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Published on: January 2nd, 2014

From Elohim to Abba: the intimate names of God

From Elohim to Abba: the intimate names of God
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Students long for community and intimacy. And they have little interest in a lofty, distant God. Yet if you ask students about God, most admit to thinking of God as largely unknowable, uncaring, angry or distant. Those of us who long to bring students to faith in Christ often wonder just how we can best present God as he really is. Understanding the names of God — expressions of his nature as found in the Bible — can help.

There are many ways we could portray God in order to get people to like him. We could portray God as a faithful companion and a true friend. We could emphasize Bible texts showing that God could be one’s Best Buddy. We could choose worship songs that make us think of God as warm and fuzzy, close and cuddly.

But we must not create a God in our own image, or in the image desired by the people around us. Instead, it is essential to present God as he revealed himself in scripture, whether our listeners want that kind of God or not. After all, as God told Moses, “I am who I am.”

So how should we portray God? The Bible is our authoritative source for knowing God as he is. Does the Bible truly portray a God who desires intimacy or is this an inappropriate question to ask?

The study of God’s revelation of himself is rich with a variety of names of God. Let’s take a look at the main ones in both Testaments. (Although God’s nature encompasses the fullness of both the masculine and feminine, the Bible tends to use more masculine allusions to reveal God’s person. This is true of his biblical names as well. For the purposes of this article I’ll use masculine pronouns.)

Elohim

Elohim (translated “God” in English) is the Hebrew name used for God in the very first line of the Bible. Elohim existed already and he created everything else. Elohim is a plural noun that can also refer to the various gods or the human authorities of the nations. The Bible, however, uses this noun to refer to the one true God.

Kings and queens might use the “royal We” to speak of themselves in the plural of majesty. Biblical authors likewise spoke of the one true God in the plural form to show his elevated status above all people and above all so-called gods. Some would even argue that God inspired the biblical writers to use this plural name as an early hint that later he would more fully reveal the fact that he is a Trinity, one God in three Persons.

Elohim designates God as Majestic Ruler over all.

El, El-Shaddai

The word El may or may not originally be related to the word Elohim. In the Old Testament, this name emphasizes the power and sovereignty of God. It is often expanded as El-Shaddai, translated “God Almighty.” This is the name God gives to himself in his covenant relationship with Abraham:

When Abraham was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty El-Shaddai; walk before me and be blameless. I will confirm my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers” (Genesis 17:1-2, NIV).

Despite all obstacles, El-Shaddai was mighty and accomplished his promises to Abraham. God’s ultimate promise, that “all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:3) is accomplished through Abraham’s descendant Jesus.

El-Shaddai designates God as Almighty.

Yahweh

The most personal name that God gives himself in the Old Testament is Yahweh. Hebrew was originally written as consonants with no vowels and this name appears as the equivalent of YHWH. As vowels were inserted and it was passed down through other languages to English, it evolved into the word Jehovah. The word Yahweh, however, is an attempt to more closely represent the original Hebrew. As the Jewish tradition of never pronouncing this personal name of God developed, the word Adonai (“Lord”) began to be read in its place at public readings of the scriptures. This tradition continues today in most English translations, where Yahweh is translated as “LORD” (with the first letter capitalized and the rest in small caps).

Yahweh is the name that God emphasizes in his covenant with Moses and the Israelite people. God tells Moses, “I am the LORD Yahweh. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty El-Shaddai, but by my name the LORD Yahweh I did not make myself known to them” (Exodus 6:3). The name Yahweh may or may not have been known earlier than Moses, but here God points out that in his earlier covenant, the Patriarchs related to the one true God known by the title of God Almighty. This covenant with Moses and the Israelites involves a closer relationship with his people than before. Yahweh now begins to dwell among and accompany his people as they travel and as they later conquer and settle in the Promised Land.

Yahweh is the name God uses when he comes to dwell among his people.

Adonai

God is also called Adonai. This name can be used for a person whom one would address as “my lord,” but it is a frequent Old Testament name for God. This name, when applied to God, means that God is Master or Owner. Adonai is translated “Lord” (only the “L” is capitalized) in English and emphasizes the fact that God is in charge of his creation and his people. Isaiah uses this term when he says, “I saw the Lord (Adonai) seated on a throne” (Isaiah 6:1). Following the tradition of not pronouncing God’s personal name out loud, Adonai became an equivalent term for Yahweh.

Adonai designates Yahweh as Owner and Master.

Theos, Kyrios

Well before the time of Jesus, the Old Testament was translated into Greek, a widespread international language of the time. The translators of this work, called the Septuagint, chose the Greek word Theos (God) to translate Elohim and El, and Kyrios (Lord) to translate both Adonai and Yahweh.

This usage was carried on in the New Testament (originally written in Greek), where Theos was used as a general word for God, and Kyrios was a more personal name designating God as the personal Lord of all. Old Testament quotations in the Greek New Testament followed the Septuagint’s use of Theos and Kyrios.

This tradition lives on in English in most Old Testament translations, where the words Adonai and Yahweh are translated by the same word, distinguished only by capitalization: “the Lord” and “the LORD,” respectively. Other words for God (Elohim, El, etc.) are simply translated “God.”

Greek became a more and more widely used language even among the Jews before the time of Jesus. The Septuagint became so influential that the two different Hebrew words Yahweh and Adonai came to be considered equivalent. When used as a proper noun, Kyrios in Greek meant the same thing as Yahweh in Hebrew. Kyrios (the Lord) carried the connotation of God’s personal name. So, although it continued to be used as a title of respect for people, Jews considered it a weighty word. “My lord” could be a polite name for a human person, but there was only one Person who could be called “the Lord.”

This is the context in which Jesus’ first disciples wrestled to understand just who he was. In the Septuagint and in the New Testament God is called both Theos and Kyrios (Lord). It is particularly striking, then, that Jesus is also called “the Lord.” Romans 14:6, for example, speaks of both “the Lord” (Kyrios, referring to Jesus) and “God” (Theos). In this one verse (as in other places), Jesus and God the Father are spoken of separately but in relatively equivalent terms. It seems that the New Testament writers had already developed a rather elevated view of Jesus by the time it was written. They somehow already understood that Jesus was God himself.

In Jesus, our Lord, God becomes human and gives himself to save his people.

Pater

The Old Testament describes God as the Father of his people in several places (see Deuteronomy 32:6, Isaiah 63:16, 64:8, etc.), but Jesus promotes this name of God to a much greater degree. He considers God his own Father (Pater in Greek, the New Testament’s original language) and the Father of his disciples (whom he instructs to pray to “Our Father”) as well. God continues to be called Father throughout the New Testament.

God is the Father of Jesus and the Father of those who follow Jesus.

Abba

Recent scholarship has shown that, although the New Testament was written in Greek, the main language that Jesus and his disciples spoke was undoubtedly Aramaic, an ancient regional language. The Aramaic word Abba appears three times in the New Testament (Mark 14:36, Romans 8:15, Galatians 4:6) and each time it is immediately translated as Pater for readers unfamiliar with Aramaic. It seems that when Jesus spoke of God as Father in Aramaic, he used the term Abba. It is particularly remarkable, then, that Abba is an intimate word for father. It indicates some of the very first syllables a baby might pronounce in reference to his father — something like Daddy or Papa, but even more like Dada.

God, the Father of Jesus and his disciples, is Dada.

What is God up to?

Biblical history is, among other things, the story of the almighty, infinite, eternal, holy, transcendent God initiating and developing an increasingly intimate relationship with his people. This is what he did with Abraham and with the descendants of Jacob. This is what he did and is doing with the disciples of Jesus. This is what he wants to do with us as his disciples today. This is also what awaits us when we go to live with our Dada forever (John 14:3, 1 Corinthians 13:12).

If you are discontent with relating to God from a distance and long to know God more intimately, consider that the Bible clearly teaches us that this is just what God desires as well. Let us seek the intimacy with God that he also desires.

If God is drawing people to himself and becoming Dada to them, let us not shrink from presenting him in this way. One reason the gospel of Jesus Christ is Good News is that the transcendent God of the universe has come to seek us out in Jesus and wants to adopt us to live in close harmony with him. Let us make this known boldly.

— Scott Harris

Going Deeper

Improve your intimacy with God by learning to listen. Here are suggestions on how to Pray Without Talking from the blog of InterVarsity.

When Lisa’s spiritual life was stuck, she knew she needed a new Direction for Life. Find out how spiritual disciplines set her free.

230 out of 246 found this article helpful.

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Comments:

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  • Thank you Scott Harris for this article. My last child is about to start University and I have been looking for how to keep her focus on God when she leaves home. Please pray for her that God will also use her to bring more of her NEW friends to Christ. Her name is LULU.
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  • Hi scott. nice article but you need to add more names of god - some of which may not be found in the bible.

    Take Odin for example.

    Odin is Yahweh and speaks to us through the runes in the same way as El speaks to us through the Koran and the Bible
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  • I am just beginning a series on the names of God. Thank you for your focus on the names of God used in the Bible---His one, true word. Although we may use other words to describe various deity, the ones He chose for Himself in the Bible are most accurate.
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  • El Shaddai,My Redeemer,Jehovah Jireh,there are many other titles that apply to God...
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  • Nice article,

    Here is another site with a lot more of the names of God…makes an excellent devotional to pray through...

    The Names of God

    http://70030.netministry.com/apps/articles/default.asp?articleid=32343&columnid=3844

    The Names of Jesus

    http://70030.netministry.com/apps/articles/default.asp?articleid=32334&columnid=3844

    The Names of the Holy Spirit

    http://70030.netministry.com/apps/articles/default.asp?articleid=32340&columnid=3844


    keep this stuff up!

    Ron

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  • good script!.
    I think the NAME of God is jesus (Iesus).
    I'm studying kwangsin college at kwangju in korea. I study bible with vietnamese workers on saturday. I have used your site for vietnamese bible. Thank you. I hope you load khmer bible as soon as possible.
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  • Scott,
    Thank you so much. Your writing is simple and beautiful. You have a gift of explaining complicated information clearly. Thanks again! God bless you!
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  • i am a novice but it was very informative for me. please let me know how to pray. i always run short of words.
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  • this is gret I am spirit filled but would like to experience spiritual gifts more than ever before any suggestions?
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  • Scott,
    Your article truly blessed me this morning. I was originally seeking other information and was inspired by your writing. What an awesome God we serve.
    Stay blessed and encouraged.
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  • Thank you Scott for this article. And for those that are seeking to "know how to Pray" Jesus taught us all that himself in Luke 11. There is a book that takes that prayer and breaks it down for us all to understand and it is "Lord, Teach Me to Pray in 28 Days by Kay Arthur" We just finished it for summer bible study and it is well worth the $10
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  • THANKS YOU FOR YOUR TEACHING. MY PRAYER LIFE WILL BE MUCH MORE STORNGER FROM THIS DAY. THANKS
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  • i like the article, it's been helpful to me, and has also encouraged me to have a deeper knowledge of the God that we serve. But, i am not comfortable calling Him "Dada", and i don't think it should also be encouraged, because it might come to a point that people would take God that lightly. Although you have also explained that Dada is more personalized in addressing a father, i still think it would not be proper to encourage the usage of such a word. i could accept it if it's for comparison's sake, but i still think it's too informal, and improper. i hope you understand. But the article as a whole really blessed me, thank you still. God bless you!
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  • sounds interesting
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  • I liked most of this and historically most is correct but please try not to put Jesus Christ down to the level of a lunatic he prayed to his father in the garden not to himself he is the son of God the one God sent a dove to sit upon his head when baptized by John the Baptiste and God said this is my son in whom I am well pleased.What do you think God would stoop so low as to need to throw some theatrics in to get people to notice Jesus??

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  • This is good stuff! Thank you for sharing!
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  • Is there a designated name of Beautiful for the Lord?
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  • 134 places where the Sopherim (Hebrew copyists) altered the name of Yahweh (YHWH) to Adonai as a replacement/ and sin. Ex.20:7 “You do not bring the Name of Yahweh your Elohim to naught, for Yahweh does not leave the one unpunished who brings His Name to naught. Three of those 134 places of which are as follows: Isaiah 6:1, 8, 11. Adonai not a name but a title and not in the original texts as you assert in Isaiah 6! Theologians promote this modern day type of Baal worship nonsense and ministers subscribe to it, while teaching their congregations to blaspheme in their modern day high places/ churches and repudiate the Torah and intentionally ascribe this villainy to Paul/Sha'ul ; as Zephaniah states they are light and treacherous. Yahweh is our heavenly Father , His created Son is Yahshua or pronouncing the other waw could be Yahushua. Jesus is a demon, as well as G-d, L-ord, etc. G-d has it's etymology from a molten image and idolatry! Yahweh only refers to Himself as an Elohim , El, etc in Hebrew, where he revealed Himself. The trinity is a blasphemous hoax one will never leave unless they study scripture and turn to the true names of the MAJESTY ON HIGH as they should be rightly restored as they were obviously in the original texts and don't allow for editing! True worshipers are Israelites not Christians! Come out of Babel and to the written Torah, where the true Messiach is, who sits at his Father's right hand!
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