Skip to main content

I recently finished a book draft where I talk about God a lot. And it finally hit me that I’m tired of writing “God” all the time. It feels lazy to me—like calling my wife “human.”

I feel the need to find some other word.

“God” is a term found throughout the Bible. In the Old Testament, it’s the English way of rendering the Hebrew word “Elohim.”

The thing is that Elohim is a generic word in the ancient world of the Bible—a lot of cultures used some form of it.

In the Bible, it can refer to Israel’s God specifically, some other ancient god, or a whole bunch of gods. Elohim might even mean “angels” or “judges.”

In the ancient literature of Ugarit (north of Israel in present Syria), elohim refers to the Ugaritic pantheon of gods.

That makes me think the ancient Israelites could have put a little more effort into it instead of using a blah general word for “divine beings”  when referring to “God. Way to be confusing, ancient Israelite writers.

When the Israelites wanted to distinguish their God from the other gods, they used God’s personal name YHWH, which might have been pronounced “Yahweh.”

Our English Bibles have almost completely lost that word, though. Through the influence of Jewish scribes from very long ago, YHWH has been replaced in English Bible with another generic title, “Lord” (spelled with the O-R-D in small caps—see Genesis 2:4).

To make matters even more confusing, the way in which Israel’s ancient writers described their God YHWH often looks like how other ancient peoples described their gods.

For example, YHWH controlling the weather and riding on the clouds (Psalms 24 and 68) mimics older descriptions of the Canaanite storm-god Baal (who makes several appearances in the Old Testament).

Again, Israel—thanks for the confusion.

The New Testament runs into the same sort of problem.

The Greek word “theos” means “god” and is about as generic as you can get. It refers to divine beings in general and the gods of the Greco-Roman world. Why, in 2 Corinthians 4:4 it’s even used of another divine being, the devil.

And that’s the main word the New Testament writers use for God. Nice move.

Another Greek word referring to God is “kurios,” which means Lord and is also used of Jesus, but that’s generic as well. Caesar was also called kurios.

To sum up, biblical writers, when talking about God, adopted ancient titles and metaphors from the surrounding cultures. There is nothing—no.thing.—special about these words.

“God” or “Lord” had for them built-in meanings and connotations that were adapted and transformed to speak of their God.

It strikes me that, for us to be truly “biblical” in how we refer to God, we might be better off following the biblical practice more than the biblical words.

So I ask myself: what are some possible terms, titles, descriptors, metaphors from our own culture that we might adapt and transform to talk about our God in our time and place rather than using terms that are essentially meaningless in post-Christian culture—like “God” or “Lord”?

I don’t really have an answer. “The force”. . . ultimate meaning. . . the universe. . . higher power?

In my book draft, I use “Presence” a few times, but I’m just not sure. I’m still looking.

In the meantime let me say this: if you are taken aback by the thought of using alternate language for God, especially using terms that sound very unbiblical, even pagan or trendy to you . . .

well . . .

Remember that the very same practice is carved into our own Bibles.

So, what modern terms or descriptors should we adopt? I’m not sure, but we might be most biblical when we don’t simply repeat biblical words for God but use some of our own.

This blog was originally posted in October 2015.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.