By far the most common name for God in the Bible is ”YHWH” (יהוה) (pronounced “Yahweh”). The name occurs about 6000 times and is usually translated as “Lord” or “LORD” in English translations of the Bible. In the New Testament, YHWH corresponds to the Greek word “Kyrios” (κύριος), which is translated as “Lord”.
The second most common name for God in the Bible is the Hebrew ”Elohim” (אֱלֹהִים), which in the New Testament corresponds to the Greek “Theos” (θεός), and which is translated “God”.
Yahweh/Kyrios and Elohim/Theos are by far the most common names for God in the Bible, and are sometimes used in combination, such as Yahweh Elohim or Kyrios Theos.
In biblical times, a name was more than just an address, it also said something about the character and personality of the person. When someone in the Bible is involved in something significant, it is not uncommon for the person in question to be given a new name, such as Jacob in connection with his wrestling with God:
“27And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” 29Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him.”(Ge 32:27–29)
So for anyone who wants to get to know God, his character and personality, the Bible study of his name can be a very good start.
El, Elohim, Eloah and Theos – God
“El” simply means “God” or “god” and is used in the Bible to refer to both God and idols. It is also not uncommon for God to be called “El” + an attribute, such as “Elyon”, (= the Most High).
“1In the beginning, God [Elohim] created the heavens and the earth.”(Ge 1:1)
“Elohim” is the plural form of “El” and thus means “gods”, but in Hebrew the plural form is also used to strengthen a word and in that sense Elohim is used as a proper name of God and is then translated as “God”.
“3Then he said, “I am God [El], the God [Elohim] of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation. 4I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again, and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes.””(Ge 46:3–4)
“Eloah” is the singular of the plural form Elohim and is translated “God”. The fact that God is described in both singular and plural in the same word in the OT is a picture of the Trinity.
“17But you are a God [Eloah] ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and did not forsake them.”(Ne 9:17b)
El Elyon, Hypsistos – God Most High
In biblical times, each country or people had its own local gods. To make it clear that God is not just any local mini-god, but he is the One and the Most High, God is sometimes called El Elyon (אֵל עֶלְיוֹן), God the Most High.
“18And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. (He was priest of God Most High [El Elyon].)”(Ge 14:18)
“2I will be glad and exult in you; I will sing praise to your name, O Most High [Elyon].”(Ps 9:2)
“35And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit [Hagios Pneuma] will come upon you, and the power of the Most High [Hypsistos] will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God [Huios Theos].”(Lk 1:35)
Elohim Yisrael – God of Israel
Not only is God not just any god, but he is also the God of Israel. God is the God of the whole world, but he has chosen to reveal himself to Israel, the people he has chosen. So to distinguish God from the idols of other peoples, who were also called “El”, it is not uncommon for God to be described in the Bible as “Elohim Yisrael” (אֱלָהּ יִשְׂרָאֵל), the God of Israel, alternatively the God of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob:
“23He said, “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your heart to the Lord, the God of Israel [Elohim Yisrael].””(Jos 24:23)
“6And he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.”(Ex 3:6)
God is often referred to as the God of Israel in the context of God’s desire for Israel to be a holy people, distinct from the idolatrous peoples around them. God is not like the other gods.
The mention of God as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob often refers to the covenant God made with Abraham, of which Israel is a part (Genesis 12:1-3). God is not just any God, but the God who made a covenant with Abraham and chose Israel as his people.
El Shaddai, Pantokrator – God Almighty
One of the names of God that stands out in the Old Testament is “El Shaddai” (אֵל שַׁדַּי). The original meaning of the word “shaddai” is unclear, but is often translated as “almighty” and is the name God uses about himself when he reveals himself to Abraham:
“1When Abram was ninety-nine years old the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty [El Shaddai]; walk before me, and be blameless,”(Ge 17:1)
The name El Shaddai is often used in connection with God’s promise to Abraham of miraculous blessings, i.e. the point of the name is that nothing is impossible for God, he can do whatever he wants:
“3God Almighty [El Shaddai] bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you, that you may become a company of peoples.”(Ge 28:3)
The very meaning of God’s name El Shaddai recurs in the New Testament as well, for example when Jesus speaks of salvation and Peter thinks that no one can be saved:
“26But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.””(Mt 19:26)
As impossible as it was for Abraham to have a son at the age of 100, it is just as impossible for a human being to be saved. But because God is “El Shaddai”, the Almighty, God can give Abraham an offspring and he can give birth to us again.
In the New Testament, the Greek equivalent “Pantokrator” (παντοκράτωρ) is also used to describe the miraculous participation of God’s people in Abraham’s covenant and to describe the enormity of God’s greatness:
“16What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, “I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 17Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you, 18and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty [Pantokrator].””(2 Co 6:16–18)
Yahweh, Adonijah and Kyrios – The Lord
When the people of Israel are enslaved in Egypt, God appears to Moses at Mount Sinai and commissions him to lead Israel out of slavery. If God had previously made himself known to his people as “Elohim” and to the patriarchs as “El Shaddai”, it was now time for Israel to come to know God by his name “Yahweh”:
“2God spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am the Lord [YHWH]. 3I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty [El Shaddai], but by my name the Lord [YHWH] I did not make myself known to them.”(Ex 6:2–3)
However, it should be added that God’s name “Yahweh” as such was known to some even before God revealed it to Moses, but the very meaning and significance of God’s name Yahweh was first revealed to Israel through Moses. For example, Genesis 4:26 states that at the time of the life of Adam’s son Seth “people began to call upon the name of the LORD [YHWH]”. Even Abraham must have known God’s name Yahweh because he calls the place where he did not sacrifice Isaac “Yahweh Yir’eh” (Genesis 22:14), which means “Yahweh provides”, a name which, incidentally, may be the basis for the name “Jerusalem”.
But when God reveals himself to Moses and wants to send him to Pharaoh, Moses hesitates in the face of the mission and asks for God’s name, not because he necessarily wants to know God’s name but because he wants to understand who God is:
“11But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” 12He said, “But I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.” 13Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I am has sent me to you.’ ” 15God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘The Lord [YHWH], the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.”(Ex 3:11–15)
The name “I Am Who I Am” expresses God’s character as eternal, absolute and unchanging. God is the one who “is”. He has always existed, is not dependent on anyone and without him there is nothing. God is the one who is the truest of all that is true and the most eternal of all that is eternal.
In the New Testament, this is expressed above all in the Book of Revelation:
“8“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God [Kyrios Theos], “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty [Pantokrator].””(Re 1:8)
A further explanation of what God’s name YHWH really means is given when Moses expresses uncertainty about himself with the words “Who am I?” and receives from God the succinct answer “I am with you” (Exodus 3:12). This gives us a clue to what God’s name “YHWH” means. God is not a god who sits on pink clouds somewhere far away from our reality and who demands things from us from time to time. God is a God who is with us. When Moses questions his own strength in comparison to Pharaoh, God says that he will be with Moses. So Moses may be nothing in himself, but if God is with Moses, all possibilities are there. Just as God walked in the Garden of Eden before the Fall, so too in heaven God will be in our midst, and just as God came to earth 2,000 years ago and walked in our midst and worked miracles. God is not a distant God who is too big for us to come into contact with Him, no, “God is with us”. It is therefore no coincidence that Isaiah prophesies that the Messiah will be called “Immanuel” (Isa 7:14). However, Jesus was not given the name “Immanuel” because it instead describes who he is. For “Immanuel” translates directly into English as “God with us” and is an allusion to Jesus being the one in the Trinity who has come down to earth and “is with us”. There is also a clear link here to the answer given to Moses by God: “I am with you”. When Jesus left us and flew up to heaven, he was careful to point out that from now on the Holy Spirit will be “with us”.
“14Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”(Is 7:14)
The answer Moses receives from God is that his name is “ehyeh asher ehyeh” (“I am who I am” in English) and is shortened to “ehyeh” or “I am”. Of course, when Moses was about to say God’s name to the people of Israel, he could not say “I am” but instead says “He is”, which becomes “YHWH” and is usually pronounced “Yahweh”. So, to be picky, YHWH is not the name that God presents himself with, but the name that Israel uses about God.
So YHWH is the name that Israel was allowed to use about God, but at the same time they were not allowed to misuse God’s name:
“15And speak to the people of Israel, saying, Whoever curses his God shall bear his sin. 16Whoever blasphemes the name of the Lord [YHWH] shall surely be put to death. All the congregation shall stone him. The sojourner as well as the native, when he blasphemes the Name, shall be put to death.”(Le 24:15–16)
Because of this, with the exception of certain solemn occasions in the Temple, Israel was very restrictive in uttering God’s name. When they read the Bible aloud and it said “YHWH”, they read “adonaj” (“lord” in English) instead.
To further remind themselves not to pronounce God’s name Yahweh, the vowels from the word “adonaj” were sometimes used into the word “YHWH” in later Bible translations. In the original Hebrew text, vowels were not used, so when the reader read the consonants YHWH with the vowels from Adonaj, they were reminded to say Adonaj instead of Yahweh. The deliberate mispronunciation if read as written then became “Jehovah”. According to linguists, a more correct and original pronunciation of God’s name is “Yahweh”.
In the New Testament we also find that instead of pronouncing God’s name, it is chosen to say “heaven”. Hence we have the expression “kingdom of heaven” instead of the more common “kingdom of God”, and hence we often say that we are going to heaven when we die, when what we really mean is that we are going to God when we die.
“17From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.””(Mt 4:17)
When the Old Testament was translated into Greek, they continued to avoid writing “YHWH” and instead wrote the Greek word “kyrios” (“lord” in English). Since kyrios is a relatively common word and does not necessarily refer specifically to “YHWH”, it is sometimes difficult to know whether kyrios in the New Testament refers specifically to the Lord YHWH or some other lord whomever. To find out, one can look up the original Hebrew text when the Old Testament is quoted in the New Testament.
For example, Matthew quotes the prophet Isaiah when describing the mission of John the Baptist:
“3For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord [Kyrios]; make his paths straight.’ ””(Mt 3:3)
“3A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord [YHWH]; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”(Is 40:3)
So here we see that it is not just any lord that John the Baptist will prepare the way for, but none other than “YHWH” himself!
This clear connection between YHWH, Kyrios and Jesus recurs throughout the New Testament, for example when Jesus, in conversation with the Pharisees, says he is “I Am”:
“24I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am [Ego Eimi] he you will die in your sins.””(Jn 8:24)
“58Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am [Ego Eimi].” 59So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.”(Jn 8:58–59)
The reason the Pharisees want to stone Jesus to death is because they believe he has blasphemed the name of the Lord according to the above-mentioned Leviticus 24:15-16. The Greek words “Ego Eimi” are the exact same words used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament where God presents his name to Moses as “I Am” in Exodus 3:14. The Pharisees believes Jesus blasphemes the name of the Lord when he calls himself “Ego Eimi” / “I Am”, because that means he calls himself Yahweh. If any other person than Jesus had called himself Yahweh then the Pharisees would be right that he blasphemes, but Jesus is the only one who can truly call himself the Lord Yahweh without blaspheming.
Paul also addresses this topic in Philippians:
“6who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”(Php 2:6–11)
Paul writes that Jesus has been given the name that stands above all other names and clarifies that all should confess that Jesus is “the Lord”. As we have seen before, the word “lord” is sometimes used instead of “YHWH” and to find out which “lord” is meant, one must look at the context. Which name stands above all other names? Well, it is of course YHWH!
Paul writes: “9because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord [Kyrios] and believe in your heart that God [Theos] raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” (Ro 10:9–10)
To base this in the Old Testament, Paul quotes the prophet Joel:
“13For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord [Kyrios] will be saved.””(Ro 10:13)
“32And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord [YHWH] shall be saved.”(Joe 2:32a)
So what Paul is saying is that if you confess Jesus as the Lord YHWH, you will be saved. An example of such a confession is when Thomas encounters the risen Jesus:
“28Thomas answered him, “My Lord [Kyrios] and my God [Theos]!””(Jn 20:28)
A further understanding of God’s name is given by linguists who argue that the verb is indefinable; the name could just as easily be “I was“, “I am” or “I will be“. God alludes to this when he says in Revelation 1:8: “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty”. So God is the one who has done wonders in the past and whom we are to remember and tell about. God is also the one who is with us today and with whom we can have a relationship. God is also the one who will intervene in the future and we can trust that what he says he will do, he will do.
Yahweh Sebaot – Lord of Hosts
The Hebrew word (צְבָאָה / sebaot) usually means “armies,” both human and angelic, but can also mean “heavenly bodies” (Genesis 2:1). The word “sebaot” is used some 242 times together with God’s name, Yahweh of hosts (יהוה צְבָאוֹת), and is then primarily a description of God as the one who rules over the heavenly armies. For example, when the Israelites and the Philistines are lined up against each other, David says to Goliath:
“45Then David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts [YHWH Sebaot], the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.”(1 Sa 17:45)
David comes against a humanly overwhelming enemy backed by a heavenly army and therefore knows that he will win the duel. No matter how great an enemy we face, we are always superior if God is with us. Like when Elisha asks God to open his servant’s eyes to see that God’s army is greater than the army of the Arameans:
“15When the servant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. And the servant said, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?” 16He said, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” 17Then Elisha prayed and said, “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.”(2 Ki 6:15–17)
More Scriptures about Yahweh Sebaot:
“1Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host [sebaot] of them.”(Ge 2:1)
“2And David arose and went with all the people who were with him from Baale-judah to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the Lord of hosts [YHWH Sebaot] who sits enthroned on the cherubim.”(2 Sa 6:2)
“10Who is this King of glory? The Lord of hosts [YHWH Sebaot], he is the King of glory! Selah”(Ps 24:10)
Pater, Abba – Father
When Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray, he begins the example prayer (Matt 6:9) by calling God “pater” (πατήρ), which in English translates “Father”:
“9Pray then like this: “Our Father [Pater] in heaven, hallowed be your name.”(Mt 6:9)
“Father” is by far the most common name for God that Jesus himself uses when talking about God. But when Jesus is in prayer, it seems that he rather calls God “Abba” (Ἀββᾶ), which is an Aramaic word (Jesus’ native language) meaning “daddy”:
“36And he said, “Abba [Abba], Father [Pater], all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.””(Mk 14:36)
God being our “Father” is linked both to us being “born again” (John 3:3-8) and being “a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17) in that we are saved, and to us being made part of God’s people and God’s family in God’s promise to Abraham.
Jesus – Yeshua
Jesus’ name, Joshua, Yeshua or Yehoshuah, is a contraction of the two Hebrew words “yeho”, which is a word that comes from “YHWH” / “Yahweh”, and “shua” which means “salvation” or “save us!”. So all in all, Jesus’ name becomes “God saves us” or “God the Saviour”, which is very consistent with Jesus being God who became man to save us.
“21She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus [Iesous], for he will save his people from their sins.””(Mt 1:21)