Q: I don’t understand why the name of God was so important to the Israelites. I thought God’s name was simply “God.” Why does it seem to be such a big deal or even a stumbling block to people in the Bible? Why are there so many questions about the name of God?
A: A name is a major part of someone’s identity. That’s why some people want to make their names well-known. On the other hand, writers sometimes prefer a pseudonym or to remain anonymous.
The Israelites were surrounded by people who believed in many gods. These gods and goddesses exhibited all the human vices—and some of the virtues—but supposedly had much greater power. These deities were invoked easily and often.
The Book of Genesis opens with two accounts of the world’s creation. In the account from the priestly tradition, God is called Elohim, the word used most often in the Old Testament for God. Grammatically, it is plural but usually refers to the one God of Israel. It can also refer to false gods. In the priestly tradition, God creates the world in six days and rests on the seventh one.
The other Genesis account is called Yahwist because it refers to God as YHWH, which we know as Yahweh—Hebrew was originally written without vowels—and which they never use in the plural. The Yahwist God walks in the Garden of Eden in the evening and is happy to speak with Adam and Eve.
Over time, belief in one God becomes widely accepted by the descendants of Abraham and Sarah. God is even called “the Name,” which should never be taken in vain or used lightly (Exodus 20:7, Deuteronomy 5:11 and many other references). When God gives someone a new name (for example, Abram/Abraham or Sarai/Sarah), that person’s identity is forever changed.
When Moses encounters a bush that burns yet is not consumed (Exodus 3:4-22), God commands Moses to return to Pharaoh and lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Moses then demands to know God’s name and is told to say, “I AM sent me to you.” Moses should tell the Israelites that he has been sent by the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. “This is my name forever, this is my title for all generations” (v. 15b).
When Moses came down Mt. Sinai and found the people worshiping a golden calf, he became very discouraged and asked to see God’s glory. God explained: “I will make all my beauty pass before you, and in your presence I will pronounce my name, ‘LORD’; I who show favors to whom I will, I who grant mercy to whom I will” (Exodus 33:19).
Eventually, when Jewish people would read the Scriptures aloud at home or during worship, they would substitute the word Adonai (“Lord”) for the expression YHWH. Moving from believing in many gods to believing in a single God took a long time; reverence for the uniqueness of God’s name was part of the process. This concern for God’s name continues in the New Testament. St. Paul says that Jesus was given a name above all other names (Philippians 2:9).
By selecting names for their gods and telling stories about them, pagans controlled their gods to some extent. The God of the Bible invites us to share divine life. What gift could be greater?