I recently started a series of meditations on the names of God. There are two primary names for God in the Old Testament: Elohim and Yahweh, often translated as “God” and “The Lord” respectively.
The name Elohim is fascinating! It is actually a plural of the Hebrew word “El,” (the generic term “God”). English has two grammatical numbers: singular, or “one of something,” and plural or “more than one.” But Hebrew has three grammatical numbers: singular, dual (“two of something”), and plural (“more than two of something”). The word “Elohim” is plural in form, meaning that it is more than two, but at the same time it takes a singular verb, meaning that gramatically the word acts as if were singular. (An early foreshadowing of the understanding of the Trinity?) El and Elohim carry at their root the meaning of power or might. Thus throughout Genesis 1, the history of creation, the word Elohim is used to demonstrate God’s power in being able to create the entire Universe from nothing (and in 6 days!). Even though some biblical writers seem to use the two main names of God interchangably, at many points throughout the Old Testament there really does seem to be a conscious choice to use the name El or Elohim where God’s power is the most important thing they are trying to communicate.
The name Yahweh (usually translated as “The LORD”) is a form of the Hebrew word for “to be.” Thus in Exodus 3:14, where God reveals Himself to Moses by saying “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.'” (Exodus 3:14 NIV), that is actaully a reasonable translation of what the word means in it’s barest form. It speaks of God’s self-existence, and even about the fact that He is eternal. But there is more to that name than just a grammatical form. The name Yahweh is God’s covenant name, the name by which He is known in relationship with people. So in Genesis 2, dealing with the creation of mankind and God’s first interaction with Adam and Eve, you find that God reveals Himself not as Elohim, the almighty Creator, but as Yahweh, the God who makes Himself known through relationship with man, starting with the first man and woman.
The name Yahweh fell out of use as a spoken word among the Jewish people due to the fear of “misusing the name of the Lord.” So whenever they wanted to use that name, they substituted the word “Lord” for it (which is why it is translated that way in our Bibles). Now the English word “Lord” has its own implications – authority and the right to call the shots – but it doesn’t carry the same meaning as Yahweh.
Yahweh is God in relationship with man – His revealed name. When He gave people that name, he stooped down from His exalted separation from the world to allow us to know Him – something that we never could have done unless He graciously revealed Himself to us, because He is not perceivable by our senses, or able to be known through scientific observation. In that name, He reveals more than just His mere existence (which, according to Romans 1:18-20, can be know by what He created as Elohim, the mighty Creator God); He also reveals His character. This is shown very well in Exodus 34:5-7, when God revealed Himself to Moses on Mt. Sinai: 5 Then the LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the Lord. 6 And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, 7 maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.” (NIV)
Yahweh is the same mighty God who created everything, but by revealing Himself in this way, He demonstrates that He is willing to be intimately known by the humans that He created. More than just knowledge, He makes possible RELATIONSHIP! And the way that He does relationship is through the process of covenant. Through covenant, He opens the pathway to relationship, but as the God of the Universe, it must be done on HIS terms, which He has clearly outlined all throughout the Bible, including a goodly amount of application commentary by the prophets. He lays out the rules and, as long as we are obedient to them, He allows Himself to be known and approached.
There are two main belief systems with regards to belief in one God (monotheism).
- Deism believes in a distant God that is not involved in the world. Some call this deistic God “the clockmaker God” based on the belief that God created the universe and set it in motion, but then just lets it run on its own according to the natural laws that He put in place, and has not touched it since. Some branches of this belief system teach that God CAN’T mess with the Universe, because if He breaks the natural laws, the whole thing will come apart. Deists don’t believe in miracles (breaking of natural laws of cause and effect). They also can’t accept Jesus as the divine Son of God, because that would be God entering into and interfering in the clockwork universe. Their God is much like Elohim – the powerful creator God, but in their view, He stays at arms length from His creation, and really can’t be know by us in any meaningful way.
- Theism, on the other hand, believes in an involved God who, even though He exists separately from His created Universe, is still intimately involved in its operation and in keeping things working as they should. The God of the theists can do miracles (the natural laws not being totally immutable or unbreakable, but being the way that things are set up to operate unless He directly intervenes). And theists can accept Jesus as the divine Son of God, because their theology allows for God’s breaking in to history any time He needs to. The God of the theists is Yahweh (or, as He is known by Christians, either specifically God the Father, or the three persons of the Trinity) – the all powerful creator God who has made Himself known through both general revelation (the creation) and special revelation (the Bible and direct communication with people). Which brings us to the next thought.
Understanding that biblical Christianity is, at it’s heart, totally theistic, we also understand that the clearest revelation of Yahweh ever, was through the incarnation as Jesus, the Son of God, the Messiah. When the first century disciples made the statement “Jesus is Lord,” they were saying a lot more than just “Jesus is the boss.” They were actually saying that Jesus is the same Creator God who had allowed Himself to be know by the Jewish people for hundreds of years, but who now had made Himself available for relationship and intimate knowledge to everyone through Jesus!