The four most popular one-word names are Yahweh (6,800 times); Elohim (2,600 times); Adonai (439 times); and El (238 times).
Adonai - Adon, in Hebrew, means “lord.” The form Adonai, used 439 times in the Bible, can be rendered either as “my Lord” or simply as “Lord.” (Linguists offer various explanations for the element -ai. Is it a possessive pronoun denoting “my” or does it indicate a plural of majesty?) Thus, we find Exodus 15:17 translated most frequently as “the sanctuary, O Lord [Adonai], which thy hands have established” (KJV) but, sometimes, as “the sanctuary, my Lord, which your hands have established.” Since Adonai and Yahweh are both typically translated as “Lord,” many modern Bibles—following a suggestion first made by William Tyndale in 1530—render Yahweh as “LORD” in small capital letters, and Adonai as “Lord.” So, “The LORD [Yahweh] appeared to him” (Genesis 18:1), but “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord [Adonai], I who am but dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27). The NRSV only confuses things, however, by rendering Adonai as both “Lord” and “LORD.”
Adonai Yahweh – When used individually, both terms are translated as “Lord,” but to avoid the awkward appellation “Lord Lord,” the KJV and NRSV render the expression as “Lord GOD.” (Here too, small capital letters are used to indicate that the base word is Yahweh.) “Lord Yahweh” is also used. The combination Adonai Yahweh appears 310 times in the Bible, mostly in the prophetic literature, where the prophets often begin their speeches by saying, “Thus says Adonai Yahweh”.
The Almighty (Christian only) – The Greek Old Testament and the New Testament (Revelations 1:8) occasionally use Pantokratôr, “the Almighty,” as a divine name or epithet. Modern English translations also use “the Almighty” for the Hebrew Shaddai (see El Shaddai below); in doing so they follow the Greek Bible.
The Ancient of Days; The Ancient One – This is how the KJV and NRSV render the Aramaic divine name ‘attiyq yowm, which is only found once in the Bible, in the Book of Daniel: “I beheld till the thrones were cast down, and the Ancient of days [‘attiyq yowm] did sit, whose garment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like the pure wool: his throne was like the fiery flame, and his wheels as burning fire” (Daniel 7:9, KJV). The deity thus designated is presumably El Elyon (see below).
Ehyeh - This obscure name occurs only twice in the Bible, in Exodus 3:14 and Hosea 1:9. The Book of Exodus includes the following dialogue between Moses and the God of Israel: “But Moses said to God [Elohim], ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, The God [Elohim] of your ancestors has sent me to you, and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?’ God [Elohim] said to Moses, ‘I am [Ehyeh] who I am.’ He said further: ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites: I AM [Ehyeh] has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:13–14, NRSV). Here Elohim serves as a description of the divinity—he is the God; Ehyeh is the God’s name. Commentators are still coming up with explanations for the meaning of this obscure name, which appears to be derived from the Hebrew verb hayah, “to be.” The NRSV offers “I am what I am” and “I will be what I will be.”
El - Although not as common as Elohim (see below), this is another standard Hebrew term for “god” used for any god (with a small g) as well as for Israel’s monotheistic “God,” with a capital G—as in, “I am God [El] and there is no other” (Isaiah 45:22). The Canaanite high god was also called El, and the Hebrews may have given this deity’s name to their own god.
El Elohê Yisra’el – The name means “El the God of Israel,” but the KJV and NRSV leave it untranslated. In the Bible it is used only as the name given to a sanctuary: “And he erected there an altar, and called it El-elohe-Israel” (Genesis 33:20, KJV). (See also Elohê Yisra’el and El.)
El Elyon; Elyon – The Hebrew term elyon means “upper”; El Elyon, “The most high God” (KJV) or “God Most High” (NRSV), is found only in Genesis 14—“and he [Melchizedek of Salem] was the priest of the most high God [El Elyon]” (Genesis 14:18–22, KJV). The short form Elyon, translated “Most High,” appears more frequently. Both names were originally associated with the Canaanite high god El. But the names clearly came to be used for Yahweh, as is apparent in Psalm 7:17: “[I] will sing praise to the name of the Lord [Yahweh], the Most High [Elyon]” (Psalm 7:17, NRSV).
El Shaddai; Shaddai – The rare name El Shaddai, may be translated “God of the [uncultivated] fields,” or “God of the Mountain” or “the Terrible God” but often translated as “God Almighty,” is found in Genesis 17:1, in which Yahweh appears to the 99-year-old Abram and says, “I am El Shaddai.” (God then changes Abram’s and Sarai’s names to Abraham and Sarah and promises the elderly couple a son of their own.) Far more common is the abbreviated form Shaddai, which is traditionally rendered “the Almighty,” although many contemporary Bible interpreters (but not the NRSV) leave the name Shaddai untranslated. Shaddai is frequently used in the Book of Job—for instance: “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty [Shaddai]?” (Job 40:2, NRSV).
Eloah - Rare outside of the Book of Job, this word means God—as in, “Let that day be darkness; let not God [Eloah] regard it from above, neither let the light shine upon it” (Job 3:4 KJV). Linguistically, it represents the singular of Elohim (see below).
Elohê Yisra’el – This expression, meaning “the God of Israel,” is occasionally used to define Yahweh (see below)—as in Isaiah: “And I will give thee the treasures of darkness, and hidden riches of secret places, that thou mayest know that I, the Lord [Yahweh], which call thee by thy name, am the God of Israel (Elohê Yisra’el)” (Isaiah 45:3, KJV).
Elohim - Used about 2,600 times, this is a stock term in the Bible’s religious vocabulary, with three distinct meanings. First, as a plural term (-im is the standard Hebrew plural ending) it means “gods, deities,” as in, “You shall have no other gods [elohim] before me” (Deuteronomy 5:7). Second, when used about a particular god, it can mean “the deity, a god, the god,” in the singular, as in, “You cannot worship Yahweh, for he is a holy god [elohim]” (Joshua 24:19). Third, with a capital E, it serves as a personal name for God: “In the beginning, God [Elohim] created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1).
The Eternal – (used in translations by Christian – mainly Protestants and Reformists Jews) It was introduced by the reformer John Calvin (1509–1564) and was subsequently used in the French Bible of Geneva (1588), by the author Matthew Arnold (1822–1888), and in the English Bible of James Moffatt (1870–1944). The first Jewish author to use it was the German philosopher and Bible translator Moses Mendelssohn (1729–1786). Later it found its way into Jewish vernacular Bibles in French (1899) and German (the translation made under the direction of the Jewish scholar Leopold Zunz [1794–1886]).
God (used in translations by Christian) -Conventionally, “God” is always spelled with a capital letter when Israel’s deity is meant, whereas “god,” without a capital letter, refers to a non-Israelite, polytheistic deity. The most common underlying Hebrew word is Elohim, but one can also find Eloah, El and, rarely, Yahweh (in which case it is generally printed in small capital letters as GOD).
God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob – This solemn expression listing a series of ancestors has the same meaning as “God of the Father(s)” (see below) and occurs only when God speaks to Moses in Exodus—for example: “I am the God of thy 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 upon God” (Exodus 3:6, KJV; see also Exodus 3:15–16 and 4:5; the word for God throughout this passage is Elohim).
God Almighty (used in translations by Christians) – See El Shaddai.
The God of the Ancestors – Used by the NRSV (Exodus 3:15) for “God of the Fathers” (see below).
The God of the Father(s) – Genesis and Exodus repeatedly use expressions such as “the God [Elohim] of my father” (Genesis 31:5, with the father being Isaac, and Exodus 15:2, without reference to a specific father) and “the God [Elohim] of their fathers” (Exodus 4:5—the fathers here being Abraham, Isaac and Jacob). The term refers to the “personal god” who creates and protects the individual and whose veneration is transmitted within the family.
God of Heaven – The expressions “Yahweh, the God [Elohim] of Heaven” (Ezra 1:2) or simply “God of Heaven” (Nehemiah 1:4) tend to occur in texts written after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and the Exile of the Jews in 586 BCE They highlight God’s universal sovereignty and rulership, as can be seen in the expanded expressions, “Yahweh, the God of Heaven and Earth” (Genesis 24:3) and “Yahweh, the God of Heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (Jonah 1:9).
God of the Hebrews -This epithet for Yahweh is used only in Exodus: “The God [Elohim] of the Hebrews has revealed himself to us” (Exodus 5:3).
The God of Israel – See Elohê Yisra’el.
God Most High – See El Elyon.
The Holy One of Israel – This appears most frequently in Isaiah, as in, “They have despised the Holy One of Israel” (Isaiah 1:4). The term “holy ones” refers to angels or subordinate deities in the polytheistic pantheon; thus the expression “Holy One of Israel” reflects polytheism: The deity thus designated is one of the many “holy ones.”
Jehovah (used in translations by Christians) – Since the Middle Ages, Hebrew Bible manuscripts have inserted the vowels from Adonai within the most sacred, unpronounced name YHWH as a reminder that readers should say Adonai instead (see YHWH, below). The name Jehovah, which appeared first among Christian scholars of the late Middle Ages, also mixes the four consonants of YHWH (JHWH in German) with the vowels of Adonai. It is occasionally used for Yahweh in the KJV, as in, “Let them be put to shame, and perish: That men may know that thou, whose name alone is JEHOVAH, art the most high over all the earth” (Psalm 83:18). Because of this, the name Jehovah is well established in English poetry. In Paradise Lost, John Milton wrote: “Great are Thy works, Jehovah, infinite Thy power” (7.602–603). Modern biblical scholars, however, generally dismiss Jehovah as a misreading (or mispronunciation).
Kyrios (used in translations by Christians) – Greek for “lord.” This is how the ancient Greek version of the Hebrew Bible renders the divine names Yahweh and Adonai. In the New Testament, kyrios is also used as a title for Jesus: “Jesus Christ, our kyrios” (Romans 1:4).
Lord (used in translations by Christians)- See Yahweh and Adonai and Kyrios.
Lord God (used in translations by Christians) – See Adonai Yahweh and Yahweh Elohim.
Lord of Hosts (used in translations by Christians) – See Yahweh elohê tseva’ot.
Lord of Sabaoth – See Yahweh elohê tseva’ot.
Most High – See Elyon and El Elyon.
Pantokratôr (used in translations by Christians) See the Almighty.
Shaddai – Abbreviated form of El Shaddai.
Yah – This short form of Yahu or Yahweh is occasionally used as an independent name (“I will sing to Yah” [Exodus 15:2]) but appears most often in the formulaic “hallelujah” (or hallelu-Yah), which means “praise Yah” (Psalm 146:1; KJV, NRSV: “praise the Lord”). The word was incorporated in the Christian liturgy because it is mentioned in the Book of Revelation: “After this I heard what seemed to be the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, saying, ‘Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power to our God’” (Revelation 19:1).
Yahu – An alternative spelling and pronunciation of Yahweh, found (spelled YHW) on a circa 800 BCE ostracon from Kuntillet Ajrud and (spelled YHW and YHH) in the documents written by Aramaic-speaking fifth-century B.C.E. Jews living in Elephantine in Egypt. The form Yahu is also used in biblical theophoric names (names that include the name of a god) like Yeho-natan (Jonathan; Judges 18:30) and Yesha-yahu (Isaiah). Although most scholars take Yahu to be a short form of Yahweh, it might also be an earlier form of the divine name.
Yahweh – See YHWH.
Yahweh elohê tseva’ot; Yahweh tseva’ot – Yahweh tseva’ot is generally rendered as “Lord of hosts,” as in “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts” (Isaiah 6:3 KJV, NRSV). The tseva’ot are members of a heavenly council and possibly also the numerous angelic servants who surround Yahweh as he sits on his heavenly throne governing his people (as described in Psalm 89:5–8 [in Hebrew, 89:6–9] and Isaiah 14:24–27). The title appears 206 times in the Old Testament and is a short form of Yahweh elohê tseva’ot (that is, “Yahweh, god of hosts”), which appears 36 times (for example, in Psalm 89:8 [in Hebrew 89:9]).
Kyrios Sabaoth, (used in translations by Christians) – the Greek translation of the expression Yahweh tseva’ot, appears twice in the New Testament (Romans 9:29; James 5:4); it is rendered Lord of Sabaoth in the KJV.
Yahweh Elohim – This rare name highlights God’s roles as both the Creator (Elohim) and the God of Israel (Yahweh), as in: “In the day the Lord God [Yahweh Elohim] made the earth …” (Genesis 2:4, NRSV).
YHWH - The most common name for the Hebrew God (used more than 6,800 times in the Bible) is typically concealed from the modern reader; virtually all standard translations render YHWH as “the Lord” (often printed LORD) or “the Eternal.”
In ancient times, the Hebrew scribes wrote only consonants and no vowels, and this name of God has come down to us in this written form. Because the name consists of four consonants, it is frequently referred to as the tetragrammaton or tetragram, meaning “the four-letter word.” We don’t know how YHWH was originally pronounced; the standard pronunciation (and English spelling) today—Yahweh—is a modern conjecture, first suggested in the 16th century by Gilbert Génébrard, professor of Hebrew at the prestigious Collège Royal in Paris.
Throughout history, Jews have treated this name of God with great reverence, declaring that it is too sacred to be used or spoken frequently. In writing, the name appears almost exclusively in biblical texts. The speaking of the name was traditionally restricted to priests worshiping at the Jerusalem Temple; after the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 CE, Jews ceased to utter this name altogether (which is why the original pronunciation of the name was lost). When scripture is read aloud in the synagogue today, the more generic term Adonai is used in place of YHWH. Some scholars follow Jewish tradition and refrain from pronouncing the divine name out of religious respect and so prefer to write YHWH rather than Yahweh.
There is one place in modern English translations where Yahweh or YHWH (or, in the KJV, Jehovah [see entry, above]) is not translated: In Exodus 6:3, in which God reveals his name to Moses: “I am the LORD [YHWH—here it is translated]: I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob by the name of God Almighty [El Shaddai], but by my name Yahweh [YHWH—here it is not] did not make myself known to them” (Exodus 6:2–3).
This passage suggests Yahweh is a later name than El Shaddai (see entry above), but we do not know when the divine name Yahweh was introduced into Hebrew religion. The name appears in the Moabite inscription of King Mesha (850–830 BCE), the Khirbet el-Qôm burial inscription (eighth century BCE), and the Kuntillet Ajrud inscriptions (around 800 BCE).
Arguing that biblical names generally have a discernible meaning, scholars have tried to establish what YHWH means. Based on the etymology, scholars have suggested “He Is” (which can be said of any deity), “He Causes to Be” (said of the Creator) or “He Blows” (a reference to Yahweh as storm god)—but none of these have won general acceptance. Others have tried (with more promising results) to determine the meaning based on the context in which the name occurs. Consider the following passage: “I am going to teach them my power and my might, and they shall know that my name is Yahweh” (Jeremiah 16:21). Here Yahweh clearly carries the connotation “the Mighty One”—referring to the one with the power, the supreme ruler or the Lord (see also Exodus 7:5; 1 Kings 20:13 and others). This is why the ancient translators who rendered the Hebrew Bible into Greek in the third century BCE replaced YHWH with “ho kyrios,” or “the Lord.”