendered “Jesus.” But people who are into that, are more into languages. Your average Christian is more into the many different things God is called in the bible.

James Nesbit is selling this poster of God’s names. Without the watermark, I expect. jnesbit.com

There’s “God,” of course. There’s “the Lord” or “the LORD,” depending on the original-language words we’re translating. There’s his personal name “I Am” or “YHWH” (or “Yahwéh”) or “Jehovah.” There’s “the Most High” and “the Almighty”…

And I haven’t even got to the titles yet. Like Mighty God, Ancient of Days, Alpha and Omega, Lord of Hosts, and so on. Go to your average Christian bookstore (assuming your local one hasn’t shut down, or moved to the internet) and they even have a poster covered in God’s titles. Suitable for framing, if you’re not a teenager but still like posters.

Bust out some Hebrew to go along with it, and some Christians will get sloppy with excitement. I can write articles about God’s attributes till my fingers go numb, but many a Christian doesn’t give a rip about theology: They just want easy ideas which they can meditate upon and come up with their own insights about, and one of the easiest ideas to mentally play with is one of God’s names. So they just love God’s names.

There’s just something about them. Because, as many Christians teach, there’s power in God’s name. Jr 10.6 Power, power, wonder-working power. Power to break every chain, break every chain, break every chain.

But I should first point out these many names of God… are not necessarily what God names himself.

Fr’instance “God.” In nearly every culture, a god is what you call any being who’s mightier than a human—stronger, smarter, longer-lived, heals quicker, or what have you. It’s why superheroes tend to be called gods—and every time someone in a movie refers to Superman or Thor as a god, we Christians balk: They’re not gods. “There’s only one God,” as Captain America said in the first Avengers movie, “and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that.” But in ancient pagan cultures—and regularly among today’s pagans—it is how people think. Once you become more than human, you become a god.

So you suck up to gods as you do a warlord or king. ’Cause it’s more powerful than you, and could either do things for you, or smite you. It might have expectations on you, or capriciously decide it doesn’t like you.

But to the ancients, gods weren’t all-powerful. Gods could only control, or reign over, one particular thing—like weather or sex. Even the mightiest of gods wasn’t the creator of all things; ancient myths always had the first gods making the universe out of pre-existing materials, which nobody made… and often the pre-existing materials made the gods, like when Ouranos and Gaia made Chronos. Likewise these gods weren’t even moral beings. (Well, Baldr was good. But of all the gods in pagan mythology, it’s pretty much only him. And they killed him.)

In contrast, the anceint Hebrews, we Christians, and Muslims are monotheists: There’s only the One God, and he’s a supreme being; he’s God over all, not just individual things or nations, and he created heavens and earth Ge 1.1 instead of heavens and earth creating him. We don’t consider any other “gods” to be legit. When we use the word “god,” we monotheists only mean the One God. Who’s almighty, and good.

The generic Hebrew words for gods—el, eloáh, or elohím (which is one of those words which can be singular or plural, like “pants” or “deer”) grew to signify the One God, the only God, their God. Capitalized ’cause it’s his title. (Some Christians go bonkers when it’s written in lowercase, ’cause they think it’s disrespectful. Yeah, like the President feels slighted when people refer to him as “the president.” Of all the dumb things to fret about.)

But “God” isn’t properly his name; it’s his species. It’s like when God refers to any of us as “human,” or “son of man”—like he did Ezekiel, Ek 2.1 or Jesus did of himself. Mt 8.20

What God calls himself.

GOD ALMIGHTY (Hebrew, אֵ֣ל שַׁדַּ֔י/El Šaddaý, “God [the] Almighty”). When God introduced himself to Avram and changed the man’s name to Abraham, he referred to himself as God Almighty. Ge 17.1 He later explained to Moses this is the name by which he revealed himself to Moses’s ancestors. Ex 6.3 (Yeah, God’s other names get mentioned in Genesis, but that’s because the writer of Genesis used them, not because people back then knew them.)

The translators of the Septuagint translated šaddaý as παντοκράτωρ/pantokrátor, “all-powerful.” It’s an indication of the power God wields. He can do anything he wants, without any limits but the ones he voluntarily sets on himself. He’s all-powerful. It’s where we get our word almighty.

In recent times, linguists speculate šaddaý means something else. Ordinarily šaddaýim, its plural, means “breasts.” So linguists wonder whether this was meant to represent God’s provision to his people, kinda like a mother provides milk for her newborn. Remember, God may be our Father, Mt 6.9 but as a spirit Jn 4.24 he has no gender.

But it also looks like šaddaý is related to שָׁדַד/šadád, meaning “destroyer.” God’s almightiness is demonstrated by the fact he can destroy whatever he wants. Or possibly šaddaý doesn’t come from Hebrew at all; it might be a loanword from the Akkadian šadú, meaning “mountain” or “hill,” and indicates God’s a hill god, 1Ki 20.28 or is impressive like a mighty mountain. Ps 36.6

Me, I figure just because a word looks like another word, it doesn’t automatically mean they’re related. A baseball pitcher isn’t called that because he can drink a lot of beer. (Think about that a moment. Laugh when you get it.) The Saxon for “throw” just happened to resemble the Old French for “pot.” Same with šaddaý—there’s no reason to assume it’s descended from any similar-looking Hebrew words. The ancients believed it meant “almighty.” Let’s assume they’re right, and move on.

I AM (WHO I AM) (literally אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה/Ehyé ašér ehyé, “I’m being what I’m being”). God introduced himself to Moses as I AM when he sent him to free the Israelis from the Egyptians. Ex 3.14 This, he declared, “is my eternal name, my name to remember for all generations.” Ex 3.15 NLT

God gave this name in response to Moses’s request, “When I say ‘God of your ancestors,’ and they respond, ‘And which god is that?’ what response will I give?” Ex 3.13 Interestingly, I AM was not a name they’d have recognized. God hadn’t revealed it before. Ex 6.3 His response actually means, “I get to define myself. Not you.” God is who he is, not what we decide he is, or even what we think he is. He’s not an abstract concept but a being, a concrete reality. We have to deal with him as he is.

JEHOVAH and YAHWEH (יהוה/YHWH, “I am”). The proper name of Israel’s God is stated right after God revealed himself as I AM. Ex 3.15 Linguists figure it’s related to ehyé/“I’m being.”

Its pronunciation is actually an educated guess. Y’see, the Hebrews, out of respect for the HOLY NAME OF GOD (did I make that look respectful enough?) long ago stopped saying it aloud. Whenever they came across YHWH in the scriptures, they’d say אֲדֹנָ֣י/adonaý, “my Master,” or “my Lord.” (Or in some cases they’d just say “God.”) Over the centuries, I kid you not, they forgot how to pronounce it properly. I can already tell you the way English-speakers pronounce it, Yahweh 'jɑ.weɪ, isn’t correct. Accent would be on the second syllable, for one thing.

So where’d our English name Jehovah come from? Well, the vowel-marks in a Hebrew bible, which’re ordinarily meant to help out people who are unfamiliar with how to pronounce Hebrew, don’t actually indicate how to pronounce YHWH. They’re the vowel-marks for adonaý. But medieval German scholars didn’t know this, so they converted it into German letters same as usual, and got jə'hoʊ.wɑ—which Germans spelled Iehouah, which William Tyndale used in his bible, Ex 6.3 Tyndale and which English-speakers have grown to spell Jehovah and pronounce dʒə'hoʊ.və.

Yep, not only are we pronouncing it wrong, we’re pronouncing the German wrong. Oh well; we pronounce all the other words wrong.

Lots of folks refer to Jehovah as God’s “covenant name,” because he didn’t reveal it till he rescued the Hebrews, made covenant with them, and reiterated throughout his covenant “I’m the LORD (your God).” Lv 18.5, 6, 21, 30, 19.3, 4, 10, 12, 14, 16, etc. After certain commands which particularly reflect his character, he threw this in for emphasis.

But as he said, Jehovah is his name for all generations. It isn’t only connected with his covenant, nor only with Israel. Jehovah is the God and Father of Christ Jesus, the God of the Christians, and the God of people who don’t worship him or know him properly—the God of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Pagans, everyone. Jehovah is God of the whole earth.

And yes, sometimes in the bible we find it written as יָהּ/Yah (KJV “JAH”) for short. Ps 68.4 KJV The Rastafarians aren’t using the wrong name. A lot of Hebrew personal names have some form of Jah in ’em (though in English it looks more like Jo- or -iah or -ias). Like Joshua, Elijah, Josiah, Nehemiah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Joel.

JEALOUS (אֵל קָנָא/El Qanná/“God [the] jealous one”). Christians don’t talk about this one so much, ’cause we tend to think of jealousy as a negative thing. But God calls himself Jealous. Ex 20.5 It doesn’t mean he suffers from envy or zeal; it only means he doesn’t want to share our worship with any other gods. (We’re monotheists, remember?—they’re not even legit gods.)

“[My] name is Jealous,” God reiterated to Moses. Ex 34.14 He wanted it clear: The Hebrews weren’t to tolerate any other forms of worship in his land. Not mythological beings like the Baals, nor kings who claimed they were gods like the pharaohs, nor Mammon nor power nor any other idol we might prioritize over him. His Christians aren’t to worship any other gods, beings, ideas, or objects.

JESUS (Hebrew ישֵׁוּעַ/Yeshúa, Greek Ἰησοῦς/Yisús, “Jah is salvation”). Jesus is God, incarnate. Jn 1.1-18 God sent his messengers to independently inform Mary and Joseph both: He wanted their baby named Jesus. Mt 1.21, Lk 1.31 Essentially he named himself, and Jesus is the name he wanted to be known by, for the obvious reason that “he’ll save his people from their sins.” Mt 1.21 He wants the fact he saves us embedded in his very name.

What we’ve called him.

I already dealt with “God.” But non-monotheists often assume by “God” we mean one of many gods, and they wanna know which god. And sometimes we Christians fall for this bushwa, and instead of correctly answering, “There’s only the One,” we indicate he’s a particular god: The god of Christianity; the god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the god of Israel; the Father of Christ Jesus; the god of the monotheistic faiths; nature’s god; what have you.

Ancients did it too. Hence the other names for God we find in the bible.

LORD (אֲדֹנָ֣י/adonaý, “my master”). This is a generic title of respect and nobility. Naturally we address God by it as well; he deserves it more than most.

The all-capitals version of it, LORD (and sometimes GOD) is what we usually see in bibles instead of the holy name YHWH. Traditionally, same as the Jews, Christians haven’t used God’s proper name, out of respect. But this custom is falling by the wayside, as more and more Christians are calling him Jehovah or Yahweh. ’Cause we figure since we’re his kids, what’s with all this formality? Why can’t we call our Father by his proper name?

Um… for the same reason we usually refer to our fathers as “Dad” instead of his given name. It’s a respect thing. That’s why most of us still follow the custom of calling him Lord, and most bibles still use the all-caps “LORD” in place of God’s proper name.

In fact some of us, out of extra respect, won’t even spell out “Lord.” They borrow an orthodox Jewish custom and refer to God as “G–d” or “L–rd.” Them, I don’t get. It’s like the person who puts three seat covers down on a public toilet: One should be plenty. But they got their phobias.

Frequently people in the scriptures refer to God as YHWH Adonaý—which would therefore be “my Lord LORD.” Bible translators don’t care to do that, so they go with either “Lord GOD” (as in the KJV and ESV) or “Sovereign LORD” (as in the NIV and NLT). I prefer “the LORD my Master,” but however you wanna do it.

EVERLASTING GOD (אֵל עוֹלָֽם/El Olám/“God [the] timeless one”). This title only appears twice in the bible.

  1. When Abraham worshiped God at Beersheba with the Philistines. Ge 21.33 This was back when the Philistines still actually followed God, Ge 20 and El Olám is possibly what they called him.
  2. When Isaiah called God this to point out his infinite power and strength. Is 40.28

GOD MOST HIGH (אֵל עֶלְיֽוֹן/El Elyón, “God [the] highest one”). There are no higher gods than our God, so this is sorta a generic description for people who wanna know which god is ours: We serve the highest God. The one mightier than all the others. The one all the other gods fear.

The first time this title pops up in the scriptures is where Avram met the Canaanite king of Salem (later Jerusalem). He was called Melchizedek Ge 14.18 KJV, which was likely his title, meaning “righteous king.” Most ancient kings either tried to pass themselves off as gods, like the Egyptians; or they were one of the chief priests of their nation’s gods. Melchizedek was a priest of El Elyón. But in this case Avram recognized El Elyón is the very same god he followed. Ge 14.22 After all, who’s higher than the Almighty?

LIVING GOD (אֵל חַ֖י/El Khaý, “God [the] living one,” or its plural-looking form אֱלֹהִ֥ים חַיִּֽים/Elohím Khayyím). Pagan gods, as far as the Hebrews were concerned, were just blocks of stone, wood, or metal. Weren’t worthy of worship. Or even acknowledgement. They were laughable. (The pagans certainly believed otherwise, but they didn’t write the bible.)

So the point of referring to God as the living God is to point to the obvious fact: You don’t need to use divination or magic to determine God’s will, ’cause he still talks to people. You don’t have to perform incantations to make things happen, ’cause God still acts. He’s alive, active, and mighty. Jn 3.10 Pagan gods aren’t.

LORD OF HOSTS (יְהוָֹה צְבָא֖וֹת/YHWH Tseva’ót/“Jehovah of warriors”). Twice the KJV transliterated tseva’ót as “Sabaoth.” The rest of the time it went with “LORD of hosts”—using the old definition of hosts meaning “vast crowd” or “armies.” The root word צָבָא/tsavá, “gather an army,” implies we’re talking about war. When prophets used this term to describe God, expect him to be in an arse-kicking mood: He was gonna defend Israel from its enemies.

Many Christians get really uncomfortable with all the war imagery. Some of ’em claim cheva’ót is untranslatable. Others figure it refers to God’s heavenly armies, and spiritual warfare—and by spiritual they often mean imaginary. It’s not real warfare; it’s on another cosmic plane, where there’s no bloodshed and nobody dies.

Meh. God commands the armies of heaven, but sometimes he’s gotta have ’em kick some physical keisters.

“The LORD our [neat thing].”

Lots of Christians like to proclaim, “He’s Jehovah-Jireh, our provider.” Or “Jehovah-Shalom, our peace.” Or “Jehovah-Rapha, our healer.” And so forth. Basically add a Hebrew adjective (typically mispronounced) to Jehovah. Which is a little weird, ’cause “Jehovah” is English, not Hebrew. But anyway.

These actually aren’t God’s names. They’re descriptions. It’d be like calling me “Leslie the Coffee-Drinker.” Leslie’s my name, but Coffee-Drinker, while something I do quite frequently, is not. No more than “Leslie the Teeth-Brusher,” or “Leslie the Dishwasher-Emptier,” or “Leslie the Netflix-Watcher.” God’s adjectives are way more impressive though.

Some of these adjectives were taken from scriptures where God made a statement about himself. Other times, he did something significant, so people remembered him for that action. And about half of them are place names: Altars, or sites dedicated to the memory of what God did there.

There’s nothing wrong with studying God’s character through them. We definitely should. But they’re not God’s names. Don’t mix ’em up with names; that’s sloppy bible study.

But for your edification, here’s a list of some of the more popular adjectives.

  • JEHOVAH JIREH (YHWH yiréh/“Jehovah provides”). A place name, given after God spared Isaac from sacrifice. Ge 22.14
  • JEHOVAH MEKODDISHKEM (YHWH m’qaddoškhém/“Jehovah makes you holy”). Comes from the LORD’s statement that he makes Israel holy. Ex 31.13
  • JEHOVAH NISSI (YHWH nissí/“Jehovah my banner”). An altar, named in honor of Amalek’s defeat by the Hebrews. Ex 17.15
  • JEHOVAH RAAH (YHWH ra’í/“Jehovah my shepherd”). Comes from Psalm 23.
  • JEHOVAH RAPHA (YHWH rofé/“Jehovah cures”). Comes from the LORD’s statement that he cures the Hebrews of illnesses. Ex 15.26
  • JEHOVAH SHALOM (YHWH shalóm/“Jehovah [is] peace”). An altar, named after God called Gideon to defeat Midian. Jg 6.24
  • JEHOVAH SHAMMA (YHWH shammá/“Jehovah [is] there”). New Jerusalem’s name, as revealed to Ezekiel. Ek 48.35
  • JEHOVAH TSIDKENU (YHWH chidqenú/“Jehovah our rightness”). Comes from one of Isaiah’s prophecies about Messiah, who’ll be named “The LORD our righteousness.” Jr 23.6

Likely you’ve heard others.


The prophets and poets of the bible have used a ton of metaphors and similes to describe God. Not that they’re too numerous to count, but I’m not writing a concordance here.

The more popular metaphors tend to show up on “Names of God” posters, videos, and bible studies. You likely remember the more famous ones Jesus used to describe himself—

  • Living water Jn 4.10
  • Bread of life Jn 6.35
  • Light of the world Jn 8.12
  • Good shepherd Jn 10.11
  • Resurrection and life Jn 11.25
  • Way, truth, and life Jn 14.6
  • True vine Jn 15.5

—and that’s just from John. The Apostles called him many more things than this.

And there are descriptors we find throughout the bible: Jesus calls the LORD “Father,” and says we can call him that too. Mt 6.9 He’s the Ancient of Days, Dn 7.9 the Mighty One of Israel, Is 60.16 a consuming fire, Dt 4.24 ESV and a shield. Ge 15.1 ESV The Prophets called him many more things than this too.

And again: These aren’t God’s names. They’re more adjectives. We can learn many profound things about God from them, just like the compound “names.” We oughta study them. But don’t confuse them with names. Sloppy bible study.

The names of God—the ones we oughta focus on most—naturally should be the ones he’s revealed himself with: God Almighty, I Am, Jehovah, Jealous, and Jesus. In them we see he’s powerful, he retains his own personality, he doesn’t want competition, and he’s saved us. That alone is plenty to meditate upon. But do check out the rest too.