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excitementDid you know that the most common name for Israel’s God in the Old Testament is . . . ?

No it’s not “God” (smarty pants). It’s a bit more complicated then that and—as with all my trivia posts—what I’m about to tell you is life-changing.

The most common name for God by far is God’s personal name usually spelled in English Yahweh. According to my Accordance search, the name occurs 5,345 times.

The problem is that the divine name Yahweh hardly if ever shows up in our English translations. Instead it is substituted with LORD (the ORD is spelled with small caps, which apparently requires a plug in that I don’t feel like downloading and installing at the moment).

“LORD” is really a title, not a name. So whenever you read “and the LORD said to Moses” or something like that it’s really saying “and Yahweh said to Moses.” The switch to LORD would be like me saying, “Good morning, the wife,” instead of “Good morning, Sue.” The title is a lot less personal.

“So why is the title LORD used instead of the name Yahweh?” you might ask. I’ll tell you.

The divine name is sacred in the history of Judaism. To safeguard its sacredness, Jewish scribes who copied the Bible would write the letters YHWH but insert vowels for an entirely different word “adonai” (lord). That way when reading the text and coming across the divine name YHWH they would be forced to say “adonai” rather than try to pronounce the divine name. All that was out of respect for the sacred divine name and also helped prevent the accidental breaking the 3rd Commandment (the “wrongful use” of the name).

That approach has worked quite well—so well in fact that we don’t really know how YHWH was actually pronounced by the YHWHancient Israelites! “Yahweh” is the conventional guess based on the work of Hebrew scholars, but we don’t really know. Another popular form of the word is “Jehovah” but that’s a guess, too.

Anyway, English translations follow this Jewish scribal practice and put LORD wherever the text has YHWH. The small caps are used to distinguish LORD = YHWH from the other uses of “adonai” that refer to humans, where it is spelled Lord or lord.

If you haven’t yet stopped reading, let me reiterate: although I respect the respect Judaism has for God’s sacred name (we Christians are too casual about it, if you ask me), something is also lost by reading LORD because LORD is a title, which comes across a formal, distant, and not in the slightest personal.

So here is your challenge for the day: the next time you come across LORD in your Bible, substitute it with Yahweh and see what difference it makes in how you hear the story. It does.

A shortened form of Yahweh is Yah, which occurs 49 times (44 times in the Psalms), not including all those times it shows up as parts of people’s names. Anytime you see a biblical name that ends in “-iah” that ending is actually “yah” (or the alternate “yahu”), such as Isaiah (ye-sha-YA-hu), Jeremiah (yir-m-YA-hu), Obadiah (`o-vad-YAH), and Uzziah (u-ziy-YAH).

Bottom line, the personal name of God, Yahweh/Yah, is a big deal in the Old Testament. You’re welcome.

“Pete, tell us more about names of God in the Old Testament!” O.K.

The second most common name for God is the Hebrew Elohim (‘e-lo-HEEM), which isn’t technically speaking a “name” but the generic word for “God” and is translated as such, appearing 2,602 times in the Old Testament. So when you see “God” in the Old Testament, it is almost always Elohim.

elohimNow there are some places here Elohim refers to gods other than Israel’s God (e.g., Exodus 20:3; Genesis 31:30-32; 1 Samuel 28:13) or possibly judges (Exodus 21:6; 22:8-9), but all those exceptions amount to maybe. . . I don’t know exactly . . . I didn’t feel like doing the work . . . but I would bet no more than a dozen times. Elohim is safely a distant second place among names for God.

Related to Elohim is our third place contestant El (pronounced with a long a as in ALE) coming in at 331 times.

One big difference between El and the previous 2 names is that we don’t really know where the other two come from. The origin and meaning of YHWH are shrouded in mystery, and Elohim is technically a plural noun even though it refers to one God.

Christians have gone nuts over the centuries thinking this plural name for God is proof of a Trinity in the Old Testament, but hardly anyone thinks that is a convincing explanation—mainly because that would have meant absolutely nothing to ancient Israelites. Likewise some explain it as a “plural of majesty,” but that sounds like another hail Mary pass, since western practice (Queen Elizabeth referring to herself in the 1st person plural) can’t be assumed of ancient Israelites.

But we do know where El comes from.

El predates Israelite culture and was the name of the high god of the Canaanite pantheon and the generic word for god. Scholarly discussions continue, but it seems likely that ancient Israelites may have at one time in their distant past thought of El as their God too, and then later came to see their God as distinct from the gods of the other nations, retaining the name El and merging it with Yahweh —but that is a huge and confusing issue that requires more than a sentence or two, and I’m sorry I brought it up.

Back to math. El appears in the Old Testament 331 times, as I mentioned above—95 times as a proper name “El” (see Genesis 33:20, El-Elohe-Israel = El, the God of Israel) and 236 times as a generic name for God (like Elohim).

And like Yahweh/Yah, El is also found in a lot of names such as Israel (yis-ra-‘el), Ezekiel (ye-chez-QE’L), Daniel (da-niy-YE’L), Joel (yo-‘EL), and Immanuel (im-ma-nu-‘EL).

And just to keep it real, another name similar to the previous two is Eloah, which means “God” and occurs 58x (more than half in Job, e.g., Job 3:4, 23; see also Elohe in Genesis 33:20 mentioned above).

To sum up: Yahweh, then Elohim, then El (throwing in for good measure Yah and Eloah). There are others, but these are the top 3.

Bonus information: I’m really serious about replacing LORD with Yahweh in your personal Bible reading.

Try it, for example in Psalm 95, and you’ll see how Yahweh is being contrasted to any rival god.

The psalm begins “O come, let us sing to the LORD” which loses the punch, because we are reading this from a monotheistic point of view. But the Israelites were living in a polytheistic world: rival gods from other nations were an accepted reality for ancient Israelites.

So when we read instead “O come, let us sing to Yahweh” we might then hear, if even faintly, the sound of the other shoe dropping: “. . . sing Yahweh alone and not to any other god.”  Reading all of Psalm 95 with Yahweh instead of LORD makes that point pretty darn clear.

***If you want to read books of mine that contain no trivia whatsoever, here are some: The Bible Tells Me So (HarperOne, 2014),  Inspiration and Incarnation (Baker 2005/2015), The Sin of Certainty (HarperOne, 2016), and The Evolution of Adam (Baker, 2012).***

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.