God’s Name in the Old Testament
This post aims to provide an insight to enrich one’s reading and study of the Old Testament as it pertains to the nature of God.
Jesus came to reveal the Fatherheart of God; that is, He peeled back the curtain of heaven and revealed that God is first and foremost a Father.
What may be missed is that God’s fatherhood was well planted in the Old Testament. In other words, Jesus did not in fact bring a brand new revelation. Rather He came to cut through centuries of religious haze in order to remind mankind who their God was, to strip off layers of religious grime, turning the spotlight once again on God’s true nature.
Unfortunately, this is a glorious truth too often lost on us because of a choice made in the translation process.
Before digging into the translation choice issue, let’s do two things. First, toggle the below button if you’d like a little clarity around my definitive statement that Jesus came to reveal God’s fatherhood. If you’ve got a handle on this crucial revelation, feel free to skip it.
Jesus came to essentially reveal the nature of God, to clarify that God is first and foremost a Father. For instance, consider the following:
- Whenever Jesus spoke to God, He called Him, “Father”.
What we refer to as Jesus’ High Priestly prayer in John 17:1-19 is a beautiful example of this. The tenderness in Jesus’ words is poignantly moving: “Father … O Father … Holy Father … Father … Father … O righteous Father!”
In Jesus’ most desperate, most anguished moment, He cried: “Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me. Nevertheless, not My will, but Yours, be done.” (Luke 22:42 c. John 12:27, 28).
- Whenever Jesus spoke about His relationship with God, He called Him “My Father”.
Here are just a few notable examples: Matthew 7:21, Luke 2:49; 26: 53; John 14:2, 7 and 15:1.
- Whenever Jesus taught His audience about God, He said, “your Father”.
For example, notice how many times Jesus used that phrase in His Sermon on the Mount, a message centred on revealing the Father’s will: Matthew 5:16, 45, 48; 6:1, 4, 6, 6, 8, 15, 18, 18, 26, 32; 7:11.
Of course, He also used the phrase “the Father” multiple times when teaching about God.
- Jesus taught us to pray, directing our petitions to “Our Father…” (Matthew 6:9).
The apostles took this to heart. Paul taught our relationship with God is centred on the Father: “For through [Jesus] we have access by one Spirit to the Father” (Ephesians 2:18). And the great prayers recorded in the New Testament are centred on the Father. Here’s three examples:
Ephesians 1:17-23 is centred on the “the Father of glory”.
Ephesians 3:14-21 is centred on “the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ”.
Colossians 1:9-13 is anchored by “giving thanks to the Father”.
All this is to say, the “name” or “identity” Jesus consistently used of God was Father. Of course, John 14:6 is a definitive statement Jesus said:
“I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father, except through Me.”
Even the Holy Spirit is called the “Promise of the Father” (Acts 1:4). Paul went on to explain that a life enthused and empowered by the Spirit leads to deeper intimacy with the Father, our hearts crying out “Abba, Father.” He wrote this not once but twice (Romans 8:14, 15 and Galatians 4:6, 7).
While the Aramaic word “Abba” is our equivalent to “Daddy,” even the word “father” (Greek: pater) was simply the common word for father, akin to our “Dad.” In other words, it wasn’t a stuffy, formal title. Jesus’ relationship with Father God was intimate and tender, and He clearly invited us into the same quality of relationship with God.
There is absolutely no question that the greatest revelation of the New Testament is one of God’s nature, that He is essentially a Father. (Please see our free downloadable article, The Father-heart of God for more information.)
Second, let’s offer thanks to those who’ve gone before us, those who have tackled the enormously difficult task of translation. Without their labour of love, we’d be so much poorer. My intention in this article is in no way to criticise the translators. I seek only to point out the consequence of a particular choice. I hope to sufficiently explain the reason for their choice while also acknowledging their effort to disclose the choice they made.
We truly are spoilt for choice today with over a hundred English translations and paraphrases of the Bible from which to choose.
Each of has our own favourite version. That said, it’s a good rule of thumb to use a paraphrase for devotional or continuity reading, and a translation for study purposes.
Why? A paraphrase is written in modern English using the colloquialisms of our day. It is easier to read and particularly useful for catching the overall intent of a Book of the Bible, or what we call, continuity reading. For example, let’s say I want to study the Gospel of John or the Epistle to the Ephesians. The best thing I can do is first read the book or letter in its entirety to grasp the overall picture of the writer’s intent and his flow of thought. Only after I’ve got a grip on this context should I dig into a study of say, individual verses, passages and chapters.
On the other hand, a translation attempts to capture the “exact” words and sayings in the original languages of the Bible (Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek). For this reason, a translation is better suited for study purposes. (For best results: use both a paraphrase and a translation.)
Of course, the art and craft of translation is in itself a tremendously challenging task and therefore, it’s worth pointing out that no translation is perfect. Yet, by using a good translation, supported by a good paraphrase, trusting the illumination of the Holy Spirit, allowing Scripture to inform Scripture, and drawing on the counsel of mature others, we can derive much joy and insight from studying the Scriptures.
So, should we all just learn Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek? Would that sort out all the problems? Well, sadly no. The people who knew these languages best, rejected and crucified Jesus. In other words, a perfect knowledge of the original languages doesn’t guarantee perfect understanding or a flawless interpretation.
However, with a heart after God, humble and hungry to learn, we can trust God to reveal His ways as we use the rich translations and paraphrases we have available.
God’s Name in the Old Testament
Okay, qualification and disclaimers aside, let’s have a look at the issue at hand.
Biblically, a name reveals one’s nature. The many “names” attributed to God reveal various aspects of His personality. However, God chose one name as His personal name, the defining name around which all the others find their place and meaning.
The two words used most often for God in the Old Testament are Elohim and Yahweh.
Elohim refers to the Supreme Being, and is correctly translated by the word, “God”. The Supreme Being, who transcends the created cosmos, is God.
The primary revelation of the Old Testament, however, is that this Supreme Being isn’t an impersonal, distant entity but rather, a personal, loving being whose name is Yahweh.
Yahweh is the word from which we get Jehovah, a word more familiar to most people. Actually, Jehovah is simply a transliteration of the word Yahweh and so, in short, they’re synonymous terms.
(It’s terribly unfortunate that this word has been co-opted by Jehovah’s Witnesses and used in their New World Translation. For this reason, it’s probably smart to avoid the association; hence, I’m going to use Yahweh in this article rather than the more familiar term, Jehovah. For the record, this isn’t intended as a subtle swipe at Jehovah’s Witnesses. It’s merely an acknowledgement that they differ in their fundamental beliefs. Specifically, they deny the divinity of Jesus Christ and reduce the Person of the Holy Spirit to a mere power or force.)
Now, here’s the problem. Due to a choice in the translation process, we as readers may not be aware of where and when the Old Testament uses this beautiful revelation of God.
Why is this such a problem?
The problem lies in the fact that Yahweh is not just God’s chosen name, His revelation to us, but the word reveals His covenantal nature and introduces His Fatherhood. In fact, this word could be understood as “Covenant Father.”
Indeed, the Hebrew people valued the concept of fatherhood and family above all things. God Himself inserted the value of parenthood into the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17); the first four commandments deal with our relationship with God; the final five, our relationship to our fellowman. The fifth commandment deals with our relationship with our parents, and many (such as the Jewish Talmud) view it as part of the first five, a reflection of our worship of God. (See Malachi 1:6 where it seems God Himself makes this connection.)
So, what was the choice made in the translation process that obscures this reality?
During the third and second century before Christ, Jewish tradition forbade using the Name of God, Yahweh. In my opinion, they did so out of a convoluted, even warped, understanding of reverence. I say warped because while we might appreciate their zealousness to revere God — they viewed it as a violation of the third command, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” — this is not what God required of them. God revealed His personal name so that we can know him deeply and intimately, and using His name is a privilege, provoking both delight and wonder in us (and yes, the appropriate reverence, too).
Forbidding the use of God’s Name, Yahweh, they used the word Adonai as a substitute instead. Adonai is a beautiful word correctly translated as “Lord” and it means “absolute ruler, supreme controller”. God certainly is Absolute Ruler, Supreme Controller, no question. In fact, this word is used of God in the Old Testament 439 times.
Like so many other beautiful names for God, Adonai highlights a specific aspect of His wondrous personality, and clarifies a particular role of God in relation to mankind and the created cosmos. However, it is not the personal Name of God; it is not the primary, defining name God Himself chose to reveal to His beloved creation.
The name God did choose, Yahweh, is used a whopping 6,828 times in the Scriptures. (For those interested, Elohim appears 2,602 times).
So, in deciding how to translate the word Yahweh, the translators of the first English translation, The King James Bible (KJV), followed the tradition established by the third and second century B.C. Jews , and chose the word, “Lord” (and sometimes plain, “God”).
To their credit, they did two things. Firstly, they indicated their choice by presenting the word in uppercase (“LORD” and “GOD”), so that the reader would be able to distinguish when the personal name for God is used. And secondly, they disclosed their decision by way of a note in the preface of the Bible.
Most modern translations have followed this tradition.
For example, in the New King James Version (NKJV) under “The Format” section in the Preface, we read:
The covenant name of God was usually translated from the Hebrew as “LORD” or “GOD” (using capital letters as shown) in the King James Old Testament. This tradition is maintained. In the present edition the name is so capitalized whenever the covenant name is quoted in the New Testament from a passage in the Old Testament.’
In another example, we read the following in the Preface to The New International Version (NIV):
In regard to the divine name YHWH (Yahweh) … the translators adopted the device used in most English versions of rendering that name as “LORD” in capital letters to distinguish it from Adonai, another Hebrew word rendered “Lord,” for which small letters are used.’
In other words, what I’m saying in this article is not some secret bequeathed to only a few or an arcane detail known only to the intelligentsia. The translation choice is openly disclosed to whoever takes the time to read the preface notes in their Bible. Of course, few read what admittedly seems a fairly mundane preamble to the Scriptures.
How does this affect our reading and study of the Old Testament?
First, many people don’t even know about this insight. They read LORD, GOD, Lord and God as merely synonymous phrases without knowing the distinction.
Second, and more importantly, because we associate “Lord” correctly as Absolute Ruler and Supreme Controller, we may associate God essentially with this notion, and thereby miss who He actually chose to reveal Himself as, a Covenant Father.
We pray using the more impersonal words, “God” and “Lord” (which is by no means wrong in itself), and in doing so, we miss the intimacy of calling God, “Father.” And more to the point, we might relate to God essentially as an Absolute Ruler, a Supreme Controller, rather than the more personal, relational name He chose to reveal. In my experience, many faithful believers live and serve as citizens and subjects of a King rather than sons and daughters of a heavenly Father. And in doing so, often miss the heart of the matter as they labour in their duty and service.
Don’t get me wrong. Jesus is King. No question. Jesus is Absolute Ruler and Supreme Controller. But only because God the Father has entrusted Him with this awesome and glorious role. And one of our roles as sons and daughters of God is to play our part in the advance of His Kingdom on earth, as we follow King Jesus’ lead by doing the will of the Father.
At the risk of redundancy, God is first and foremost a Father, and I am first and foremost a son (or daughter). Everything else flows out of this foundational, defining truth.
So, how does this insight enrich our reading and study of the Old Testament?
Using a translation, whenever you see the word “LORD” or “GOD” (in uppercase), read instead: Yahweh or Covenant Father.
Here’s an example:
Read Genesis, Chapters 1 and 2 again. You’ll find the entire first chapter uses “God” and refers to Elohim on every occasion.
“In the beginning, Elohim created the heavens and the earth…”
The point? A Supreme Being created the cosmos and remains, for now, unidentified.
In thirty-one verses of Chapter 1, Elohim is used thirty-one times, including the well-known verse:
“Then Elohim said, ‘Let us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion…’” (Genesis 1:26).
The suspense is palpable. Who is this Supreme Being who created everything out of nothing? Who is this Supreme Being who has created us, entrusting us with the dominion and care of the earth?
Genesis 2:4 offers the big reveal:
“This is the history of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that Yahweh Elohim made the earth and the heavens.”
In other words, the Supreme Being who created us, who gave us life, from whom we come, to whom we’re beholden and accountable is … drum roll … our Covenant Father.
From Genesis 2:4, the switch to Yahweh is made with telling emphasis (used five times in the next five verses alone), and from that point, it becomes God’s defining reference.
We miss this beautiful introduction, which is not just about the creation of the cosmos, but an unveiling of the identity of the Supreme Being who is, in fact, behind this glorious creation act.
Here’s another example, a well-known Psalm:
He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the LORD, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress; My God, in Him I will trust” (Psalm 91:1, 2).
I use this example because, aside from centring on the personal Name of God, it actually includes three other names for God.
“He who dwells in the secret place of El Elyon shall abide under the shadow of El Shaddai. I will say of Yahweh, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress; My Elohim, in Him I will trust’.”
Beautiful. El Elyon is well captured by the phrase “Most High” and El Shaddai is a stunning revelation of an aspect of God’s character, a reference to His All-Sufficiency. The psalmist was indeed a poet, too.
However, the true beauty of this passage lies in the poignant worship that explodes from this heart:
“I will say of My Father, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress; My God, in Him I will trust’.”
Centring on God’s personal name, the psalmist expresses a gut-wrenching dependence on God: My Father is God and in Him will I trust.
Over to you.
I encourage you to re-read your favourite Old Testament passages with new eyes.
Most of your favourite passages will be centred on the personal Name of God. Now, rather than reading LORD, GOD, Lord or God as merely synonyms, your reading will be enriched with the poetry of the Old Testament and more importantly, you’ll more fully grasp the notion of our Covenant Father, a seed well planted throughout the Scriptures.