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The names of God in the Bible

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Two names for God are found in the two creation stories. In the first creation account in chapter 1 of Genesis, the name of God is Elokim. The God of the second creation story is a combination of two names YKVK Elokim. These two names for God reflect two different forms of relationship between man and God and are found throughout the Bible.


Two different names for God may sound strange at first since we are used to thinking of God in nothing but unitary terms. Nevertheless, different names for the same person depending on the nature of a relationship is not remote to us. For example, the children of the president of the United States probably refer to their father as “Dad,” while his wife may use his first name. It would be strange for her to refer to him as “Mr. President” in a family setting other than in jest. Similarly, it would be inappropriate for anyone other than family or a close friend to call the President by his first name to his face. 

The first modern scholar to examine the names of God in an academic way was Umberto Cassuto (1883-1951), and he summarized his conclusions in a monograph entitled “The Documentary Hypothesis and the Composition of the Pentateuch.”1 

The names of God were a very relevant topic for Cassuto. He was an Italian rabbi and a Professor of Bible at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel, and his department was strongly vested in biblical criticism. In contrast to other members of his department, he was a leading critic of the Documentary Hypothesis. Underlying the Documentary Hypothesis is the notion that the Torah is an amalgam of different literary sources. Moreover, these different sources characteristically use different names for God.


It is worth reviewing this hypothesis at this stage, since mention will be made of it in many of the chapters to follow. The writing of Julius Wellhausen in the late 19th century is central to the development of this hypothesis. In his influential book "Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel" (1878), he synthesized earlier scholarship and proposed the existence of four main sources for the Torah that were composed over time. He termed these J, E, D and P. These sources were combined (redacted) by later editors or redactors into the form of the Torah we have today.


  1. J Source (Yahwist). This source uses primarily the name "Yahweh" or YKVK for the name of God and is characterized by vivid, anthropomorphic descriptions of God.


2. E Source (Elohist). The E source is prominent in narratives that emphasize the name "Elokim" for God, such as in Genesis 20-22 where Abraham interacts with God using this name. The story of the covenant with Abraham (Genesis 15) and the promise of descendants is often attributed to the Elohist source. Sections that feature Moses' encounters with God at the burning bush and the revelation of the divine name (Yahweh) in Exodus 3 are often considered Elohist passages, even though the Torah uses the name of God YKVK. The E source often emphasizes divine majesty and the theme of prophecy.


3. P Source (Priestly): The P source focuses on ritual, genealogy, and priestly matters, and reflects a concern for order and ceremony. The P source is evident in the creation account of Genesis 1, which presents a structured and orderly depiction of God's creation over six days. This account emphasizes the transcendent and majestic nature of God. The P source is also prominent in the detailed instructions for the construction of the Tabernacle (Exodus 25-31) and the description of its rituals and furnishings (Exodus 35-40). These passages focus on the importance of proper worship and the roles of priests. The entire book of Leviticus is heavily influenced by the Priestly source, with its detailed laws and regulations concerning sacrifices, rituals, purity, and the responsibilities of the priests, as are sections of Numbers, particularly those dealing with census data, genealogies, and rituals related to the priesthood (such as the consecration of the Levites and laws governing the priesthood). Scholars have identified elements of the P source throughout the Torah where there are detailed legal or ritualistic instructions, lists of genealogies, and narratives that emphasize the importance of proper worship and adherence to religious laws.


4. D Source (Deuteronomist). This source centers around the book of Deuteronomy, and emphasizes religious reform and law codes.


The Documentary Hypothesis proposed that the second chapter of Genesis was written by a J source in the southern Kingdom of Judah in about 950 BCE, while the first chapter of Genesis comes from a priestly source that was written somewhat later, in about the sixth century BCE or later.


Most orthodox Jews are unable to accept the Documentary Hypothesis since it removes divine authority for the Bible and replaces this with at the most divine inspiration. Recent work demonstrating linguistic similarities in alleged different sources, plus a flow rather than disruptions in the narrative also make this hypothesis increasingly unlikely.


Cassuto rejected this hypothesis and held by the Divine authorship of the Bible and that the names of God in the Bible could be explained by different types of relationships to God and not as a consequence of different literary sources.


The first chapter of Genesis uses exclusively the name Elokim. (I have substituted a k for an h in Elokim so that this holy name for God is not misused). Elokim describes a distant, transcendent God who created the universe. Hence His appearance in the first chapter of Genesis. However, Elokim is not remote from the universe He created and He is very much concerned with the general providence of His universe and mankind. Elokim is therefore very different from the Aristotelian concept of God as the Prime Mover who created the universe, gave it a shove and then left it to its own devices. Within later Jewish ideas is the notion that the universe would cease to exist without His continuing input.


In the Semitic language “El” was a general term for deity. El was also the name of the supreme Canaanite god.


This name has the meaning of “a force within nature.”2 It is in the plural in the Bible because God created and controls multiple powers within nature. Nevertheless, the verb attached to the name of God Elokim is usually in the singular, although there are few exceptions.3 In some instances, Elokim is used in the Bible as a general term for “the Deity.” It is also used as a general name for judges, since they are considered to function as the representatives of Elokim.4


Elokim is also thought of as the God of all humanity, since the universe was not created for the sake of any religion or group but for all mankind. The universal aspect of Elokim is evident in a number of places in the Pentateuch.5 A good example is that Noah blesses his son Shem in the name of YKVK, but his son Japheth by the name Elokim (Genesis 9:26-27). Shem is the progenitor of the Semites, while Japheth is the forefather of the Greek nations.


The second commonly found name for God in the Torah is YKVK (I have also substituted a k for the two h’s in this name for the same reason as in Elokim). In contrast to Elokim, YKVK is an immanent God who relates to man on an individual level. He is therefore a God of individual providence. This is why YKVK is always addressed in the second person and Elokim in the third person. YKVK is concerned with the moral progress of humanity. He is also recognized as the personal God of the Jewish forefathers and in time He will become the tribal God of the Jewish nation.


The God always associated with sacrifices in the Bible is YKVK, since sacrifices are a way of drawing close to God. Hence, Noah built an altar to YKVK in Genesis 8:20, even though it was Elokim who instructed him to leave the ark several sentences earlier (Genesis 8:15).


The single exception to this in the Torah is instructive:


Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, took an olah-offering and peace-offering for Elokim, and Aaron and all the elders of Israel came to eat bread with the father-in-law of Moses before the Elokim (Exodus 18:12). 


There is a midrashic opinion that Jethro converted to Judaism. However, another way of looking at this passage is that Jethro’s approach to God was as a universal, transcendent God. This idea was so foreign to his son-in-law Moses, a prophet of YKVK, that he did not attend this first recorded ecumenical event in history. Moses’ name is not mentioned as being among the guests —" only Aaron and all the elders of Israel.”


The name of God YKVK first appears in the Torah in the first sentence of the second creation story, although in combination with Elokim.


These are the generations (i.e., products) of the heaven and the earth when they were created, on the day that YKVK Elokim (God God) made earth and heaven (Genesis 2:4).


This double appellation for God sounds somewhat odd in Hebrew. It is not noticeable in English since the two words are usually translated as “the Lord God.” In Hebrew, however, it sounds just like it is written - God God. This combination occurs almost nowhere else in the Torah.4a All explanations as to why these two names are found together entail adding extra words such as “YKVK [who is the same God as] Elokim [used in the previous chapter]” or “YKVK [who is] the Deity.”


A question, though, can be asked regarding this explanation. If the phrase “YKVK Elokim” is no more than an introduction to YKVK in terms of Elokim, why is this combination of names continued throughout chapters 2 and 3?  Would not the opening sentence suffice?

This leads to the explanation that Adam and Eve existed alone in the universe in close proximity to the Divine. In this unique environment, their perception of the immanence and transcendence of God was fused as one. However, once they were ejected from the Garden of Eden, they no longer perceived these two attributes of God as a single manifestation of the Divine. From now on, God would deal with humanity either with His attribute of YKVK or that of Elokim depending on the circumstances. Similarly, man would oscillate in his awareness of these two attributes.


A well-known alternative interpretation of these two names of God is that the name Elokim reflects God’s attribute of irrevocable justice, while YKVK represents that of mercy. Hence Rashi writes in his commentary to the Torah:


“Elokim created” [in Genesis chapter I]: It does not say YKVK’s creating [in Genesis chapter II] because at first it rose in thought [i.e., God considered so to speak] to create it with the attribute of strict judgment [using the name Elokim]. But He saw that the world could not last [if He did]. He [therefore] gave precedence to the attribute of mercy and joined it to the attribute of strict justice [in Genesis II]. That is the meaning of that which is written: “on the day of YKVK Elokim’s making of the earth and heavens” [in Genesis chapter II].


However, there is a major problem with this explanation. It fits nicely into the two creation stories but has limited application beyond this. Throughout the desert experience, for example, there were many times that God displayed his attribute of justice, yet invariably the name of God YKVK is used.

It is of interest that there are a number of times in the Pentateuch that YKVK (but not Elokim) changes His mind. Hence, we read in the Noah story:


And YKVK regretted that He had made man upon the earth, and he was pained in His heart. And YKVK said: “I will blot out man whom I created from upon the face of the earth, from man to cattle to creeping thing, to the fowl of the heavens, for I regret that I made them” (Genesis 6:6-7).


This leads to the obvious question. God knows the future. How could He not know that man would take the wrong path?


The classic biblical commentator Rashi answers this question in relation to this verse with an analogy from a midrash. Rabbi Yehoshua responds to a non-Jew who asked this very question:

"Do you not admit that the Holy One, Blessed is He foresees the future?” Rabbi Yehoshua answers that “Even though it was revealed before Him that their destiny was to sin and to suffer destruction, He did not refrain from creating them because of the righteous who are destined to arise from among them."


There might be another answer too. God really does not know the future. He can engineer the future and has a general idea of the future. However, because of man’s free will, He can never know exactly what the future will bring. This idea is not generally accepted by Jewish sages, but has been raised by Jewish scholars and is not heretical. To my mind it fits closer with the biblical text. 





















It is illuminating to follow the use of the names Elokim and YKVK through the Five Books of Moses. For example, we read in the first creation account:

Elokim blessed them [male and female] and Elokim said to them: ‘Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it, and rule over the fish of the sea, the bird of the sky and every living thing that moves on the earth (Genesis 1:28).

That man should procreate and endeavor to fill the earth would not have been obvious to couples in those days. Even nowadays there are couples who limit their procreation efforts because of their fear of nuclear annihilation, the problems associated with climate change, and/or world starvation. If not for our trust in technology and diplomacy to overcome these problems, society could well come to the conclusion that procreation is a losing proposition. Such fears were even more prevalent in the ancient world, since, as will be explained, humans had a pessimistic attitude regarding the world they lived in.


One of the aims of the Noah story was to emphasize the desirability of populating the earth despite the fears of natural calamities. Hence, we find almost identical wording in the Noah story as in the creation account, again under the name Elokim:


And Elokim blessed Noah and his sons, and He said to them: ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the land (Genesis 9:1).


This point was felt to be of such importance that Elokim proceeds to make a covenant with Noah, as well as all future humanity, that there shall “never again become a flood to destroy all flesh” (Genesis 9:15). A covenant is a formal way of making a promise to another party. The sign of this covenant will be a rainbow linking heaven and earth. This covenant is made by Elokim.


On the other hand, as the Bible unfolds, it will be YKVK who will relate on a personal level to Adam and Eve’s children Cain, Abel and Seth. Because of His concern regarding the moral development of the world, YKVK will also be involved in the generation of the Tower of Babel. Both Elokim and YKVK will talk with Noah. Both will also talk with Abraham because of the universal and tribal aspects of the promises that are made to him.


The name YKVK will subsequently be lost to Jacob’s children. Jacob’s son Joseph, for example, talks only about Elokim. However, YKVK will reintroduce Himself to Moses and hence to the Jewish people at the burning bush. YKVK will subsequently become the national God of the Israelite people as they make their way to Mount Sinai and then trudge through the desert for forty years.


Why did the Torah use different names for God? Our puzzlement as moderns that One God has several names is a testimony to the success of the Bible in directing us to the appreciation of the unity of God. It is suggested, however, that the ancients would have had difficulty in conceptualizing the notion that the same God who created the universe was interested in developing relationships with His created beings. Pagan gods, for example, never communicated with individuals, other than perhaps with a king.6 Thus, the Torah presented new ideas about one God in a way that was easy for people to conceptualize. The Torah also wished to differentiate between the universal and the tribal aspects of God’s messages.


The two names of God Elokim and YKVK and the attributes they describe would have been new and radical in the ancient world. At that time, there were gods of cities, and even gods of local areas, countries or empires, but no pagan god was interested in all of humanity. The notion of a personal god who was interested in and even communicated with individuals would also have been a transformative idea. The gods of the ancient world had specific functions within nature, such as governing fertility and storms, but they had no relationship with individuals. Neither did they communicate with them.


This does not mean that these names are no longer relevant. To the contrary. In our relationship with God, it is still difficult to oscillate between our conceptions of an awe-inspiring God, and our desire to draw near and develop a relationship with God. The names Elokim and YKVK help us do this.




1. Lecture 2, The Divine Names in The Documentary Hypothesis and the Composition of the Pentateuch by Umberto Cassuto, p18, Shalem Press, Jerusalem and New York, 2006.  See also The Names of God in The Koren Siddur with Introduction, Translation and Commentary by Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks. p xiv, Koren Publishers Jerusalem, 2009.

2. Kuzari IV:1. This explanation also partially follows that of Nachmanides, as documented in his interpretation to Genesis. 1:1. See also The Names of God in The Koren Siddur with Introduction, Translation and Commentary by Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks. p xiv, Koren Publishers Jerusalem, 2009.


3. An example is Genesis 20:13 where the verb for “caused” is in the plural. “And so it was, when Elokim caused me to wander from my father’s house, I said to her. . .” One explanation may be that Abraham is referring to a time when he thought he was under the influence of pagan gods, although this might not be regarded as a very satisfactory answer. Another answer is that this may be the so-called majestic form of God used for emphasis. An example of this is Genesis 1:20 when God says “Let us make man.” Another midrashic explanation is that God is consulting with the administering angels.


4. Examples of this use are "then his master shall bring him to God [Elokim], and shall bring him to the door or the doorpost, and his master shall bore through his ear with the awl, and he shall serve him forever" (Exodus 21:6) and: "If the thief is not found, then the householder shall come near to God [Elokim] that he had not laid his hand on his neighbor's property. For every item of liability, whether an ox, a donkey, a sheep, or a garment, or for any lost item about which he says: 'This is it,' the case of both parties shall come before God [Elokim]. Whomever God [Elokim] condemns shall pay double to his neighbor" (Exodus 22:7-9).


4a. An exception is Exodus 9:30. Elokim in this instance may well be translated as Deity.


5. Lecture 3, More about the Divine Names in The Documentary Hypothesis and the Composition of the Pentateuch by Umberto Cassuto, p32, Shalem Press, Jerusalem and New York 2006.


6. In the Noah story, God spoke freely to Noah. However, in the very similar Gilgamesh myth, the god Ea could only communicate with Upnapishtim about building an ark by speaking to the brick wall of his reed hut. See “Gilgamesh Tablet XI” in Myths from Mesopatamia. Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh and Others by Stephanie Dalley, 110. Oxford University Press, Revised edition 2000.

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