The Seven Hebrew Names of God

Let them give praise to thy great name: for it is terrible and holy (Psalm 98:3).

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” (Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet). Yes, in the languages of the world, when it comes to the names of creatures, excluding angels, the names are arbitrary, which is not to say that they do not have a meaning. For men and women they do indeed have meanings. Some cultures named their children after a particular virtue or spectacle of nature that was related to the time or occasion of the birth. The American Indians are a perfect example of this. Christians, beginning in the early Church, named their children, if not after the father in the case of a boy, then after a martyr, or later, a particular saint, to whom they dedicated their child and whom they wished the child to emulate — but proper names of men, per se, have nothing to do with the attributes of the bearer and certainly nothing to do with the child’s nature or essence. If men were named for what they are, we would all be carrying the name “rational animal,” rather than Peter, John, or Barbara.

The name of angels, on the other hand, may be a different story. Saint Thomas teaches that each angel is its own species. They share a common essence in that they are all finite and composite spiritual substances; hence they are “persons,” but their properties are unique to each. One angel differs from another not as a rose differs from a sparrow but as a rose differs from a lily. We are talking about billions and that would be guardian angels alone. Imagine the innumerable spirits that abound in all nine choirs. The celestial world of the blessed intelligences must surely be a manifold explosion of an almost infinite splendor of variety, each angel, in addition to a host of grace-filled virtues, manifesting in some unique way a particular perfection of his Maker that would be his own lumina.

When Manue, the father of Samson, was visited by the angel who had previously announced to his wife Ana, who was barren, that she would bear a son, he asked the angel for his name. And the angel said: “Why askest thou my name, which is wonderful’? (Judges 13:18). In other words, human words could not express his uniqueness as a person. I am of the opinion that the Hebrew name Michael, which means “Who is like unto God,” was not only a challenge thrown at Lucifer, “Light-bearer,” but that the Archangel actually was, by an exalted grace, the angel most “like unto God.” So, too, Raphael is the “healing of God,” and Gabriel “the strength of God.” As far as personal properties or attributes are concerned, one could say that their “who” was their “what.” So, with Lucifer, before his fall changed him into Satan, he was a light-bearer (lux, lucis (light) and fero,ferre (to carry, bear)] on account of his great knowledge. Many fathers and doctors put him in the eighth choir, the cherubim, who were angels of knowledge. “Thou a cherub stretched out, and protecting, and I set thee in the holy mountain of God, thou hast walked in the midst of the stones of fire. Thou wast perfect in thy ways from the day of thy creation, until iniquity was found in thee” (Ezechiel 28: 14-15).

Not all men’s names are arbitrary. Some were given directly by God to certain holy men to denote a special office that they were to fill in the plan of salvation. Abraham’s name was given to him by God who changed his name from Abram (exalted father) to Abraham (father of a multitude). “Neither shall thy name be called any more Abram: but thou shalt be called Abraham: because I have made thee a father of many nations” (Gen 17:5). Saint Peter’s name was Simon before Jesus changed it to Cephas which means “rock.” After Jacob’s bout with the angel, God changed his name to Israel which means “contender with God.” Jacob, the name his parents gave him, means “heel grabber,” so named because he was born holding his elder brother Esau’s heel. John the Baptist’s name was given directly by God through the angel that appeared to Zachary: “Fear not, Zachary, for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elizabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John (Luke 1:13). John, Johanan in Hebrew, means “Graced by Yahweh (the Lord). Ana is the feminine form of John.

Our Lord gave the nickname “sons of thunder” to the brother Apostles James and John. Saul changed his own name to “Paul” (Latin for “small”) sometime after his conversion. Simon the Apostle was given the nickname “Zealot,” no doubt because he was a member of the nationalistic Jewish party called “Zealots,” and finally Saint Jude the Apostle was given the name “Thaddeus” (big-hearted) to distinguish him from Judas Iscariot.

I must not neglect the special prerogative of Adam, whose name was, no doubt, given to him by God, although Genesis does not explicitly say that. Adam did, however, give his wife her name, “Eve,” which means “Mother of the living.” Remember, Adam did not have to learn a language, that knowledge was infused into his mind by his Creator. Interesting, too, is that God willed that Adam name all the beasts and fowl in the Garden of Eden. In fact, God brought each kind of animal to Adam for such to receive their name, one by one. “And the Lord God having formed out of the ground all the beasts of the earth, and all the fowls of the air, brought them to Adam to see what he would call them: for whatsoever Adam called any living creature the same is its name” (Genesis 2:19).I believe that there is a mystery here, an extension by the spoken word of the utterance of the fiat of creation. Only God could “create,” things out of nothing, but Adam could create “words” out of the concepts he abstracted from the created things he contemplated. In this, he was echoing the “image of the Triune God” in whose image his soul was created. Adam had not yet fallen when he was given this assignment, and God seemed to delight in seeing what Adam would call the creatures in the Garden. Why would this be so? I think it is because, with his superior intellect, and with the grace of his original integrity of body and soul, Adam could see more of the unique nature of each animal, and in giving each its proper name, he was giving a title to their particular nature. In this, his mind operated more like the angels than after, when his mind was dulled with his fall from grace.

Now I will give you the seven names of God that appear in the Bible. I will give them in Hebrew, Greek, and English.

The great theologian of grace, Father Matthias Scheeben, classified the seven names in three categories:

First, the Names that apply intrinsically to God in His Nature;

Second, the Names that apply to God ad extra, in relation to man;

And thirdly, the one Name of “Lord,” which bridges the intrinsic and extrinsic appellations.

The Names for God, given in Scripture, that apply to His intrinsic Nature are:

El Schaddai: Greek is Ischiros, which means “God the Strong, God the Almighty.” During the uncovering of the Cross on Good Friday we sing the Greek Trisagion, Agios o Theos, Agios Ischiros, Agios Athanatos (Holy God, Holy Almighty One, Holy Immortal One).

Elion: Greek is Theos to Hupsistos (my transliteration in Latin letters), which means “God Most High, or God of Majesty” This appellative is used many times in both the Old and New Testaments.

Kadosch: Greek is Agios, which means “Holy.” “And the four living creatures had each of them six wings; and round about and within they are full of eyes. And they rested not day and night, saying: Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, who was, and who is, and who is to come” (Apoc. 4:8). (Kadosch, Kadosch, Kadosch, El Schaddai) And the seraphim were heard by Isaias crying out before the throne: “And they cried one to another, and said: Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God of hosts, all the earth is full of his glory.”

The Names for God that apply to Him ad extra, in relation to man are:

El: Greek is O Theos, “God”: “Therefore shall her plagues come in one day, death, and mourning, and famine, and she shall be burnt with the fire; because God is strong, who shall judge her” (Apoc. 18:18). (Ischiros Kyrios o Theos, The Lord God is strong.)

Elohim: (or, Elohim Sabaoth, which is used many times in the Old Testament): Greek, Theos Stratias, which means “God of armies” or just Elohim, which means “God, worthy of veneration.” Next to Yahweh, this is the most often used word for God in the Hebrew Old Testament, being employed 2500 times. (I will say a word about Yahweh, and the Hebrew tetragrammaton YWHW, shortly.) Interestingly, in testimony of the Triune plurality in God, which is the Holy Trinity, Elohim is the plural form of El, yet it always takes a singular verb: “Our God (Elohim) is our refuge and strength: a helper in troubles” (Psalm 45:2) and so on, in a thousand other passages. Now that is beautiful, is it not? The “Word” of God, Holy Scripture, is professing the Oneness of the Triune Deity.

Jesus, however, from the Cross, did not address His Father as Elohim, because He was Himself “El Adonai, God the Lord.” He addressed His Father, therefore, in the singular as “Eloi”, “Eloi, lama sabachthani”? which is, being interpreted, My God, My God why hast Thou forsaken Me?” (Mark 15:34). These very words used by the suffering Messiah were prophesied in the Psalms: “O God my God, look up me, why hast thou forsaken me?” (21:2) In Matthew we have: “Eli, Eli, lamma sabacthani? that is, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (27:46). Both Eloi and Eli are singular.

Adonai: Greek is Kyrios, which means “The Lord, or Judge.” Adonai is a singular title for God. When Jesus was addressed as “Lord,” in the Gospels, it was either a profession of Faith in His divinity, identifying Him with Adonai of the Old Testament, or it was an admission that He may be who He claimed to be, the Lord God, even if so addressed hesitatingly by those yet weak in faith or even by unbelievers who were inquiring of Him with open minds. The centurion called Jesus “Lord,” the father of the boy who had epilepsy called Jesus “Lord,” many Jews of good will also did; finally, the Good Thief Dismas, after converting from his cross, addressed Jesus as King and Lord.

Adonai was a vicarious word, used in place of the actual Hebrew word for God, which we are familiar with as Yahweh. In the Vulgate Latin, the word used to translate Adonai is Dominus. Some fathers of the Church believed the Name Yahweh may have been used even by the patriarchs before it was given by God personally to Moses from the burning bush. “But to Seth also was born a son, whom he called Enos; this man began to call upon the name of the Lord (Genesis 4:26). The Name means, “I am Who am.” This word expressed the proper essence of God, which is His self-existence, or aseity. This is why the unbelieving Jews were ready to stone Jesus when He pronounced His eternal Name in response to their insolent retorts: “Amen, Amen, I say to you, before Abraham was made, I am” (John 8:58). All of God’s attributes, which are One with His essence, proceed from His self-existence. He always was and always will be — more than that, “He always IS.”

This proper word, Yahweh, which was written in the four Hebrew consonants YHWH (without the vowel marks), was never uttered with its actual phonetic sound, so revered was the Name held by the Jews (the one exception to this rule will be explained below). In the written scriptures, which were used in the synagogues, but under the custodianship of the priests and rabbis, the tetragrammaton was pronounced instead by the substitute word Adonai, which means “Lord.” The rabbinical precept (not found in the scriptures), which they maintained by tradition was given by God, mandated thusly: “I am not read, but I am written. I am written and I am read Adonai.”

YHWH is the seventh Name of God and its exact pronunciation is unknown. The vowel marks that would have given that pronunciation were not written in the Hebrew text by the priests or rabbis — that is, not until the seventh century when a group of Jewish scholars called the Masoretes, added the points (or vowel marks) to the consonants of the Hebrew Bible. These scholars did not know the vowel marks or pronounciation for the tetragrammaton, only the high priests did. So the YHWH remained vowelless. Fear on the priests’ part? No doubt. But reverence as well. Scholars say that this Masoretic text has major and minor differences with the older Hebrew translation of the Septuagint, which translation was in use in the synagogues by the time of Our Lord’s advent. The high priest alone, knowing the exact pronunciation of the vowelless tetragrammaton, could utter that Name, but only once a year in the Holy of Holies of the Temple, on the feast of the Atonement (Yom Kippur), on the tenth day of the month Tishrei, which day, the sabbath of sabbaths, completes the period of the ten days of purification by atonement for sin. Yahweh is as close as we can come to the actual word God gave to Moses in identifying Himself as “I am who am”.

The secret pronunciation of the Name of God was handed down from high priest to high priest, thus it was kept in the principal Levitical family, or so the tradition has it. Whenever the rabbis would read aloud the Hebrew scriptures for the people they would replace the tetragrammaton with the vocal Adonai (the Lord). The word Jehovah is based on an error of a Greek copyist of the sixteenth century, who used the vowels in the Hebrew Adonai to come up with the Hebrew transliteration of YHWH as Jehovah. (See Pohle-Preuss, God: His Knowability Essence and Attributes, p. 135) A certain American religious sect of recent origin constantly gives “witness” to that copyist’s error in their mistakenly rendered name.

There is one other Man whose Name was given directly by God. I did not include this Man in my list above because He is more than a Man. He is the God-Man, Jesus Christ. Jesus, in Hebrew, means Savior. Derivatives of the Holy Name abound in the Old Testament. However, in the Book of the prophet Habacuc, the word for salvation and its verbal form “to save” appears as a personal noun in apposition to “God”: But I will rejoice in the Lord: and I will joy in God my Jesus (3:18). Adonai = Elohim (note the plural) = Jesus.

When Our Lady was carrying the Savior in her womb she sang her praise of the Holy Name for her cousin Elizabeth in her Magnificat: “My soul doth magnify the Lord (Adonai) and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Jesus.”